Drug & Alcohol Prevention Programs
This article discusses drug and alcohol prevention programs in K–12 public schools in the United States. The concept of prohibition (or abstinence), as enshrined in the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, was the seed of an idea that in the twentieth century blossomed into full-fledged drug and alcohol prevention programs aimed at young people. Programs such as DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), with its "just say no" approach to drugs and alcohol, put aside messages of temperance and became embedded in the curricula of most American public schools by the 1980s. Several government-funded studies over the past two decades have concluded that nationally recognized programs such as Across Ages and CASASTART (Striving Together to Achieve Rewarding Tomorrows) are more effective than DARE, but DARE supporters continue to maintain that their program still offers the best hope of combating youth alcohol and drug abuse.
Keywords Abstinence; Across Ages; Alcohol Abuse; CASASTART; Drug Abuse; Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE); Eighteenth Amendment; Prohibition; Temperance
Drug and alcohol prevention programs have been a fixture in modern American public schools since the 1970s, but their roots go much deeper into American social, religious and political history. In particular, their origins can be traced to the temperance leaders of the nineteenth century who began to speak out against the social ills caused by alcohol and smoking. Beginning around 1800, a Protestant religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening swept across the United States, and the membership of groups such as the Methodists and Baptists grew immensely. These groups both revived and spread the view that alcoholism was immoral and sinful. The American Temperance Society was formed out of this religious fervor in 1826, and within a decade it had one million members (Kern, 1998) — a staggering number when one considers that the entire non-slave U.S. population in 1830 (including children) was less than 11 million (U.S. Census Bureau, 1832, p. 47).
Beginning in the 1820s, Protestant ministers in the United States began preaching against the evils of "demon rum," and by the 1830s many temperance leaders began to move from support of moderate alcohol use to calling for its outright abolition. In their view, it was impossible to fight the scourge of alcoholism when alcohol was freely available. Better to put temptation out of reach.
The first major victory for the prohibitionists came in 1881, when Kansas amended its state constitution to ban the sale of alcohol. Other states followed, and in 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution — which banned "the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes" — went into effect.
The introduction of alcohol prevention programs into public schools began during this time. Beginning in 1880, this push was made by the Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction in Schools and Colleges, the educational wing of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. By the turn of the century, virtually every public school in the country had enacted a mandatory anti-alcohol education program, and most were carefully supervised by WCTU members. Prohibitionist leaders reasoned that if young people were shown the evil outcomes of alcohol use, not only would they be much less likely to take a drink themselves, but they also would support the organization's greater goal of national prohibition. As the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment a generation later attests, the prohibitionists were successful, though it is also true that average alcohol consumption increased between 1880 and 1920 (cited in Mezvinsky, 1961, p. 54).
The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 had a chilling effect on alcohol prevention programs in the public schools. Because many Americans came to see that the cure for alcoholism among some — total abstinence — was worse than the disease for many others, and because of the national attention required by World War II and the Korean War, anti-alcohol programs in the public schools were largely neglected for several decades.
In the 1960s, however, some young people formed a counterculture in which experimentation with alcohol, and especially hallucinogenic drugs, was the norm. The counterculture seeped into popular culture, too, and concerned parents and politicians began to renew the call for substance abuse education - but this time with an equal emphasis on illegal drugs. In 1970, President Richard Nixon declared that drug and alcohol education was a national priority, and by the end of the 1970s, most public schools had drug and alcohol prevention programs in place. Quickly the focus of these programs became total abstinence — summed up in the popular catchphrase "just say no" — and more moderate viewpoints were prohibited by 1977.
President Nixon commissioned several studies of the effects of federal drug education programs, and the conclusions reached were often negative toward the programs. In 1973, a second report from the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse stated that "no drug education program in this country, or elsewhere, has proved sufficiently successful to warrant our recommending it" and alleged that "the avalanche of drug education in recent years has been counterproductive" because it makes drug use more alluring. Instead the commission recommended that drug education be focused less on abstinence and more on addressing the root causes of drug use and addiction, such as the social problems faced by adolescents (National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, 1973, pp. 353–366). In 1977, the report from President Gerald Ford's Cabinet Committee on Drug Abuse Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation echoed those pragmatic sentiments, suggesting that drug education be "primarily focused on moderating the effects of drug taking" (quoted in Inciardi, 1990, p. 103).
These recommendations were largely ignored by legislators. In the 1980s, the focus of drug and alcohol prevention programs remained the abstinence approach, and under federal law, no federal grants would be awarded to any drug and alcohol education program that deviated from this message. "Today, material that describes low-risk and responsible drinking for those who choose to consume alcoholic beverages is difficult to find" (Engs, 1991). The slogan "just say no" was championed by First Lady Nancy Reagan, and it was the central message of an aggressive television campaign featuring many celebrities.
Most public schools implemented this abstinence-only approach in the form of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program:
“DARE was founded in 1983 in Los Angeles and has proven so successful that it is now being implemented in 75 percent of our nation's school districts and in more than 43 countries around the world. DARE is a police officer–led series of classroom lessons that teaches children from kindergarten through 12th grade how to resist peer pressure and live productive drug and violence-free lives” (DARE, 2007).
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, abstinence-based K–12 drug and alcohol programs like DARE are continuing to find enthusiastic supporters, but whether such support is borne out by the data on adolescent drug and alcohol abuse is still an open question. There continue to be critics who suggest that the time has come to try alternate approaches that accept that a percentage of adolescents will experiment with alcohol and drugs. As far as these critics are concerned, inculcating responsible behavior in young people begins with education and ends with trust.
The research on adolescent drug and alcohol use indicates that the level of parental involvement in a child's life is one of the most reliable predictors of youth drug and alcohol abuse. This involvement includes knowing a child's friends and schedule, talking to them about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, and not allowing young people to be in an environment where risky behavior is likely to take place.
One illustration of this comes from the 11th National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University:
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