Like other Americans who came of age in the 1980s or '90s, I associate Drug Abuse Resistance Education, a.k.a. DARE, with the mindless "Just Say No" propaganda of that era. I was therefore startled to hear that DARE had endorsed marijuana legalization. But that turned out to be a mistake. Likewise recent reports that DARE no longer considers marijuana a "gateway drug" and has excised the perils of pot from its curriculum.
DARE was started in 1983 by Los Angeles Police Chief Darryl Gates, an old-school prohibitionist who declared that casual drug users "ought to be taken out and shot." The program, which featured cops in uniform lecturing kids about the evils of psychoactive substances, dominated elementary and middle school drug education throughout the country for decades even though it was never scientifically validated. Now that people can walk into a store in Denver or Seattle and walk out with a bag of buds or a marijuana-infused cookie, it is tempting to believe that such a stalwart supporter of the war on weed has finally seen the light. But it's not true—or at least, not in the way various critics of that war have been claiming.
The DARE-endorses-legalization meme, which circulated last summer, was caused by the organization's indiscriminate news aggregation, which grabbed a letter to the editor published by theThe Columbus Dispatch under the headline "Purchasing Marijuana Puts Kids at Risk." Although that sounds simpatico with DARE's anti-pot stance, it was actually an argument for legalization written by Carlis McDerment, a former Ohio deputy sheriff who is now a speaker with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "As a former deputy sheriff," the letter began, "I know from enforcing senseless marijuana laws that children only are being put in more danger when marijuana is kept illegal." Whoops. "The article you wrote about was mistakenly posted on our website by a service we use," Ron Brogan, a DARE regional director, told The Huffington Post. "We have not changed our stance of being opposed to the legalization of marijuana."
Last week DARE issued another correction:
Some pro-drug websites are promulgating misinformation claiming "Drug Abuse Resistance Education program (D.A.R.E.), one of the largest anti-drug groups in the world, no longer lists marijuana as a so-called 'gateway drug.'"… Had nominal research been conducted by the author(s), substantial reference on the D.A.R.E. website would have been found in support of D.A.R.E.'s position that marijuana is both an illegal and harmful drug to the youth of this nation. The author(s) would have had justification to instead state: D.A.R.E. considers marijuana to be a dangerous drug for youth of the United States and the world!
Although that post did not directly address the question of whether DARE still considers marijuana a gateway drug, Frank Pegueros, DARE America's president and CEO, tells me the organization's position on that question has not changed. He says the confusion is "based on what appears to have been a partial posting of a document on our website." The part that was posted (which has since been removed) discussed alcohol and tobacco as gateway drugs; the part discussing marijuana as a gateway drug was on a subsequent page that was not posted. "It's obvious from looking at the document that the entire document was in fact not posted, because it only addressed tobacco and alcohol," Pegueros says. "It didn't address marijuana or inhalants, the typical substances considered to be gateway drugs."
A Reddit user recently called attention to the omission in a thread titled "Marijuana No Longer a 'Gateway Drug' on DARE's Website." That claim gave rise to reports by various outlets, some more cautious than others. "It's Official," Teen Vogue announced. "Marijuana Is No Longer a Gateway Drug." Leafly, by contrast, was not sure what was going on. "Does D.A.R.E. Still Think Cannabis Is a Gateway Drug?" its headline asked. "Nobody Knows." That conclusion was based on an interview in which DARE's Ron Brogan seemed mystified by the apparent excision, saying, "I suppose it could have come out as part of our new curriculum." Leafly later ran a follow-up post noting DARE's correction.
I am not sure it matters whether DARE calls marijuana a gateway drug or not, given the ambiguity of that label. If DARE maintains that marijuana use typically leads to heroin addiction, for example, that is clearly wrong. But if it merely says people who use heroin tend to use marijuana first, just as people who use marijuana tend to use alcohol first, that is an unobjectionable observation. For what it's worth, except for a handful of references in aggregated articles from elsewhere, DARE's website currently includes no discussion of gateway drugs at all, and Pegueros says the concept is not covered by DARE's curriculum for fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-graders. "Within our curriculum, we don't deal with 'gateway drugs,'" he says. "We deal with drugs."
What about the rumor that DARE's curriculum no longer covers marijuana? Last week, under the headline "The DARE Program Ends Its Anti-Marijuana Propaganda," Canna Chronicle reported that the organization "has apparently removed the discussion of marijuana from its curriculum." That post linked to a 2012 Toke of the Town post, which in turn linked to a report by KNDO, the NBC station in Yakima, Washington. "DARE Curriculum Drops Pot," says the headline over the KNDO story. "The new curriculum starts as of December for us here in Kennewick," a local DARE officer told the station, referring to the program for fifth-graders. "It does not bring up the subject of marijuana at all."
That may have been true of the lessons for fifth-graders in Kennewick, but it is not true of the entire DARE program. The new DARE curriculum, which was introduced in 2009 and extended to fifth-graders by the beginning of 2013, is called Keepin' It REAL. It was developed by Michael Hecht and Michelle Miller-Day, communications researchers at Penn State and Chapman University, respectively. The acronym refers to four strategies for avoiding dangerous behavior: "refuse, explain, avoid, and leave." According to a 2014 article in Scientific American, "the elementary curriculum [for fifth- and sixth-graders] focuses on developing these four basic skills," while "the middle-school curriculum, intended for seventh graders, has the students apply the guidance much more to drugs." The program emphasizes interactive exercises aimed at teaching decision-making skills rather than detailed lectures on the dangers of specific substances. "It's not an antidrug program," Miller-Day told Scientific American. "It's about things like being honest and safe and responsible."
Pegueros says DARE instructors do not bring up marijuana with younger kids unless school officials decide it's appropriate. "We walk a fine line between educating kids and piquing their interest," he says. Still, marijuana "is a topic that is included in our curriculum" for seventh-graders. "For juveniles it's both illegal and dangerous," Pegueros says. "That's the approach we come from."
DARE's old program was notoriously ineffective, and some research suggested it actually made kids more inclined to use drugs, whether because it piqued their interest or because they rejected the hyperbolic warnings of instructors with badges. Keepin' It REAL, by contrast, is a research-based curriculum that critics of the old approach admire, and preliminary evidence indicates that it makes kids less likely to use alcohol, tobacco, or marijuana.
The first two of those drugs are legal for adults throughout the country, while the third is legal for medical or recreational use in nearly half of the states and the nation's capital. Since legalizers and prohibitionists generally agree that kids should not use drugs (although they may disagree about who should count as a kid), it would be perfectly consistent for DARE to discourage seventh-graders from smoking pot while opposing penalties for adults who do so. Just don't expect it to happen anytime soon.
This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.