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California's Drug Education Programs Ineffective, According to Study Commissioned by the State


March-April 1997

California's Drug, Alcohol, and Tobacco Education (DATE) programs, which are nearly identical to U.S. programs, have been largely ineffective in influencing students' decisions regarding drug use, and may have negative effects, according to a study published on March 19 in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, a national research journal (Joel H. Brown, Marianne D'Emidio-Caston, and John A. Pollard, "Students and Substances: Social Power in Drug Education," Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Spring 1997, Vol. 19, No. 1, pp. 65-82; Maya Suryaraman, "Drug programs criticized," San Jose Mercury News, March 19, 1997, p. 1B; Peter Hecht, "School anti-drug programs bashed," Sacramento Bee, March 19, 1997, p. A1; Karen S. Peterson, "Calif. teens unmoved by 'just say no' school programs, study says," USA Today, March 19, 1997, p. A1).

In the study, 43% of California students surveyed said the state's drug education programs, such as Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) and Red Ribbon Week, had no effect on their decisions to use drugs, 14% reported an unknown effect, and 28% said the programs only influenced them a little. Only 15% said the programs help them a lot or completely. Concerning program instructors, almost 70% of the students had a negative or neutral attitude towards the program instructor (23% said they disliked them a lot, 7% said they disliked them a little, and 39% expressed a neutral opinion). The study was conducted from 1991 to 1994 and was based on surveys or interviews with 5,045 randomly selected California public school students (grades 5-12) and 40 youth focus groups, and interviews with 400 administrators, principals and community members.

The study's lead author, Joel H. Brown, Ph.D., director of Educational Research Consultants in Berkeley, told NewsBriefs, "Perhaps even the most advanced drug education programs believed to be effective in the United States were not." Brown said that although there is a perception of variety in drug education programs, there is actually only a narrow range of programs because federal law mandates that all drug education be zero tolerance or abstinence based. "The no-substance-use message contributes to drug education program failure." Brown said, "Youth believe the information they receive is inaccurate and misleading" because the programs equate substance use with abuse and do not reflect the students' actual observations and experiences. This kind of "cognitive dissonance," Brown told NewsBriefs, was reported by 10% of elementary school children, 33% of middle school children, and 90% of high-schoolers in the focus groups.

Based on the research, Brown said the programs are "harmful" and "have an effect counter to what is intended" because students who believe the programs are dishonest may do the opposite of what they are told. Children most in need of drug education are the first ones removed from the programs. If children take drugs, they are not receiving information to reduce the harm because of the zero-tolerance mandate.

Students reported disliking the authoritarian approach of the programs. Most programs incorporate some form of a "scare-tactic," which may be disguised as "decision making" or "providing facts," Brown told NewsBriefs. Brown said 39 of the 40 youth focus groups described their primary drug education policy as involving detention, suspension or expulsion. "Instead of teaching people how to make their own decisions, we just ell them what to do," said Veronica Guevara, a recent graduate from Lincoln High School in San Jose who described DATE as "propaganda." Rather than receiving instruction from a teacher or police officer, students said they would benefit more from testimony by people who are facing or have overcome drug use and abuse.

The authors of the study concluded that California should "implement and evaluate programs emphasizing the decision-making capabilities of the majority of youth who experiment with substances, provide credible information, serve to reduce the potential harm resulting from substance use, and offer assistance for the minority of youth who need it." Brown pointed to other scientific studies and the steady increase of adolescent drug use since 1991 as further evidence of the ineffectiveness of current programs.

The three-year study was commissioned by the California Department of Education (CDE), which approved the research methods. However, the CDE declined to publish its findings, which were presented to the state in 1995. CDE officials criticized the study as "significantly flawed," but later said the department has used many findings of the study. Jane Henderson, spokeswoman for CDE, recognized that current programs are ineffective, but said that all drug and alcohol programs must be based on a clear and consistent "no use message." (Radio interview, "These Days," KPBS-FM Radio, San Diego, March 21, 1997) During the 4-year period of the study, California spent an average of $83.87 per student per year on anti-drug education.

Contact Joel Brown, Ph.D., Educational Research Consultants - Tel: (510) 849-4622, E-mail: For a copy of the study, contact the American Education Research Association at (202) 223-9485.