More Education, Less Indoctrination: the Improved US Approach to Drug Use

Nancy Reagan at a "Just Say No" rally in 1986

Nancy Reagan at a "Just Say No" anti-drug use rally in 1986 (Source: Wikimedia)

The US government’s approach to drug education has come a long way since the days of “Just Say No”, but changes to the strategy are still needed to reduce the harms of drug use.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), a government institute working to reduce problematic drug use, held its National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week in late January. Each year, this annual health observance offers an increasingly strong focus on research and scientific evidence; a progressive model, highlighting a departure from the traditionally moralistic and hyperbolic tone of US drug education.

As part of the Facts Week, NIDA provided educational events on drug use to various schools and communities around the United States. The events aimed to counteract drug- and alcohol-related misconceptions perpetuated by popular media, and empower students with factual knowledge instead. The educational materials used are largely based on current scientific research in the field of addiction.

By focusing on scientific evidence, NIDA has been able to educate students with an objective and non-moralistic perspective. For example, NIDA identifies drug dependency as a health issue, rather than one of moral failing. Furthermore, the organisation specifically warns against the use of misleading scare tactics, claiming that “teens recognize when they are being manipulated to think or behave a certain way”.

NIDA’s work marks a distinct departure from previous models of drug education, namely the D.A.R.E. programme.

D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) is the United States’ oldest drug education programme. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it served as a demand-side drug control strategy, and functioned in line with the zero-tolerance policies of the government’s War on Drugs.

The D.A.R.E. programme mainly relied on scare tactics, and exhorted a reactive approach of “just say no.” Such methods of drug education proved to be the source of the programme’s failure.

The D.A.R.E. curriculum was not designed by prevention specialists, but rather by police officers and schoolteachers. It made no distinctions between the harms of various illicit substances, and was shown by multiple studies over the years to be ineffective and even counter-productive.  

However, because the D.A.R.E. programme received strong popular support, it was also given much political support. The popularity of the programme had become “evidence” of its credibility.

Only recently has D.A.R.E. changed its curriculum in light of its ineffectiveness, shifting its focus to serve primarily as a life-skills programme instead of an anti-drug programme.

Given the ineffectiveness of programmes like D.A.R.E., NIDA’s emphasis on evidence-based drug education is promising. By providing fact-based materials, NIDA helps students gain a more realistic perspective regarding drug-related issues than they would through fear-inducing anti-drug messages.

By encouraging open and destigmatised discussions about drug use, NIDA’s approach makes it easier for students struggling with problematic drug use to speak up and seek help.

Campaigns such as the Drug and Alcohol Facts Week are a step in the right direction for America’s drug education, but there is still more that can be done.

NIDA’s materials for teens neglect information regarding the complex social and psychological drivers of problematic drug use and dependence.  For example, issues such as poverty and social disadvantage are omitted from the discussion.

Additionally, there is a need for a greater harm reduction component in students’ drug education, so that life-saving information may be emphasised.

For example, in the Drug and Alcohol Facts Week campaign this year, naloxone training was not included as a standard course among the campaign’s events – particularly concerning within the context of the opioid deaths epidemic in the US.

Education represents a powerful force in determining cultural attitudes towards drug use. It is vital for the US to continue developing evidence-based programmes, rather than moralistic curriculums that stigmatise people who use drugs.