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Drug and Violence Prevention Programs Lack Evidence
May 08, 2003
Maia Szalavitz
But anti-science attitudes prevail on the left and right

The conservative press has been out-front in highlighting certain aspects of drug and violence prevention programs and their complete lack of reliable empirical evidence to prove their effectiveness.

Policy Review piece offers a nice overview of their critique, detailing an incident all too typical of the way most preventionists see science that originally occurred in 2001.

Here's what happened: At a conference held by the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, conservative critic Christina Hoff Sommers was told to "shut the f--- up, b----" and literally shouted down for daring to suggest that there were problems with gender-based prevention programs and that empirical evidence should be the guide for funding such prevention.

Only National Review and Fox News thought the incident worthy of coverage: however, I suspect that even the most liberal of liberals would agree that if a traditional feminist been engaged in such a manner in a government-sponsored conference (it was so bad that the agency actually issued a written apology later), much more attention would have been generated.

But drug prevention has become a sacred cow and critics on all sides have been subjected to weirdness that is virtually never seen in other areas of research. The most popular American drug prevention program, DARE, which is found in 80 percent of American schools, has been the subject of dozens of research papers since its inception in 1983. All of those published in peer-reviewed journals found that it did not reduce drug use; some, which looked at suburban schools, found a minor increase in use amongst students exposed to DARE compared to others.

The media is partially to blame for this sorry state of affairs: as I wrote in New Scientist shortly after the Sommers incident, most coverage of DARE views the research as either a conflicting mess (which anyone with a science background can tell that it's not, when the peer-reviewed data has been consistent) or just another partisan voice to be balanced against parents who say "DARE worked for my kid," police officers who like talking to kids when they teach the program and DARE executives who claim critics are "kicking Santa Claus."

In the early 1990s, when the program was at the height of its popularity, researchers whose findings were negative and reporters who wrote critically about the organization often received threatening phone calls and letters that compared them to drug pushers. The debate was anything but rational.

Liberals and drug war critics eventually picked up on this, with liberals finding alternate programs run by teachers or counselors that didn't have the toughness of the police coming in to set the kids straight on drugs.

There even seemed to be some research data to support these alternatives; but when looked at carefully, the antidrug effects were either extremely small, or possibly the result of bias in choosing which groups and variables to look at. The research on the popular Life Skills program, which has often been pushed as an alternative to DARE, has been critiqued for this sort of "data dredging."

The author of the Policy Review article found at a Society for Prevention Research Conference this summer that while critiques of DARE are now OK, the anti-science bias in the field still runs deep, and criticism of what the Department of Education sees as "exemplary" programs (which include Life Skills) is still not acceptable. He details his critique of three of these programs, Project ALERT, the Second Step curriculum and Adolescent Training and Learning to Avoid Steroids (ATLAS) in the article, while describing how he was attacked.

But while his critique points out in great detail how the left has used the trappings of science to promote these largely useless programs, he misses how biases from the political right have kept them firmly in place.

For example, a 1994 law mandates that all youth drug prevention programs have a strict "no use" message. What this means is that they must, against the scientific evidence, tell kids that all drugs from alcohol and cigarettes to marijuana and morphine are equally harmful. These programs are also prohibited from providing information aimed at helping those who take drugs despite the warnings so as to reduce the risks related to that use.

This non-scientific attitude toward the facts is linked to the unyielding moral aspect of the conservatives' war on drugs: it's all or nothing. Such a stance probably dooms most current programs. Kids aren't stupid, they know that health programs are aimed at getting them to not do things that they might want to do; and when the are offered information that is contradicted by their own experience, they quickly tune out.

Furthermore, by focusing on whether kids ever try drugs, and not on whether they avoid drug abuse, addiction, overdose, car accidents, etc, these programs have chosen a variable that may be near impossible to affect. Kids don't have great judgment; by definition they are immature; and trying to prevent them from ever making a single mistake with regard to psychoactive substances is a very high bar to set. It is not surprising that programs which aim at this lofty ideal don't work. The blame for that, however, cannot be placed on the left.

Pseudo-science and data-dredging are inevitable when the programs to be evaluated are barred from telling the truth about the activity they are trying to prevent and when their goals are unrealistic. There's enough blame to go around on both sides of the aisle for the pathetic state of drug prevention research.



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