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Why anti-drug campaigns like DARE fail

A teenager with a marijuana joint.
A teenager with a marijuana joint.
PYMCA / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Plenty of adults remember DARE, the anti-drug education program used by schools since it launched in 1983. These people also probably remember, albeit anecdotally, that DARE failed to substantially reduce drug use among their peers.

DARE's failure is actually very important for US drug policy. As the country moves toward relaxing its drug laws through marijuana legalization and other measures, education and rehabilitation programs will become the focus for public officials who want to prevent drug abuse. Colorado, where marijuana is now legal for personal use and sales for adults 21 and older, recently launched a $2 million campaign that warns teens about becoming a "lab rat" by trying marijuana.

There have been successful anti-drug campaigns in the past, and some of that history provides hints about whether the Colorado campaign will succeed — and whether other programs down the line will succeed as well.

Scaremongering really doesn't work

marijuana jars

Jars of marijuana in a Colorado dispensary. (Seth McConnell / Denver Post via Getty Images)

When it comes to anti-drug campaigns, honesty really might be the best policy. There's a fine line to walk between conveying the risks and exaggerating the dangers of drugs.

Various studies show DARE, for example, failed to significantly reduce drug use among participants. For many participants of DARE, the program's failure likely comes as little surprise. Teens were simply too good at catching and dismissing clear exaggerations about the detrimental health effects of relatively harmless drugs like marijuana, and that helped discredit DARE's overall efforts. (Even after DARE reworked its curriculum in 2001, one of the program's now-deleted "fact sheets" claimed marijuana has no medical value, weakens the immune system, and causes insanity and lung disease — claims that are widely disputed by health experts.)

"Especially with teens, you've got to be credible," says Michael Slater, an anti-drug campaign expert at Ohio State University. "They've got great BS thermometers."

Teens, for example, might know that the high school quarterback is a weekend pot smoker. If they see that his marijuana use doesn't seem to pose an immediate threat to his physical or mental health, they'll immediately grow skeptical of any message that claims marijuana makes people stupid or crazy. "Once kids get a year or two older and find out that's not happening, they tend to belittle any education effort," Slater says.

Research shows that some anti-drug messages can even lead to more drug use. A small study from researchers at Ohio University and Pennsylvania State University suggested that anti-drug advertisements may foster curiosity about drug use, although the study couldn't find a clear explanation as to why. Another study published in Human Communication Research found some children are less likely to report anti-drug attitudes after their parents admitted to previous drug use.

Slater says part of the issue with these approaches might be that they "normalize" drug use. By doing that, some anti-drug campaigns inadvertently remove some of the stigma attached to illicit substances.

With marijuana in particular, all these issues require even more consideration. Since the drug is relatively safe, compared to other drugs, and the detrimental effects — if they exist — would take years and perhaps decades to fully develop, it's much harder to stay honest while actively discouraging marijuana use. It's simply much easier to point out the dangers of cocaine or alcohol without exaggeration.

Slater says the better way to discourage drug use, then, is to dispute the idea that drug use makes someone an independent risk-taker. As evidence, he cites previous studies that found campaigns like Be Under Your Own Influence and the Office of National Drug Control Policy's Above the Influence (both of which linked abstaining from drugs to being autonomous) led to a dip in marijuana use.

"Adolescents are about becoming independent, autonomous, and effective people. That's what they want to do," Slater says. "If drug use is perceived as a way to demonstrate independence and autonomy, people discouraging drug use are going to have an uphill battle."

Colorado's campaign tries a balanced approach

Colorado's marijuana campaign, named "Don't Be a Lab Rat," tries to convey pot's potential risks without crossing the line into hyperbole. The campaign suggests that adolescents who try marijuana are essentially offering themselves as "lab rats" to scientists who want to measure the drug's effects on the teen brain. Through this approach, the campaign both tries to push teens away from pot use and acknowledges marijuana might not be so dangerous.

Mike Sukle, whose advertising firm created the campaign, says his company settled on the tactic after looking at the research for previous anti-drug campaigns and focus-group testing the "lab rat" approach with Colorado teens.

Sukle acknowledges studies on marijuana's effects on the teen brain, which suggest the drug could inhibit cognitive development and lead to lower IQs, are heavily disputed. (Critics of the research argue it establishes correlation, not causation.) But he argues the "lab rat" approach lets kids know about the studies while acknowledging that they might be wrong.

Some of the campaign's tactics are certainly unique. The campaign will use traditional mediums like TV, newspapers, and YouTube, but it's also deploying human-sized cages in Colorado to grab teens' attention and promote the "lab rat" theme.

colorado marijuana lab rat cage

A human-sized cage in Colorado warns teens of the dangers of being a "lab rat." (Dan Schultz / Sukle Advertising and Design)

Sukle insists the approach isn't meant to shock or scare children and teens into not using drugs. Instead, it's supposed to catch teens' attention, then educate them on marijuana's potential risks. "We think kids need to know the studies exist and make up their own minds," he says. "What if these studies really are right?"

Slater, the anti-drug campaign expert at Ohio State University, says it's promising that the Colorado campaign doesn't make claims that teens will immediately know are false, and it builds credibility by acknowledging the research isn't settled. But "whether it's enough or how kids will respond to it is something I don't have the data to comment on," he cautions.

Marijuana legalization advocates have criticized the campaign — and its deployment of human-sized cages — as sensationalist. "While flashy and memorable, the campaign has raised concerns among advocates who question the credibility of this approach," according to a statement from the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "Drug policy reformers and prevention experts invoke the cynicism generated by 1980s-era scare tactic efforts such as the notorious 'This is your brain on drugs' ad, widely recognized today as far more attention grabbing than drug deterring."

At the same time, DPA vowed to work with the Colorado governor's office, which helped spearhead the campaign, to assist with any messaging and improve the effort by focusing on outreach through schools and youth programs.

"Our goal is to continue good relations with the Governor's office and help shape this campaign for the better moving forward," Jerry Otero, youth policy director at DPA, said in a statement. "Ultimately, we hope to reveal that a youth development approach is a more realistic, honest, and effective way to help kids avoid problems with drugs and other problem behaviors."

At least immediately, the campaign was received poorly by some Colorado residents. Within one day of launch, CBS4 in Denver reported that people vandalized signs on the cages.

But Larry Wolk, who heads the state health department, took the vandalism in stride. "If they are defacing it or [they're] doing something with regard to graffiti or gathering in the cages, at least they are taking notice … and let the debate occur," Wolk told CBS4.

As the first state to fully legalize marijuana, Colorado has been seen as the testing ground for new marijuana policy. This campaign will be no different — and, whatever happens, the lessons will offer some guidance for other states potentially moving forward with legalization.

To learn more about marijuana legalization, check out the full explainer and watch the short video below: