The trouble with D.A.R.E.

One person’s experience with the infamous drug use prevention program

I imagine most of you have been exposed to D.A.R.E. at some point, either as an unwitting schoolchild, or as the unwilling parent of such a child. This is certainly where I first encountered the term ‘gateway drug,’ way back in grade five.

A man with a gun, who I had never seen before, replaced my schoolteacher for an hour. Among other things, he told us that cannabis (he said “marijuana”) was something called a ‘gateway drug.’ He then proceeded to explain what this means. As I recall, it went something like this:

“These are drugs. If you try one, you’ll try them all.”

He made it clear that all drugs were bad, told us what they’re all called—cocaine, heroin, crystal meth—but cannabis was the ‘gateway drug,’ the one that, if you were a drug person, you tried before you inevitably dove headfirst everything else.

I remember being asked to roleplay a situation in which I was stoned and trying to convince my classmate to join me. It was his job to pretend to resist my feigned corruption. I had a lot of fun pretending to be ‘that guy’ I had seen on TV who does drugs. The one who used to be on all kinds of programs back in the early 90’s, when that fried egg commercial was in its prime.

It was a fun role to play. I was the entertainer, the comedian, the carefree spirit. But the whole point was that this was bad, that fun was bad. I made my classmates laugh with my performance—it was a step up from the usual math.

Thinking back to this time, I wonder how many of the kids in my class had parents who used drugs… what they might have been thinking while the rest of us had a laugh at their folks’ expense.

Meanwhile, the strange man with the gun made us all feel… safe? I’m not so sure. But I can say that he made us feel deeply. There was an instrument of death in our sanctified classroom.

I can’t stress the power of that gun enough. Any of you who have young boys will know the potency of this symbol; toy guns are everywhere, toys with toy guns, guns on TV.

So I ask you to place yourselves in the position of a child experiencing the DARE program as I did, back in the mid 1990’s. Forget for a moment the specifics of what was being said, and imagine what that gun meant to me and my peers.

“Marijuana is a gateway drug.” The gun might as well have been talking. At the time, this gun seemed the most trustworthy of all sources. I knew in that instant, by the power of the death that was staring me in the eye, that if I ever tried ‘marijuana,’ I would be pulled by the same power of death into the criminal life of the archetypal drug fiend.

One second, we’re being told about how gateway drugs like cannabis work, the next we’re being shown pictures of derelict meth users, teeth rotted, skin covered in sores.

In my case, my mother never used drugs aside from chain smoking tobacco inside the house and having a constant supply of candy and other junk food on hand. So, in my case, I had nowhere to turn for real information on drugs. This lack of information resulted in an effective form of mental programming. Anyone I saw or met who seemed unfortunate, unhealthy, or otherwise disconnected from my nascent ideal of modern citizenry must, I thought, have been that way because of drugs. They probably got tricked into smoking a joint by an evil dealer, and that was that. They had been doomed by their own innocence.

A couple of years later, friends of mine started smoking up at school. At first I wondered why they weren’t around when the rest of us played our lunchtime games. Then I started noticing them coming out from behind the bleachers at the far end of the school field when the bell rang. Then I started noticing that they all smelled funny. Then I learned the truth—they were all using drugs, dooming themselves to lives of misfortune and incompetence.

Needless to say, I quickly lost touch with all of them. They were tainted. I stuck with junk food, TV and video games, and so did the people I continued to associate with.

A few more years passed and my stigma held. All of my old ‘stoner’ friends were lazy and stupid. The drugs had ruined them. That is until my mind changed one day when I made some new friends, awesome friends, who turned out to be stoners. I was confused. How could these people who I felt were bright and full of energy be using drugs? I decided to find out for myself, so one day I said yes when they invited me to smoke a joint with them after school.

Needless to say, my eyes were opened. What’s more, it turned out that those people I had dismissed years earlier were all brilliant artists, and listened to strange and wonderful music the likes of which I had never heard on the radio. They weren’t stupid or lazy; I had simply been ignoring them.

As I continued to experiment with cannabis, I found myself trying to reconcile my experiences with all the ‘facts’ I had been given by that gun and its police officer in elementary school. I had no desire to use harder drugs, but something inside me felt that the inevitability was just as D.A.R.E. had put it: I was on a path to ultimate ruin. I had thrown my life away. And just as I had done a few years earlier, a number of my best friends quietly distanced themselves from me (most of whom went on to develop healthy cannabis habits by the age of 18).

By the time I was 19, my mother had thrown me out of the house for discovering that I was no longer working at Starbucks, but instead baking pot cookies for the Victoria Cannabis Buyers’ Club. This rift would last for years until she fell in with a wonderful man who also happened to be a cannabis user. She was powerless in the face of his love, and though she never started using cannabis herself, she finally learned the truth about it through him.

The trouble with D.A.R.E. is that, at its core, the way it divides people—the way it divided me from my friends, then divided my new friends from me, then me from my mother. Add to this the way that it divides us from the authorities. How are we supposed to trust the police when our earliest memories of them are of fear and blatant misinformation? But we can’t stop there. They were just doing their jobs, right? So who told them to do it? Who gave them this misinformation, and to what end? Who can we trust in the end?

I’d like to think that the current climate of cannabis legalization will lead to a reduction in the funding of prohibitionist programs like D.A.R.E. and an increase in the funding of moderate, well informed harm reduction programs, ideally conducted by people who aren’t wearing guns, or even uniforms for that matter. This approach would end the division that D.A.R.E. has been imposing on our society for generations now, and would also go a long way toward re-establishing trust between the police and the community that they are employed to serve and protect.

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  1. Chris M. Reply

    Slightly off topic from D.A.R.E., but a few years ago I was hired at the USPS. In one of our new employee introductions we had to sit and listen to a postal cop give his welcome speech, and listen to what he does. His was quite exuberant about a marijuana package bust they were going to do that day (Someone receiving marijuana through the mail, the horrors!), and thought it would be impressive if he showed us his pistol he was allowed to carry on his hip. My initial reaction was what an absolute waste of time this guy's job is. He was honestly quite arrogant and pompous about what he did. I am certain there are far more crimes happening that are worse than someone mailing another person weed.