THE CHANGING TIDE OF PREVENTION- A FOUR PART SERIES ABOUT THE EVOLUTION DRUG PREVENTION STRATEGY By Gordon Coombes- Executive Director
I am truly a child of the 80’s and like many people from my generation, I was a student of the then popular and well-intentioned Drug Abuse Resistance Education or D.A.R.E. Program. D.A.R.E. programs were wide spread during the 1980’s and were taught in partnership between schools and local law enforcement.
These programs taught students a lot about drugs. I vividly remember a police officer folding open a large hinged wooden display cabinet, reminiscent of shadow boxes used to hold knickknacks or awards. Except this one had plexiglass firmly screwed to the face of both sides to hold the various narcotics in place. I remember the police officer describing each of the substances and explaining the effects of each of the drugs and the various highs the each produced for its user.
In 1995, I attended the law enforcement academy and in our narcotics training session, a similar scene unfolded in front of me and brought memories of my D.A.R.E. education back to me. I was later hired by the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office and was proud to see that there was the all too familiar black patrol car with the D.A.R.E. logos emblazoned on all surfaces of the vehicle included in the LCSO fleet of Chevrolet Caprice patrol cars.
Unbeknownst to me, by that time, in the mid 90's, there were a flurry of studies coming out from various research institutes, questioning veracity and effectiveness of D.A.R.E. programs. In fact, some of the research was indicating that D.A.R.E. programs were leading to an increase in drug use among youth.
It wasn’t until I became an undercover narcotics investigator with the Larimer County Drug Task Force that I, personally, began to question the efficacy of the D.A.R.E. programs that had informed me and millions of other youth throughout the United States. In my early days of working undercover, I relied heavily on D.A.R.E. education to engage in conversation and negotiate purchases with my unsuspecting dealers. At one point, I was buying an 8 ball of methamphetamine from an unknowing suspect who proudly boasted that he learned how to sell drugs from D.A.R.E., confused, I asked him how. In colorful language he explained to me that the program taught him how to market and upsell his product to his customers.
As I became more and more seasoned in my assignment, my curiosity kicked in, as well as a nagging feeling of helplessness as it related to the possibility of actually winning this war on drugs that I had enlisted into. At that point, I started to ask suspects, informants and users about how they got started in the world of the illegal drug trade. Criticism of D.A.R.E. and dare like programs were common. Often combined with eye rolls and heavy sarcasm. There were other common risk factors that began popping up more and more, along with a variety of protective factors that contributed to some of these people successful exiting the lifestyle they had entered. I began to wonder if we had been going about prevention the wrong way. I also began to believe that enforcement efforts alone were not going to win the war on drugs, effective prevention efforts were the best strategy winning this war.