Americans of a certain generation will remember this mantra from the 1980s: Just say no.
This simple phrase was the cornerstone of Nancy Reagan’s drug abuse awareness initiative, rolled out in response to perceptions of sharp increases in youth drug use from the late 1970s and into the early 1980s. It was also the cornerstone of D.A.R.E., the controversial youth substance abuse prevention program.
Recently, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that he would like to reinvigorate D.A.R.E., a move that was met with considerable skepticism in the media.
As a professor of psychology and director of the Center on Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice at Rutgers University-Newark, I welcome any and all efforts to support positive youth development and prevent youth substance abuse – but only if those efforts are in line with evidence from scientific research. Does that include D.A.R.E.?
‘Just say no’
The origins of “Just say no” are by now apocryphal, with potential attributions to a California elementary school student during a school drop-in from the first lady or a New York City advertising executive.
The command, however, is carved deeply into the foundation of over 30 years of U.S. drug prevention policy.
The idea of just saying “no” to drugs emanates from a simplified view on “rational choice theory,” which contends that people choose their behaviors in order to maximize rewards and minimize costs.
Very simply, D.A.R.E. was a program that rested on the premise of training kids how to say “no.”It was also the central concept of the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program, when it was initiated in 1983. The goal was to help youth see that the costs of drug use far outweighed any rewards, and could be avoided by refusing to use drugs. This original model of D.A.R.E. seemed to rely on just a few key points: 1) drugs are bad; 2) if kids knew how bad drugs were, they would never choose to use them; and 3) this would be especially true if police officers were the ones telling kids about drugs.
Of course, anyone who has ever been a parent knows that kids already know full well how to say “no.” But D.A.R.E. developers and interventionists knew they were laboring against peer pressure and a popular culture that glorified recreational drug use.