The Center for Educational Research and Development

Anti-drug efforts don't stop teens, studies indicate: Evaluator fears 'one right decision' theory might further erode trust

By Mareva Brown, Sacramento Bee Staff Writer, February 4, 1998

The zero-tolerance drug programs that have become institutions in American schools and communities do not deter teen use, according to five separate studies, which accuse proponents of using flawed or misleading data to keep programs intact. The studies, released in concert today, argue that students tune out programs that overstate the ill effects of drugs and are more influenced by peers and the media than by teachers. They were written by seven researchers and published in the February edition of Evaluation Review, a scientific journal featuring peer-reviewed evaluations of social programs. "As soon as kids are told that they can make decisions but there is only one right decision to make, they stop listening," said Joel Brown, one of the evaluators and a co-editor of the Evaluation Review issue. Brown is director of the Center for Educational! Research and Development in Berkeley and the author of a similar study in 1995 for the state Department of Education. He believes "Just Say No" type programs can erode already tenuous relationships with adults and create unnecessary psychological tension" by telling teens there are dire consequences to drug use when teens are seeing peers use without effect.

But the director of the federal Safe and Drug Fire Schools Program said the U.S. Department of Education will not tolerate programs that tell students that some use is OK. "It's foolhardy," said Bill Modzeleski. "We've had this debate with Dr. Brown in the past. The administration cannot and will not endorse any type of program whereby the position is anything less than, Kids are not to use drugs. And at least one prominent researcher accused the authors of portraying all programs as rigid and sensationalistic. Phyllis Ellickson, a Rand Corp. researcher who helped create the Project Alert anti-drug curriculum, said good programs acknowledge that there can be a variety of drug experiences, but tell students that drugs are not to be used and help them learn to fend off peer pressure. Today's drug programs have not been effective in deterring all teens, she said, but she believes some prevention is better than none. She also disagreed with the studies' notion that simply delaying drug use equates to failure. "Delaying the onset of drugs or the transition to regular use is a very desirable goal," she said.

The debate is particularly heated because the age of first use has seen a steady decline. According to a 1997 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than half the countrys eighth-graders had tried alcohol and nearly one-quarter had tried marijuana. An average of one student in every eighth-grade class had tried LSD or cocaine. Michael Koerner, who coordinates anti-drug programs for the San Juan Unified School District; said he no longer is surprised when third-graders take drugs and that parents should expect their children will be exposed to drugs by the sixth grade. "It used to shock me," he said. "Now I get calls (about elementary children) more and more often." The number of teens trying drugs also has skyrocketed. More 12- to 17-year-olds reported using marijuana in 1995 than at any time in the history of the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, which began in 1962.

More than double the number of teens reported trying cocaine and inhalants than in 1991. And the rate of teens using heroin and hallucinogens like LSD posted particularly sharp increases. One educator said the leap in use actually may prove that anti-drug programs work. According to a state Office of Education consultant; forced cutbacks in 1992 for elementary and middle-school drug counseling and other anti-drug programs coincide with sharp increases in use. "To be effective, drug and alcohol programs have to be stable and comprehensive,' said Greg Wolfe, a consultant for the state's Healthy Kids Program.

Copyright The Sacramento Bee 1998