Yet high-level supporters argue "it's better to have it than not have it"
In just 10 years, D.A.R.E. has grown into the USA's No. 1 drug educationprogram, reaching 5 million fifth-graders in 60% of school districts.
The Drug Abuse Resistance Education logo -- "D.A.R.E. To Keep KidsOff Drugs" -- is on bumper stickers, T-shirts, even Kentucky Fried Chickenboxes. Police, taxpayers and business give $700 million a year. It'salso a favorite of dozens of members of Congress.
But a raft of scientific studies says D.A.R.E., the 17-week coursetaught by uniformed police, doesn't achieve its main long-term goal: stopping kids from smoking pot, drinking booze or using other drugs.
"I've got nothing against D.A.R.E., but we need to get some whitelight on this issue so we can wisely decide how to spend our money and on what programs," says Tom Colthurst, who recently organized a nationalconference on drug education at the University of California-San Diego.
But D.A.R.E. executive director Glenn Levant calls the studies flawed and not comprehensive: "Scientists, will tell you bumble beescan't fly, but we know they can."
Levant says a proper national study would cost $3 million-$5 million and take seven years to finish.
Studies have focused mostly on specific cities, and cost several hundred thousand dollars each.
Experts agree recent research on D.A.R.E. is not perfect: It is difficult and expensive to measure the behavior of large numbers of children over several years.
But they say the research is better than studies on other drug programs.
"Almost every researcher would agree there's enough information to judge D.A.R.E.," says Rand Corp. researcher Phyllis Ellickson.
"It's well-established that D.A.R.E. doesn't work," says Gilbert Botvin of the Institute for Prevention at Cornell University Medical Center.
Created in 1983 under the direction of former Los Angeles Police chief Daryl Gates, D.A.R.E. exploded after the Bush administration gave it heavy federal subsidies.
The program uses lectures, role playing and other techniques to teach children to avoid drugs. And by all accounts, the kids who take the course and the police who teach it think it's terrific.
D.A.R.E. "does no harm and by far, nothing but good," says Scott Mandel, a Los Angeles-area teacher.
"D.A.R.E. really works," says Mike Miller, Round Rock, Texas, police officer and D.A.R.E. teacher. "Surveys from across the nation show kids who take the D.A.R.E. course are much less likely to use drugs later in life."
That's not what most studies show.
To investigate D.A.R.E.'s effectiveness, researchers looked at two similar groups of children: One group takes D.A.R.E.; the other does not. Then, researchers followed the children's behavior for several years.
Since 1987, studies -- most funded by law enforcement agencies involved in the program -- have been conducted at 20 North Carolina schools; 31 Kentucky schools; 11 South Carolina schools; 36 Illinois schools; and 11 Canadian schools.
The results were similar.
The 1991 Kentucky study, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported, found "no statistically significant differences between experimental groups andcontrol groups in the percentage of new users of ... cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, alcohol, marijuana."
A 1990 study funded by the Canadian government found "D.A.R.E. had no significant effect on the students' use of any of the substances measured....They included: tobacco, beer, pop, marijuana, acid, Valium, wine, aspirin, uppers, downers, heroin, crack (cocaine), liquor, candy, glue and PCP."
To make sense of the various studies, the Justice Department hired the Research Triangle Institute of Durham, N.C., to conduct a statistic alanalysis of all D.A.R.E. research.
A preliminary report from the RTI -- analyzing eight studies involving 9,500 children -- says D.A.R.E. has "a limited to essentially non-existent effect" on drug use.
D.A.R.E. did have a positive effect on children's knowledge and attitudes about drugs, the report says. It also added the social skills needed to say no to drugs.
But even on these measures, D.A.R.E. didn't do as well as other drug programs, including local classes taught by teachers and students.
D.A.R.E. America has launched a behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign against the final RTI report, due in November.
"We're working with D.A.R.E. to ... voice their concerns," says Winnie Reed, the National Institute of Justice official overseeing the study.
The pressure has angered some academic researchers. "It's repugnant, out of line and very unusual," says Dennis Rosenbaum, director of the Center for Research in Law and Justice at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
Rosenbaum -- a D.A.R.E. supporter -- says the group is its own worst enemy because it has spent so much effort attacking the evaluations, rather than learning from research. Even some state and local D.A.R.E. programs are backing away from D.A.R.E.
"If we aren't getting the job done, we ought to be man enough to try something else," says Tim DeRosa of the Illinois state police and long-time D.A.R.E. activist. Some government officials are aware of D.A.R.E.'s shortcomings.
"Research shows that, no, D.A.R.E. hasn't been effective in reducing drug use," says William Modzeleski, the top drug official at the Departmentof Education.
The department has considered asking Congress to repeal a law requiring states to give D.A.R.E. a total of $10 million or more a year from federal Drug Free Schools money.
But D.A.R.E. continues to have high-level government support.
On Sept. 9 -- National D.A.R.E. Day by congressional decree -- D.A.R.E. officials and students lunched with dozens of Congress members and met Attorney General Janet Reno. Later, they visited first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Drug Czar Lee Brown, who started the program in Houston when he was police chief, remains a booster.
"My experience has been positive," Brown says. "The research has pointed in many different directions, but my conclusion is it's better to have it than not have it. I know first-hand that young people are impressed by it and look up to the D.A.R.E. officer as a role model." Yet many drug education experts fear that D.A.R.E.'s political clout is siphoning drug education money from better programs.
"D.A.R.E. has a following and sales force that is extremely powerful in fighting for scarce resources," says University of Michigan researcher Lloyd Johnston, who conducts the government's survey of teen drug use. "Butits growth is totally out of scale to its effectiveness."
Johnston and others aren't sure why D.A.R.E. isn't working better. Some think it targets children too young; some think teachers and older students get better results than uniformed police; others say the program relies on psychological theories that don't work.
Levant thinks critics are just jealous of D.A.R.E.'s success. "We're like apple pie," he says. "But I guess you can always find someone who doesn't like apple pie."