President Donald Trump announced new plans on Thursday to combat the opioid epidemic. But amid a White House address in which the president vowed to “confront the crisis in all of its very real complexity,” he recycled some tired old ideas as well.
Trump spoke at length about the need to teach children to abstain from drugs entirely. In his remarks, the president called this approach “an idea that I had” and the “most important thing.”
“One of the things our administration will be doing is a massive advertising campaign to get people, especially children, not to want to take drugs in the first place because they will see the devastation and the ruination it causes to people and people’s lives,” said Trump. “There is nothing desirable about drugs. They are bad. We want the next generation of young Americans to know the blessings of a drug-free life.”
Trump added that “if we can teach young people ― and people, generally ― not to start, it’s really, really easy not to take them.”
Although Trump pitched this as a novel concept, the U.S. has been pushing various forms of anti-drug education for decades. For the most part, the approach has been ineffective.
In classrooms around the nation, the best-known and most widely taught program was Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E. It gained popularity in the 1980s amid Nancy Reagan’s broader “Just Say No” campaign, and many schools used it until 2009. It was widely considered a failure.
“D.A.R.E. does not work to reduce substance use,” a 1998 National Institute of Justice report to Congress says. “The programs’s content, teaching methods, and use of uniformed police officers rather than teachers might each explain its weak evaluations.”
As HuffPost’s Matt Ferner reported earlier this year, subsequent studies were equally damning:
A 2003 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which analyzed six long-term evaluations of D.A.R.E.’s elementary school curriculum at the time, found “no significant differences in illicit drug use” between students in the fifth or sixth grade who received the program and students who did not. GAO also reported that five of six evaluations reviewed found “no significant differences” between the students’ attitudes toward “illicit drug use and resistance to peer pressure.”
Despite the paucity of evidence supporting D.A.R.E.’s effectiveness, Attorney General Jeff Sessions remains a strong advocate of the program.
“We know it worked before and we can make it work again,” Sessions told attendees at D.A.R.E.’s training conference in July. “I fully understand the importance of what you do. I fully support it. I support you. The president supports you.”
Sessions and Trump appear to have streamlined their messaging on the need for renewed investment in this sort of anti-drug education. Hours before the president’s Thursday address, Sessions directly invoked Reagan’s famous slogan.
“We’ve got to re-establish, first, a view that you should just say no,” he said at a forum hosted by the conservative Heritage Foundation. “People should say no to drug use.”
But in truth, kids today are still being taught that drug use is harmful. The curriculum is just more nuanced ― and more effective ― than it used to be.
Trump’s plan for the opioid epidemic may be big on promises, but it’s light on details. Regarding the goal of keeping kids from trying drugs, he said his administration was looking into “really tough, really big, really great advertising.” It’s not clear what that would look like, exactly, but there’s plenty of precedent for this sort of initiative.
The federal government has repeatedly backed anti-drug commercials, spending millions of dollars and achieving varying degrees of success, most recently during President George W. Bush’s administration. Some of these ad campaigns were laughably hyperbolic. Others were just lame as hell. Studies have shown they generally did not have the intended effect of reducing adolescent drug use, though there is some evidence that a shift to less extreme messaging produced better results.
“The bottom line is that scare campaigns and anti-drug campaigns have not worked,” said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. “They don’t deter people from using drugs, and if anything they tend to interest young people more in drugs than deter them.”
Groups like DPA support a more honest approach to drug education, which openly states facts and avoids exaggeration.
“Drug use is complex, and if it’s used one way it can result in one outcome and if it’s used in another way it can result in a very different outcome,” said Smith. “Really we should be focusing on the harms and reducing the harms around drug use.”
Trump’s emphasis on anti-drug education is particularly concerning because it suggests he is turning to failed policies of the past in an effort to address the modern drug crisis, said Smith. Trump further stoked those fears on Thursday, when he concluded his address with an ominous line.
“We have fought and won many battles, and many wars before, and we will win again,” he said.