D.A.R.E., a drug education program founded in 1983, is still in 75 percent of all U.S. school districts, and it's certainly taught kids a lot over the years, only it maybe wasn't the lessons D.A.R.E. intended to teach. Some kids used it to expand their knowledge base, but by learning which drugs were available, so they could go about finding some. One guy online said he used it to expand his engineering skills, since after he won a trophy for participating in D.A.R.E. he tried to make a bong out of the trophy. 

Could D.A.R.E. be doing a better job teaching useful, truthful lessons about drugs?  

I'm on the phone with Mike Lien, the Midwest and Rocky Mountain regional director of D.A.R.E., and I'm asking him if he thinks the program should teach different stuff now, since the old "Just Say No" campaign didn't work

I ask, "Should D.A.R.E. be teaching kids to test their drugs?"

Lien is quiet for a second.

"Test … their … drugs?" he says.

"Yes," I repeat. "So they know for sure what they're doing?"

He says no. Soon, he's asking me to call D.A.R.E. public relations.

I then jump on the phone with John Lindsay, the southern regional director of D.A.R.E. — I ask him if it wouldn't be smart if D.A.R.E. dropped the "Just Say No," abstinence-only approach and gave kids real information, like telling them which drugs are actually dangerous, like heroin, and which are relatively safe, like weed.

"No," he says. He thinks about the question for a minute, then says, "No," again. Lindsay also asks me to call public relations. (Public relations doesn't phone back.)

So if D.A.R.E. isn't open to thinking about what drug education classes should do differently, it's up to others to fill that role. 

Here's a possible start: 

  • Drugs are mixed.

Yes, drugs can ruin your life. They can also make it a lot better. "Educators should not be shying away from the positives of the drugs," says Kristin Karas, director of programs at Dancesafe, a harm reduction nonprofit. "Heroin is euphoric, it's relaxing. People aren't consuming these substances because it's a bad time. They aren't, like, 'That was terrible, let me do that all the time.'" Educators of course have to explain the downsides of drugs, but if they ignore the positives, they risk losing credibility with the kids.

  • Drugs are all different.

Some jack you up. Some put you in a coma. Some make you see crazy colors. Some dull your empathy. Some make you love everyone. Some have spiritual undertones. Some make you feel like you're in hell. Just because hundreds of different drugs are all illegal doesn't mean they're all the same.

  • Drugs can change who you are as a person.

Drugs can make you a nasty, dirty person, literally looking to duck sick for your next fix. They can lead you to the gutter, to homelessness, joblessness or insanity. And they can also change you in a positive direction. "I had never been a spiritual person until I found drugs," says Jacob Tobey, president of the Denver Psychedelic Club. "Kids should know about the interconnectivity and consciousness expanding properties of drugs. Educators should talk about empathy and MDMA. Just generally talk about the positive qualities as well as the negative qualities."

  • Some drugs are safer than others for certain people.

Here is a handy chart about which drugs are most dangerous. But each person’s reaction is highly dependent upon their unique brain chemistry, and drugs generally thought safe might not be. Anxious people might find marijuana makes them more anxious. "Psychedelics, generally speaking, have a low risk profile," Karas says, "but if you have schizophrenia, then that shifts to the other end of the spectrum."

  • Drugs might slow you down.

"If you're doing a ton of them you're not going to probably die or go crazy," says Tobey. "They just might put your behind your peers because they're out getting a career and you're just doing drugs."

  • If you're going to do drugs, make sure you're still going somewhere in life.

Have goals, have ambition, have values. Still show up to soccer practice, still do your homework, still have an afterschool job. Don't be a loser. Do something.

  • Drugs can be expensive.

Especially if you choose the expensive ones. "You can lose your shirt on cocaine — $80 on a good night if you're partying," says Tobey.

  • Consent. Consent. Consent.

It's tricky enough to navigate the perilous and foggy world of sexual consent in your normal teenage life, but when drugs get involved — especially drugs that lower your inhibitions, increase your libido and dissociate you from reality — it's a minefield.

  • Watch who you're hanging out with.

You hear this all the time; someone has their cocaine friends, their weed-smoking buddies. These can be real friends. But there needs to be something more, too. "Make sure that you're not just having friends because you both enjoy drugs," Tobey says. "If you do that, you're on a dark path to addiction."

  • Maybe wait until you're older?

It's not certain, but it might be bad for brain development to do too many drugs too early. Slow your roll until your brain is whole.

  • Get home safely.

There's Lyft now. Use it.

  • Don't get caught.

"The most dangerous thing you can do with drugs is getting caught with them," says Tobey. He says that drug educators should lay out the penalties for different types of drugs, so kids can make their own decisions about what's worth the risk.

  • Know what makes a good drug experience:

  1. A good mindset going in. See if you can do them when you're already happy.

  2. A good situation. Do them where you're comfortable.

  3. Good company. "Maybe you don't want to be in someplace where you don't know anybody," Karas says.

  4. A plan. Have a rough idea of what your trip will look like. Take a walk? Go to a museum? Watch a movie? Stare at the stars? This can help alleviate an anxious feeling of, "What was I going to do next?" And it's even better if the thing you plan to do is beneficial, like exercise, gardening or making art.

  • Test your drugs.

There are test kits online that give you a basic idea of what you're doing, and if you're willing to ship your dope away, Energy Control is very thorough and precise, which is extremely necessary given that a lot of drugs aren't what the dealers say they are. "My mom could sell me my drugs and I'd still test them," says Karas.

  • Know your dose.

Get pure drugs and a reliable scale and read reports on the Internet about what dose to start out with. Don't try to be a hero. 


That's a good starter kit for what D.A.R.E. should be teaching. Until things change, Karas says, "We need to dare to resist poor drug education." She has an ambition, too: go to police stations around the country and give them drug education — to let cops know the truth about drugs. She should probably call public relations, next.