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July 26, 2006 - Des Moines Register (IA)

Column: Anti-Drug Programs Leave Out A Key Point

By Marc Hansen

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Perhaps this has happened to you: You are relaxing at home, nursing an adult beverage after a hard day at work.

A grade-schooler wanders into the room. The grade-schooler notices you are kicking back with an adult beverage. He suddenly becomes a hostile substance-abuse counselor.

The grade-schooler has completed his CARE, DARE or SCARE program. Maybe he has even read a pledge or an essay aloud to the class.

He is a new convert, a true believer who is convinced that street drugs, tobacco and alcohol are weapons of mass destruction.

You don't necessarily disagree. Drugs bad. Tobacco bad. Alcohol bad - -- though rarely lethal if used in moderation by a responsible adult. And, of course, never before driving.

You don't disagree, but what do you say? You don't want to break the spell.

The kid would sooner wear wingtips on the playground than say yes to drugs. He's been overprogrammed, sure, but what can it hurt?

"Isn't that your second one?" the grade-schooler says, listening intently for slurred speech.

Hey, I'm the parent here. Who are you, my accountant?

"Are you an alcoholic?"


"Are you drunk?"


"You're killing your brain cells, you know."

It's that obvious?

"Drinking is bad for your liver."

The grade-schooler, who stops just short of pulling out a Breathalyzer, never hears the moderation speech in his anti-drug-alcohol-tobacco program. Instead, he hears stories of addiction, prison, poverty, unemployment, death.

Why wouldn't he be worried for you?

A friend of mine was talking to his nephew when he was hit with this bombshell:

"My dad uses drugs."

What do you mean he uses drugs?

"He drinks beer and smokes cigars. He uses drugs."

Who told you that?

"I learned it in school."

Maybe the kid attended one of those lively "Rock In Prevention" shows. I mention this because Rock In Prevention, a publicly financed, Des Moines-based drug-prevention charity, is in the news again.

It seems the executive director, Pat McManus, received $315,732 in compensation last year, which represents 39 percent of the agency's budget.

While an Iowa State University study says Rock In Prevention shows promise, a shadow hangs over the findings. The lead researcher also happens to be the person who redesigned the program. In effect, he was grading himself, which tends to attract skeptics.

But if McManus can prove his anti-drug-and-alcohol program works -- over the long haul -- he deserves every penny. What's 300 large in public money if it keeps kids from ruining their lives?

That said, I doubt he can -- over the long haul.

Rock In Prevention sounds like a great time. There's singing, dancing, role-playing and skits with bullies who pressure other kids into making bad choices.

"When kids learn through song and listen to the music over and over," McManus told the Register a few years ago, "it really reinforces what we're teaching."

The kids seem to love these prevention programs. In DARE, they hang out with cops and miss social studies. There's often a slide show.

The parents seem to like them. It's heartening to watch the kids catch zero-tolerance fever. They learn to Walk Away or Just Say No a dozen different ways.

The problem is, zero-tolerance fever doesn't last. Eventually, the kids get over their fright, go to college and become binge drinkers.

In grade school, they're scared substanceless. A few years later, they're retching in their dorm rooms.

Not everybody, of course, but what changes between point A and point B?

The experts who believe in these zero-tolerance programs say the trouble begins when the kids stop hearing the message. They need constant reinforcement, not just up to middle school, but all the way through high school.

While that's possible, the real flaw is probably something else. Somewhere along the line, the kids realize they didn't get the straight dope.

Not everybody who drinks or smokes pot ends up expelled from school, unemployed, incarcerated, brain-damaged or dead. Most drinkers aren't problem drinkers.

The worst-case scenario isn't the norm. Eventually, the kids figure it out. Some end up rebelling, going overboard the other way.

Where's the little substance-abuse counselor when you need him?

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