New York Times, 16 Sept. 2000
For all the decisions Ross C. Anderson has made in his first year as mayor of Salt Lake City, none has caused a bigger furor than this one: Over the summer, he terminated the city's involvement with the antidrug program in public schools known as DARE, saying that it was ineffective and a poor substitute for programs that he contends do more to discourage drug use by young people.
Reaction was swift. While many residents applauded the decision, Mr. Anderson was criticized by parents, teachers, Republicans, even fellow Democrats, including the chairman of the state party, Meg Holbrook, and the Democratic candidate for governor, Bill Orton.
"I know this is a net political loss for me," Mr. Anderson said in an interview this week about his decision to eliminate DARE -- Drug Abuse Resistance Education -- after it had been in Salt Lake City for 10 years. "But DARE is a complete fraud on the American people, and has actually done a lot of harm by preventing the implementation of more effective programs."
Founded 17 years ago in Los Angeles as a tool to discourage children from using illegal drugs, tobacco products and alcohol, DARE classes are now part of the curriculums in 10,000 school districts in the United States and at schools in 54 other countries, the organization said. Glenn Levant, DARE's president and founding director, says a growing number of districts are using the program, despite a handful that dropit each year.
But in making Salt Lake one of the largest cities to cut off financial support for the program, Mr. Anderson has joined a small but vocal group of elected officials who argue that many of the current strategies in the nation's war on drugs have done little to reduce the supply or demand for illegal drugs.
These officials include several governors -- Gary E. Johnson of New Mexico, a Republican; Benjamin J. Cayetano of Hawaii, a Democrat; and Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, of the Reform Party -- as well as mayors, state lawmakers and federal judges who have argued for and helped change a variety of laws to recognize drug use as a health issue, rather than a criminal justice issue.
As a result, more states are expanding methadone maintenance programs and making it easier for people with drug addictions and AIDS to obtain sterile needles. In addition, voters in seven states and the District of Columbia have approved the use of marijuana for medical purposes, even though the federal government had threatened to prosecute doctors who prescribe it.
Mayor Anderson and Governor Johnson, among others, have called for decriminalizing the use of marijuana. As a measure of the support for that sentiment, voters in Alaska and California's Mendocino County will consider November ballot initiatives that would do just that. If the initiatives are passed, the two governments will become the first in which the use of marijuana cannot be prosecuted, although it remains unclear if federal drug laws would take precedence.
In any case, the two initiatives are the first of their kind since 1986, when Oregon voters defeated a similar measure by a narrow vote.
"Since Jan. 1, we have had more victories for drug-prevention reform than the past 20 years," said Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Lindesmith Center Drug Policy Foundation, a New York organization dedicated to creating new drug policies.
Utah is an unlikely place for a change in drug policy. It is so conservative that Gov. Michael O. Leavitt, a Republican, was booed at his state party convention three months ago for supporting a measure that would have denied people the right to carry their guns into churches and schools. In addition, state lawmakers this year defeated a bill that would have allowed public schools to teach sex education.
For his decision to end the drug program, in which police officers visit classrooms an hour a week for 17 weeks at a cost to the city of $289,000 a year, Mr. Anderson said he had been branded by his critics as "soft on crime." This, he said, was despite the fact that he had encouraged the superintendent of Salt Lake public schools, Darlene Robles, to select an alternative program for the city's 25,000 students.
Mr. Anderson said he based his decision on studies that showed that children who had been exposed to DARE were no less likely to use drugs later in life than children who had not. Investigating the effectiveness of the program and other school antidrug initiatives, Mr. Anderson said he had found that "to my amazing dismay, all the peer-reviewed research shows that DARE is a complete waste of money and, even worse, fritters away the opportunity to implement a good drug-prevention program in schools."
In defending the program, Mr. Levant said Mr. Anderson had ignored the short-term benefits of the program, primarily that it discouraged drug use by elementary school children. He also argued that in those school districts where the program was also taught in middle and high schools, the antidrug message was reinforced.
"Just to say memories of elementary school children fade and that's why the program has no long-term benefits is unfair," Mr. Levant said.
Kathy Stewart, a police detective in Lehi, Utah, and president of the Utah DARE Officers Association, conceded that long-term benefits might be difficult to prove. But she said the interaction between police officers and children in a school setting fulfilled an important component of community policing, allowing officers to build trust with many more children than they would in chance meetings on the street.
Ms. Robles, the superintendent, said she had taken a neutral position on Mr. Anderson's order but, in compliance with his decision, had put together a committee of parents and community leaders that was reviewing options for antidrug programs.
Mr. Anderson predicted that once city residents embraced an alternative program that might be more effective, criticism would fade.
"I'm not interested in killing a program that works," he said. "But just look at the research. My responsibility is to make sure our kids have the best drug-prevention program there is. I think that once people in Salt Lake City understand what it is I'm doing, most of them will support me."
By Michael Janofsky
© 2000, New York Times