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Just Say No Redux: The Elks Drug Awareness Program

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Michael Brownrigg. Michael recently received his PhD in US history from Northwestern University, where he studied the relationship between emotion, white masculinity, and capitalism to explain the emergence of an antinarcotic consensus in America at the turn of the twentieth century. 

Elroy the Elk, the official mascot of the Elks Drug Awareness Program (DAP), with an antidrug message from the program’s What Heroes Do comic book.

While in Washington DC for a Community Coalition Conference in 1999, Kent Gade, Director of the Elks National Drug Awareness Program, happened upon a speech given by John Lunt, a former Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Demand Reduction Coordinator. As he listened to Lunt address a room of DEA agents, Gade was drawn to the agency’s strategies for reducing substance abuse in American communities. After meeting with Lunt, Gade pursued a formal alliance with the DEA that would provide official “credibility” for the Elks National Drug Awareness Program and “strengthen the program’s affiliations with other groups”—organizations with far superior resources for combating drug addiction such as PRIDE Youth Programs and the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Allying with the DEA and affiliated groups, Gade believed, would vastly increase his organization’s informational and material resources and aid in producing more engaging and creative antidrug content. As he put it, “The DEA provides us with excellent materials and dynamic speakers. Our partnership is a tremendous asset to our efforts. The agency bends over backward for us. They are absolutely invaluable to our program.”

The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks was founded in New York City in 1868. Early members sought an exclusive social club where white men could fraternize and indulge in leisurely activities unencumbered by city laws that regulated the hours of drinking and smoking establishments.

Although promising “To promote and practice the four cardinal virtues of Charity, Justice, Brotherly Love, and Fidelity; to promote the welfare and enhance the happiness of its members; to quicken the spirit of American Patriotism and cultivate good fellowship,” nineteenth-century Elks were largely interested in Americanization crusades. In the early 1900s, the Elks became more civic-minded, hosting war bond drives and other patriotic events and gained recognition as a charitable organization primarily aimed at securing donations and services for war veterans.

Social improvement programs such as purification and anti-vice campaigns had figured prominently in the group’s communal activities dating back to the 1920s, but it was not until the 1980s that the Elks pursued a more concerted antidrug agenda, working closely but not formally with the DEA as early as 1982. Today, boasting that the organization has more than 2,000 chapters around the country with more than one million members, the Elks claim that its Drug Awareness Program (DAP) constitutes “the nation’s largest all-volunteer drug education group.”

Indeed, according to Gade, DAP is one of the Elks more popular programs, addressing a social problem that many members believe imperils youth and forms a grave threat to the future of the nation. “I have found that once a person gets involved with the Drug Awareness Program, they become addicted,” asserts Gade. “The dedication of members is outstanding, and together, we’ll work together to become better leaders in the fight against drug abuse.” Using militant language, one Elks publication described DAP as “an army of volunteers who freely give their time and talents to this most noble cause.” Bob Sabouni, president of Sunny Day Entertainment, the company that produces much of the Elks digital content, exclaimed that the organization provides “boots on the ground locally” to help support DEA community outreach initiatives.

Prior to allying with the DEA and other national groups, the organization worked to battle illicit drug use at the community level by distributing an array of educational literature aimed at schoolchildren, including pamphlets, coloring books, and bookmarks. The organization directed its antidrug material culture at children and young adults and promoted messages closely aligned with the “Just Say No” campaign of the Reagan administration.

As Jerome Beck has shown, the Elks’ approach to educating children about drug use dates back to the late nineteenth century, and resembles the compulsory temperance curricula instituted by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. While the specific substances might change, Beck points out that educational practices have remained mostly the same: emphasizing “no use” and “responsible” or “informed decision making.”

During the 1920s, the short-lived and underfunded International Narcotic Education Association and its Narcotic Education Weeks continued the temperance educational trends. Although the Association relied on a fair amount of scaremongering, its fearful language paled in comparison to the rhetoric from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics during the reign of Commissioner Harry Anslinger. Such sensationalist language continues to inform drug education.   

Elks Coloring Book

Cover of the I Choose Not to Use coloring book produced by the Elks Drug Awareness Program.

Throughout the twentieth century, antidrug pedagogical initiatives have been heavily influenced by findings in child and developmental psychology. Leaders of the Elks Drug Awareness Program have tapped into these fields of behavioral knowledge to develop new and creative ways to engage children in middle school and younger with novel interactive practices and technologies. “A lot of people think kids this age are too young to educate about drugs,” Gade notes. “But kids form a lot of attitudes at this age, and kids will have attitudes about drugs long before they use them.”

When addressing an Elks convention in 2017, Chuck Rosenberg, then-Chief Administrator of the DEA, praised DAP. “We recognize this is the population we need to get,” he argued, while promoting operationprevention.com, a website designed specifically for schoolchildren and their parents. He also advocated for STEM-based curricula instructing students about the dangers of drugs. “We’re not going to enforce or incarcerate ourselves out of this mess,” he asserted when thanking the organization for its preventative tactics aimed at “changing the culture” to eradicate addiction by discouraging drug use before it is too late.

To be sure, DAP still disseminates traditional antidrug materials like posters and books. The group also hosts essay and video contests to encourage youth participation in its program and provides national recognition and awards for competition winners. The Elks participate in DEA-sponsored Drug Take Back events and Red Ribbon ceremonies to honor DEA Special Agent Enrique Camarena who was kidnapped and murdered by a Mexican drug cartel in 1986.

DAP now uses streaming platforms to spread its message across modern technologies favored by today’s youth. In addition to a presence on conventional online services including Twitter and Facebook, the Elks has enlisted Fine Brothers Entertainment (FBE) to create and host multimedia content like the popular video “Teens React to Survivors of Addiction.” According to The Hype Magazine, the twenty-six minute video, produced in collaboration with the DEA, “takes the stories of those suffering from addiction from the streets to the small screen, into homes and classrooms and beyond.” The short film is standard “Just Say No” fare featuring recovered drug users sharing addiction narratives that invariably begin with slippery slopes and gateway drugs and end with despair, loss, and suffering.

Despite these familiar narrative tropes, The Hype Magazine thought that the video offers “a candid and heartfelt discussion that is a must-watch for parents and their children. It is at times lighthearted,” Hype reported, “and other times heart wrenching as the parents, teens, and people in recovery connect on a truly human level.”

What Heroes Do Cover

Cover of What Heroes Do comic book produced by the Elks Drug Awareness Program.

Reaching audiences on an emotional rather than didactic level was DAP’s goal. Fine Brothers Entertainment CEO Marc Hustvedt explained, for example: “FBE is dedicated to sharing stories that make an impact. Our wide array of content often ignites emotional responses,” he explained, “and this effort really provided a human spotlight on a very serious issue. We look forward to sparking an important conversation with our community,” Hustvedt conclude, “and draw[ing] attention to the powerful resources like ELKS and the DEA who are there to help. You are not alone.”

And then there are the comic books. In the series What Heroes Do, Elroy the Elk—DAP’s official mascot—joins forces with the Fire Department of the City of New York and DEA agents to help children understand the consequences of drug use and to help them make informed decisions under difficult circumstances. In the introduction, Gade writes that:

“While reading this comic, you will learn of kids your age who are put in a situation in which they have to use skills they learned from their parents and at school and then work together to save the life of their friend.

The Elks are totally committed to giving you factual information about the use of illegal drugs and the abuse of legalized drugs. We have developed many educational and fun tools that will teach you how to be a good friend and a good citizen.

We want you to realize that there are many ways to be a hero, and you do not have to wait until you’re an adult to be one. You can be a special hero right now by doing what you know is right and having the courage to say NO to the things you know to be wrong.”

Cover of the Avengers: Never Alone comic book produced a a joint venture between the Elks Drug Awareness Program and Marvel Comics.

One of the organization’s more popular comics, unsurprisingly, is Avengers: Never Alone, a 2005 joint venture between Marvel Comics and the Elks. Elroy the Elk accompanies the superheroes as they battle “evil aliens” with a predilection for bullying children.

Bullying is a pervasive subject in DAP literature, and it is understood to be a common impetus for adolescent drug experimentation and a catalyst for addiction. This argument—implicitly drawn from the language of behavioral and developmental psychology—is based on the belief that bullied children resort to drugs as a coping mechanism at statistically higher rates than their peers.

With the help of Elroy the Elk and The Avengers, children develop the moral fortitude to stand up to bullying rather than to suffer in silence. The main thrust of the comic is “to prove that every kid can be in charge of his or her own destiny,” and not be a victim who relies upon drugs to escape persecution:

“The Elks want you to grow up in a happy, healthy atmosphere; in a community that is filled with drug-free living. One where you can develop a clean and sharp mind; filled with the anticipation of a dynamic future. One where you too can avenge bullying wherever and whenever you come across it.”

Another major DAP theme is peer pressure. If taught how to properly react to stressful situations, children, the literature claims, can overcome peer pressure much like they can “avenge” bullying. The books seek to teach children to be in charge of their own destiny. Willpower, DAP asserts, when combined with the knowledge of what is just, right, and virtuous will vanquish coercion and help children muster the courage to firmly and confidently “Just Say No.”

The DEA has praised and commended the organization’s efforts to inculcate antidrug sentiment in children and young adults. Acting Administrator Uttam Dhillon recently stated that:

“The Elks are outstanding, long-time partners with DEA in raising awareness about substance abuse and its destructive effects on families throughout the United States. I commend the Elks for their continued efforts to engage as many teenagers and parents as possible to prevent drug addiction before it starts.”

And the Elks and DAP have fervently embraced this relationship. In 1999, Kent Gade had hoped that the partnership would provide the program with greater legitimacy, considerably improve its visibility, and expand both its scope and scale. The Elks’ vision for DAP and the significance of its mission is understood in terms of national importance. The Kentucky state chapter, for example, described the antidrug program in grandiose terms on its website:

“The Elks are committed to eliminating the use and abuse of illegal drugs by all members of society and believe that in order to ensure a bright future for our country, it is essential that our children be raised in a drug-free environment.”

This all seems remarkably familiar—the rhetoric, the themes, the ethos. The media may have changed but not the message. It is Just Say No redux.

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