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Surveying Drug Prevention

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Seth Blumenthal. In it, he surveys how schools, parents, and Congress responded to increased drug use in the 20th century through anti-drug abuse education initiatives. 

In the opening scene of the 1936 cult classic Reefer Madness, Dr. Alfred Carrol speaks to a parents’ group about preventing the “marijuana menace” that threatened their children. Haranguing the terrified mothers and fathers during the meeting, Carrol explains that this “frightful assassin of youth” could be stamped out with “compulsory education on the subject of narcotics in general, but marijuana in particular.” Carrol argued that “enlightenment” was the path to eliminating this “scourge.” However, the focus on educating parents to “Tell your Children,” the title of Carrol’s talk and one of Reefer Madness’s other titles, proved more popular than mandated public school education.  In fact, it would be decades before Americans felt comfortable teaching young people about narcotics in the classroom. This revealing debate about drug prevention and the tactics to stop drug abuse became a pivotal concern in communities across America, especially after drug use increased after WWII.  This brief survey of congressional hearings and debates about anti-drug abuse education in the 1950s and 1960s shows that this topic became a lightning rod for larger arguments about the role of the state in local communities and the classroom, but also indicates the controversies and debates that can be fleshed out as I target sources and archives for this project on the history of public drug education programs in post-WWII America. [1]

First, before WWII, parents, politicians and churches worried that this issue should be kept out of schools as it involved personal and moral issues best handled by family and religion. In addition, many experts argued against education proponents and claimed that simple exposure to information about narcotics would increase curiosity, and might only exacerbate (or, in some cases, create) the problem. Instead, the overwhelming majority of educators presented a straight message of abstinence to schoolchildren, or, as it would later become known, Just Say No. During the 1950s, as drug use and addiction increased among youth, this debate moved to consider drug prevention education in public schools.  

Many politicians and public health experts in the 1950s still maintained concerns about drug education’s unintended consequences and feared that awareness programs could serve as a gateway to narcotics. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics director, Harry Anslinger, testified against education and for enforcement as a solution to drug abuse, as he read one expert’s concerns into the record that warned, “While educational programs may usefully be established for professional groups, for parent-teacher associations, and for adult groups generally, such program should not be used where they would arouse undue curiosity on the part of impressionable persons or those of tender years.”[2] The National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs also objected to presenting narcotics education directly to youth in schools, but approved of approaching it at the parent-teacher level.  

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It started with marijuana, “the gateway drug,” as a young man shows his scars from injecting heroin in the 1950s Drug Addiction Education film produced by Encyclopedia Britannica and with consultation from Chicago Juvenile Protective Association and Andrew C. Ivy, PhD, MD, University of Illinois.

Public schools slowly emerged as the only institutions that could reach young people as concerns about youth addiction dramatically increased, however, especially in urban communities. As concerns shifted to the environment that created drug abuse and the correlation between poverty and addiction began to shape the conversation in the 1950s, both well intentioned and bad faith politicians blamed addiction rates on a lack of parenting or religious morals, thus raising doubts about families’ or the churches’ ability to help the young people most at risk of addiction. As one judge in a New York City juvenile court observed, “I will say, sitting as a judge in the children’s court, since about the last 2 1/2 years when the campaign of education reached the public, there has been a decided drop in cases appearing before me of youngsters under 16.” “I remember there was some objection to any educational campaign. They felt it might encourage the use of narcotics,” the judge recalled. “Instead,” he argued with his detractors in Congress, “we found, with respect to the youngsters in the high schools, since there was a decided campaign to educate them as to the dangers of the use, there has been a drop in the number of cases appearing in our court.”[3] Still, these efforts occurred mostly with local experiments and received scant funding for major city school pilot programs where the problem seemed most acute.

As drug use became more widespread in the 1960s, especially marijuana use in the suburbs, a new emphasis on education became codified in law. Congressman Lloyd Meeds (D-WA) argued in 1969 for a federal role in public school education, concluding, “The unhappy truth is that too many youngsters are turning on and freaking out with little or no factual knowledge of drugs.” Rather than scaring kids, the approaches of the late 1960s and 1970s emphasized information. In 197, the Compton Advertising Agency developed the PSA entitled “Why do you think they call it dope?” that created a conversation between a “pusher” and a young blond boy who explained to his playground friends the psychological and physical harms related to each narcotic. In addition, Meeds explained why schools could handle this issue better than families: “Equally distressing is the blind reaction and blue rage in which many parents fall when drugs are mentioned.” Thus, it became apparent to some reformers that no parents could be trusted with educating their kids about drugs, no matter where the child grew up.  

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A know-it-all boy has an answer for everything a playground drug pusher peddles in this classic ad from 1970 and created by Compton.

As a result, the Drug Abuse Education Act in 1970 included measures that allowed the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare to exert influence and review education programs in states as well as provide funding for programs. The question of whether or not to encourage public school drug education had been replaced by a debate over what that education should include. Some local efforts welcomed the increased federal role and resources as they had already developed comprehensive programs for drug abuse education and treatment in schools. Others found the shift to a prevention model challenging. This meant a transition for teachers from NARCs to public health experts, as one expert on youth delinquency told Congress: “The administration has evolved a very impressive form of repression down to the point of creating blacklists… Setting up a drug-abuse education program of the kind you outlined in the bill, the kind that we favor, is going to be very difficult in such an atmosphere of repression.”[4] Moving away from educators’ repressive roles required more than a change in laws, as training also needed to foster less authoritarian teacher-student relationships.

Looking at how teachers interpreted their roles in drug education raises questions about the regional differentiations proposed for prevention and how it was incorporated on the ground or in the classroom, as Congress discussed the need to avoid a “one size fits all” approach and considered tailored messages for rural, suburban and urban school children. One Juvenile Officer agreed to this variation, explaining, “Having been raised back in the East in a small town, I really have strong feelings that we almost have different social backgrounds, and perhaps some modification would certainly be required.”[5]  These distinctions deserve more attention, and offer an important framework to consider how public health experts, activist organizations, administrators and teachers developed practices in these three demographics.  

In addition, considering that generational attitudes changed among young people, evaluating the drug education programs and their limits should also include the audience—students—and their agency to shape the education strategies. For example, Albert Richard Dollarhide from the non-profit organization Narcotics Education Foundation of America called young people in 1970 part of an “intellectual generation.” In contrast to the more common “scared straight” speakers, Dollarhide claimed his informational and non-domineering strategy was welcomed by school officials, teachers and students. He recalled, “When I came in, we had sessions with the administration to make sure that I wasn’t going to pull the same approach.” In contrast to the laughter many officers provoked when they threatened students with arrest if they were caught with drugs, Dollarhide explained, “The kids listened to me. One thing you never want to do is call them ‘kids’—they are young adults—these young adults did not respond to an authoritarian approach.” While Dollarhide’s emphasis reflected more progressive efforts to slow drug abuse and avoid the abstinence messages that preceded the 1960s, the controversy was far from settled.

Of course, this debate was the calm before the storm, or the 1980s, as the most heavily funded drug education program in American history, Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) sorted through this controversy by using police officers to educate young children about the dangers of drug use and addiction, stressing abstinence in conjunction with the “Just Say No” message that dominated the Reagan years.  By the early 1990s, however, studies showed DARE’s limits as research proved the program’s ineffectiveness and convinced Congress to cut its massive funding to the national program. Still, while my project is primarily focused on researching and explaining the rise and fall of DARE to reveal fundamental tensions in the 1980s approach to drug prevention, looking at the political debate over this issue during the 1950s and 1960s shows that these failures should hardly come as a surprise.  


  1. As Natalia Mehlman Petrzela claims in Classroom Wars:  “Fights in and about the schoolhouse…formed the crucible in which the powerful political notion of ‘family values’ was contested and constructed,” and the “erosion of family authority and the erection of an invasive, liberal state bureaucracy often appeared to reinforce one another.” P. 4-5.


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