As auditors try to figure out how Jackson County spends its anti-drug money, perhaps an investigator should ask a kid..

Buzzkill! 

As auditors try to figure out how Jackson County spends its anti-drug money, perhaps an investigator should ask a kid..

When you're an 18-year-old blonde in Lee's Summit, getting out of a speeding ticket is so incredibly easy.

Buying drugs is even easier. But it takes a special talent to get out of a ticket and buy drugs at the same time.

As Laura tells it, she was doing 55 in a 35 mph zone, just like she always does, when the very same cop who always pulls her over stopped her again. She waited in her convertible while the Lee's Summit officer returned to his vehicle to run her driver's license information.

Laura was just minutes from her house, in the well-groomed neighborhood where she grew up. In a few weeks, she would leave it for the first time to attend college at a big state school.

While she waited on the policeman, Laura waved at her friend Dan, who was in his yard, shouting distance away. He walked over and leaned into her window.

"Laura, what are you doing?" he asked.

"I need to buy from you," she said.

"All right, when you're done with him, pull around," he told her.

Fifteen minutes later, Laura was blazing down the road again, glancing in her rearview mirror through Chanel sunglasses to make sure that the officer was out of sight. The cop let her off with a warning, but her wallet was $20 lighter thanks to the small wad of decent-grade pot that Dan had tucked into her purse.

Marijuana barely registers as a drug for Laura and her friends. It's just so routine, especially now that they've experimented with much more serious shit, such as cocaine. She knows kids who blew a couple of lines before accepting their diplomas at graduation.

Compared with some people she knows, Laura only dabbles in drugs. She cut back on the coke after one of her friends had a major freakout in class last semester and had to go to the hospital, then to therapy.

So there's a little pot in her purse, and a bottle of Smirnoff Ice barely out of sight between the toilet and the counter in the bathroom, which she has all to herself. Her bedroom is two full floors away from her parents; she and her brother control the whole basement. A screen door in Laura's room leads to the backyard, where a kidney-shaped pool overlooks a view of boats on a lake adjoining the property, their masts sticking out of the water like white straws. The privacy afforded to Laura and her friends Iris and Quinn means they're free to smoke Marlboro Lights poolside while their last high school summer drifts away.

Back in grade school, these girls -- Laura, Iris and Quinn aren't their real names -- would not have been considered at "high risk" for drug use. But in fifth grade they found themselves along the first line of defense in the war on drugs.

The DARE program.

The Lee's Summit Police Department was the first in Missouri to adopt the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program, in 1987. The program, started by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1983, sends officers into fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms to instruct students on how to make good choices, build good self-esteem and say no to drugs.

But ask middle schoolers to explain what DARE is all about and they're likely to respond with shrugs, if not outright laughter.

DARE draws giggles from these Lee's Summit girls who can more readily list the drugs they've tried than the names of the boys they've kissed.

"You go first," says Iris, bumping Quinn with her shoulder.

"Ecstasy, 'shrooms. I've smoked, and I drink. That's pretty much it for me," Quinn says.

Iris counts off on her fingers, "Cocaine, Ecstasy, mescaline, 'shrooms, pot, opium -- "

"When did you do opium?" Quinn asks.

"Two weeks ago."

All three burst out laughing.

"With who?"

"My friend from work."

"Oh, shit!"

Laura glances at her friends with a guilty smile. "I've done cocaine ..." She corrects herself. "I do cocaine occasionally. It's, like, something fun that I do. I don't purchase it, but a lot of my friends will have it, and we'll do it occasionally. And, like, Xanax."

Ponytails nod all around. Everyone's tried Xanax, dipping from one friend or another's prescription.

A slew of studies in the mid-'90s showed that DARE had little or no impact on kids' drug use. In the corporate world, when your marketing strategy fails this badly, you change the company's name.

Instead, DARE just gets more funding.

Jackson County's DARE program is paid for by COMBAT (the Community Based Anti-Drug Tax), a quarter-cent sales tax that voters agreed to renew in August 2003. DARE consumes a relatively small portion of the overall COMBAT fund: DARE administrators expect to receive $1.29 million of 2004's estimated COMBAT intake of $19,650,000.

Imagine that Laura's newly purchased pot represents the money generated from the COMBAT sales tax. Of the green stuff in the baggie, 33 percent goes to law enforcement and corrections. Prosecutors get 22 percent. Treatment providers take 21 percent. Prevention programs, including but not limited to DARE, get 24 percent.

The people who decide how to spend the treatment and prevention money are the COMBAT commissioners -- Nancy Seelen of St. Luke's Health System; Dorothy Kennedy, a retired teacher; Aasim Baheyadeen, a longtime activist; Darrell Curls, chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Committee; Manuel Perez Jr., an administrator from the Kansas City, Missouri, Health Department; Gregory Grounds, a lawyer and former mayor of Blue Springs; and John Readey III, a partner with the Bryan Cave law firm. Four other members attend meetings but cannot vote because their programs receive COMBAT funds: Jackson County Prosecutor Mike Sanders; Independence Police Chief Fred Mills; Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department Major Gregory Mills; and Jackson County Sheriff Tom Phillips.

Each fall, COMBAT commissioners look at a conservative estimate of the next year's sales tax and sift through applications submitted by treatment and prevention program providers such as the Niles Home for Children, Move UP, the Mattie Rhodes Center and the Guadalupe Center. The commissioners then make funding recommendations to the Jackson County Legislature, which ultimately decides how much money to give the programs.

But DARE doesn't undergo the COMBAT Commission's scrutiny, because it qualifies for tax money automatically. Back in 1991, COMBAT administrators, using their federal grant-matching capabilities, began earmarking funds for DARE programs throughout Jackson County. In 1995, voters agreed to give DARE "entitlement" status, meaning the program need not reapply for funds every year through the COMBAT Commission the way other treatment and prevention programs must. Instead, the police departments that provide DARE officers send abbreviated applications to the COMBAT Commission's headquarters at the Jackson County Prosecutor's Office, which also gives DARE a pass.

Last August, when it came time for Jackson County officials to convince voters to renew the COMBAT tax for another 7 years, the public-relations component of their campaign strategy was easy to find.

"DARE was the puppy in the window" to sell COMBAT to voters, says Sgt. Steve Seward, DARE supervisor for the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department. After all, DARE works toward COMBAT's first goal, to "prevent youth experimentation with drugs." And who would vote against that?

Jackson County voters approved the tax 2-to-1, as they had in 1989 and 1995. But political scuffles over COMBAT in February of this year dragged the entire tax under the scrutiny of federal investigators.

Jackson County Prosecutor Sanders kicked off the process when he called for a state audit of COMBAT at a news conference on February 12, after a meeting in which COMBAT commissioners approved a motion to review the tax structure. County Executive Katheryn Shields, whose office appoints the commissioners, agreed that a financial audit should be done but noted that her office already does one every year. The next day, Sanders announced that he was appointing an "audit committee," but he backed down after Shields and County Legislature Chairman Scott Burnett sent a letter advising Sanders that appointing such a committee was outside the prosecutor's authority.

In March, Jackson County officials agreed to hire an outside firm to complete a financial audit; its results are pending. The Legislature also discussed ordering a performance audit that could take a year to complete, but it hasn't selected a firm.

In the meantime, federal investigators have begun a wide-ranging inquiry into Jackson County's operations and have asked to see documents relating to COMBAT, according to County Executive Katheryn Shields' spokesman, Ken Evans.

COMBAT's motto brags that it has been "making substance abuse history since 1989." And it flaunts DARE's figures: In the past decade, nearly half a million fifth-graders have received drug-prevention training from nine Jackson County programs.

Yet what stands out most to Laura, Iris and Quinn about DARE is how little of it stands out at all.

"I don't remember anything about DARE except the DARE bear we passed around," Laura says. "It was a big deal because when you asked a question, you got to hold the bear. That's the only thing I think I got out of it."

"Wasn't it a lion?" Iris asks. After a moment she adds, "Mel Blunt."

"What?"

"That was our DARE officer's name. That's awesome."

Quinn stares at her. "His last name was Blunt? Shut up."

"It's weird," Iris continues. "I know it [DARE] sounds good, and I don't personally know what would happen if I didn't go through it, if I was never introduced to it, because I don't remember it," she says. "At that point in time, you're young enough to know the word drugs, and drugs are bad, you know, so they teach you the word weed and marijuana. And they ask you if you know any slang words [for various drugs]. I remember that."

These girls know where their families stand in the socioeconomic universe. They know, for instance, that Lee's Summit North High School is considered a snob factory full of rich kids. No one has to beg for the keys to Dad's car, but they might ask for the keys to the boat.

Iris defines her family as Republican, conservative and likely to be shocked if they knew about the rainbow of drugs she has sampled. She says the kids most likely to do drugs aren't necessarily the ones found in the urban core. They are, as most adolescent health specialists understand, kids with lots of money and even more free time. The typical drug user DARE taught them about -- a smelly, dropout loser -- has been a myth so far.

"Like, the stereotypical 'You've got a whole bunch of fucked-up teenagers,' that just isn't true anymore," Iris says. "I don't have a terrible home life. I still do it. It has nothing to do with being unhappy. I mean, I'm sure that's the reason I've done it sometimes, to escape reality, but most of the time I want to go out and have fun with my girlfriends. It has nothing to do with being upset or depressed."

There's more evidence of DARE's ineffectiveness out on a small ranch near Longview Community College, where a two-kegger is chugging deep into one recent Saturday night.

In the kitchen of the little white house, which is surrounded by stars and mosquitoes and cattle, a new drinking game has just been invented, and it's Laura's turn. One sunburned boy in a plaid shirt instructs Laura to throw a spoon at a counter crowded with enough bottles to make Jim Beam puke.

"Whichever bottle you hit, that's what you gotta take a shot of," he says.

She tosses the spoon, which knocks over a shot glass full of something amber-colored before ricocheting off a bottle of gin.

"Looks like it's gin!" the boy announces. Behind him, two guys in T-shirts and cowboy hats discuss the night's plans to go muddin'.

"We drive trucks into the mud and try to get 'em stuck," one cowboy explains. His shirt reads: "I didn't ask you to dance, I said you look fat in those pants!"

His friend continues, "Yeah, and if one gets stuck, we drag it out with another truck."

A quick poll of the kitchen reveals that this cornfed faction of Lee's Summit North grads likes the DARE program about as much as they like wearing tiaras.

"DARE is so gay," says one of the boys. "It made marijuana look like a drug. It ain't a drug like other things are drugs."

His friend agrees. "It doesn't work worth a shit. It made me want to smoke pot more."

Outside on the deck, the party doesn't require trucks or mud, only red Solo cups, two kegs and a few 24-packs of Bud Light. It's so packed with kids that opening the screen door causes a tidal wave of movement.

"Everyone you see here is a DARE graduate," says one 19-year-old, sweeping one hand over the general direction of the patio table, which is covered with empty cups and beer cans and manned by five or six of his friends. "In junior year, things changed," he says. "We went from beer and pot to having cocaine come around. A lot. I never saw anything like meth or heroin or crack, but a lot of 'shrooms and X."

A girl in an aqua halter laughs at the mention of DARE. "It totally doesn't work," she says. "It was stupid. We were little kids. And isn't coffee a drug?"

"I'm wasted!" the boy next to her announces. "I've been drinking since 11 today."

His buddy high-fives him. "That's how we do it!"

As if heralded by the mention of drugs, the stubby end of a blunt floats its way from hand to hand on the patio as people hit it, cough and pass it along.

Around midnight, a fight breaks out and the host kicks out the remaining guests. But partyable hours remain, and so as kids hop in their cars and pickup trucks, they campaign for the best after-hours plans. One guy calls out that they're going to his house to smoke more pot. "There's a pool at mine!" says a girl.

If this class of DARE grads seems a little disappointing, the administrators at DARE America's headquarters in Los Angeles might point out that these kids went through the old DARE. The "new" DARE has made important changes, based on studies by researchers from the University of Akron.

The new curriculum is DARE's way of addressing the chorus of critics who began pointing out the program's inherent flaws in the mid-'90s. The Center for Prevention Research at the University of Kentucky found that DARE actually caused increases of drug use among teens. A common complaint is that DARE's core fifth-grade audience is too young and that officers are unwittingly stoking kids' curiosity when they get into the pharmacological aspects and effects of drugs. ("Ralphie sees sounds and hears colors!")

The changes in DARE are "dramatic," says Lt. Ed Moses of the Missouri Highway Patrol. Moses is chief administrator of the DARE Academy in Jefferson City, which trains Missouri's DARE officers.

"The new version is much more interactive, and the officer does much more facilitating instead of presenting," he tells the Pitch. Now kids are encouraged to work in groups to come up with ways of dealing with the hypothetical situations presented in their colorful DARE workbooks rather than sitting mutely as a police officer lectures on the shame of drug use.

The new DARE doesn't negate the old program's value, Moses says. "The old curriculum is still good and still has its benefits ... but it has been found that there's stronger retention of material when a student is involved with working with the material."

Some things look different, sure. The amorphous, blobby characters that populated the DARE workbooks of the '90s have been replaced with colorful illustrations of diverse groups of kids skateboarding and writing rap music. But samples from the new curriculum displayed on DARE's Web site -- such as peer-pressure exercises in which kids take turns being the drug pusher and the drug refuser -- would still sound familiar to anyone who graduated from the old program.

There are other changes, though. Instead of spending 17 weeks going through DARE in fifth grade, kids now sit through it for 10 weeks in fifth grade and 10 more in seventh grade. This allows police to revisit kids they saw in fifth grade to reinforce what officers told them the first time around.

But DARE's claim to be new and improved is an old strategy, too: DARE also purported to have reinvented itself back in 1994.

Besides, DARE can be all things to all people. Moses stresses that DARE was never entirely focused on drugs. Post-Columbine, for example, DARE introduced a component that teaches kids that it's wrong to be a bully. There's even a way to tie DARE to the Department of Homeland Security. "It's a possibility the program could be more security-conscious because of the fear that terrorists might target schools, as they have in other countries," he says.

Any good educational curriculum re-evaluates itself every 3 or 4 years, says Moses. But an ever-changing program also presents an ever-confounding problem for DARE's critics: If DARE's success was questionable 5 years ago, well, that was the old DARE -- it's different now.

Moreover, the changes don't stop the program from being a massive joke among kids old enough to know better, according to Laura and her friends. In fact, the way they explain their own drug use shows that they've employed DARE-like decision-making techniques to rationalize it.

They say that experimenting with a palette of mind-altering substances in high school's protective bubble is better than making big drug mistakes in college, which costs, like, money.

"Laura and I were talking about this the other day," Iris says. "We haven't done one thing we've regretted. I mean, everything I've done or tried, I can say I did it, and I know how I felt on it, and I can say, 'I don't want to do that.' Smoking opium was the scariest thing I've ever done. Didn't know who I was, didn't remember anything, and I'll never do it again, because I hated the feeling. And now I know that throughout my life, if someone asks me to do it, I won't feel the pressure again, because I've done it, I tried it, and I know how I felt. So I actually feel kind of sorry for people who haven't experienced or tried things, because they'll go into the real world, and stuff's going to hit 'em, and they won't know what to do."

COMBAT Program Director Jim Nunnelly says that DARE works in Jackson County because it has COMBAT's network of treatment and enforcement efforts backing it up.

He's quick to cite a 2003 survey of DARE students' parents, which he commissioned from Wayne Lucas, a sociology professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

"No one had ever asked the parents," Nunnelly says. "I particularly went to a research group and asked, 'Why don't we just ask the parents what kind of changes they see in their kid, and then we will judge whether or not this program is working.' That's what we did. I didn't want a national study. I wanted to ask here."

The survey reports that parents saw improvement in their child's desire to go to school on the days the child's DARE officer was there. More than 80 percent said that their children thought more highly of police officers. And though some parents wrote comments registering their skepticism or noting that they already had taught their children about the dangers of drugs, most generally rated DARE as having been "helpful" to their families.

According to the Kauffman Teen Survey, there's been an overall decline in drug abuse by Kansas City teenagers since the late 1990s, which follows the national trend. The survey has polled eighth-, tenth- and twelfth-graders every year since 1984. The survey's 2002-2003 results were released on May 10.

Disturbingly, though, the most recent survey found that "Eighth-graders -- the youngest teenagers surveyed -- have increased their use of alcohol, marijuana, PCP, inhalants, uppers and Ecstasy since the 2001-2002 survey."

David Kingsley just completed an audit of the Kauffman survey. Kingsley is the head of Lawrence research firm Geodemographic Resources and Information. His background is in treatment and prevention programs, and he has been analyzing the Kauffman results for the Partnership for Children. He says that even though Kansas City's teenagers might be at or below national levels for drug abuse, drug-education programs for schoolchildren still miss the mark. Self-esteem is not a curriculum you can teach, he says, and blanket programs like DARE really reach only the kids who were least likely to get caught up in drugs in the firs place. He wonders how DARE administrators could possibly measure its real impact.

"I think if you're a suburban parent, you want someone making sure your child doesn't do drugs," Kingsley says. "It gives them a sense of comfort to say someone's in there doing something." But the kids who get sucked into drug culture are showing symptoms of underlying problems that plague inner-city kids and suburban kids alike, Kingsley says. "When an officer comes in, I don't think that officer is going to reach those kids who are at high risk for dropping out of school, being truant, for having friends who are also doing the same things."

Nunnelly, of COMBAT, doesn't disagree that aspects of his program are lacking. "If there's a part that isn't being done like it should be done, it's youth development," he says. "It's been shown that when kids are actively involved in developmental activities, they don't even think about drugs.... If you've got a strong constitution and you're involved in the community and you're developing yourself, even if you're just taking piano lessons on Saturday morning, that's youth development and that's the part we're not emphasizing quite enough. That's real drug prevention. That's where it's at."

Nunnelly doesn't ask the kids themselves what they think of DARE.

Other experts do, though.

Preston Washington is the director of clinical services for the National Council of Alcohol and Drug Dependence, a referral resource for the Kansas City metropolitan area. Young adults who get in trouble with drugs are sent to Washington's office, sometimes referred by schools and sometimes by the courts. When he interviews them, Washington asks what they remember from DARE.

Some tell him, "I was a little kid" or "They mean well" or "You mean that cop program?"

"That lets me know, as a clinician, that the peer group takes over and becomes pretty powerful, and things get kicked out the window and out the door, and DARE might be one of those things," Washington says. "Curiosity is so strong, and it overcomes a lot, especially with adolescents. Curiosity along with peer pressure."

Some kids could write textbooks about drugs. In fact, they're most eager to share their knowledge about the things they're supposed to understand least.

For instance, Laura's 18-year-old friend Adam is happy to demonstrate how easy it is for a kid his age to buy cocaine. On the Plaza. At Starbucks.

On a weekday afternoon in August, Adam is sitting on the deck at Starbucks with an older man who is wearing sunglasses. The man sucks on a cinnamon latte and dispenses some cautionary words, something about how people usually use drugs to tamp down unpleasant emotions or to escape other struggles in their lives. Then he shakes Adam's hand, palms the roll of $20 bills from the kid's hand and coolly rises from the table. He returns in minutes with a pack of Parliaments.

Adam takes the cigarette pack and peeks inside. "Oh. Matches," he says. The assortment of Starbucks patrons -- the student reading Salman Rushdie and the couple chatting by the railing -- are oblivious to the drug deal one table away.

When Adam makes it safely back to his car, behind tinted windows, he pulls a book of matches out of the Parliament pack and fishes from it a tiny Ziploc bag. Adam tilts the bag and watches the fine, white powder shift around inside. "It's easier to buy coke than it is to buy alcohol," he says. "How absolutely ludicrous."

He dips the end of a house key into the bag and lifts it to his nose. Sniff. Then he starts his car and twists the volume on his stereo. Britney Spears' "Toxic" comes blasting on -- Too high, can't come down, losing my head, spinning 'round and 'round.

"This is my coke song," Adam says cheerfully, pulling into traffic. A few blocks later, he becomes thoughtful. "You know, maybe he [the drug dealer] is right that the reason people do drugs a lot is to cover stuff up. But other people can do it recreationally and just have a good time.

"One of the things I remember about DARE was this case the police officer had," Adam continues. "And it had all kinds of drugs in it and paraphernalia, and they'd be like, 'Have you seen things like this at home?' because a kid will just say anything, like, 'Oh, yeah, my mom has that.' It's just a way to bust parents and tear families apart. There are some people who are just going to do drugs. There's no stopping it."

Adam's pretty sure that Laura's first time doing cocaine was with him. They like flipping through the Lee's Summit North 2004 yearbook, which has the cryptic title Slightly Torn, and pointing out the cokeheads.

Laura and her friends report that they have a friend or two whose drug use concerns them. Laura worries about Adam. He was supposed to stay with her on her first night at college to keep her company, but he didn't. She is afraid that when he's in Lee's Summit without her, he'll continue to employ his Starbucks hookup.

As far as their own drug use goes, the girls figure they'll be able to stop when they're ready. It's no thanks to the DARE program, but hey, if Jackson County taxpayers want to keep spending more than a million dollars a year on it ...

"Go for it," Iris says.

"So they can say that it makes our community look good," Quinn says.

"So they can say they tried," Laura says.

Back at the ranch, one of the guys goin' muddin' offers a much less expensive approach.

"Show middle school kids Requiem for a Dream," he says, referring to the nightmarish 2000 heroin flick starring Jared Leto. In the movie, addiction tortures four characters. One finds herself performing sex acts for drugs. Another's perfect deal goes south, and he winds up in prison. Ellen Burstyn, as Leto's mother, becomes addicted to amphetamines disguised as diet pills and receives shock therapy. Leto's character has an arm amputated after needle tracks leave it infected beyond repair. After watching all that, the mudder says, middle school kids "won't touch the rest of that shit."

Something so easy, however, wouldn't help Jackson County administrators and law enforcement offers sell the COMBAT tax.

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