DPA Podcast Episode 45: “Puff or Pass”: The Iconic, Ironic D.A.R.E. Shirt

In this episode of “Puff or Pass,” our series on the portrayal of drugs and drug users in popular culture, DPA’s former digital communications interns Dilara Balkan and Marisa Hetzler take us on a journey through fashion, irony, and drug (mis)education with an exploration of the D.A.R.E. shirt. How did the infamous D.A.R.E. program transition from failed Copaganda “drug education” to a counterculture sartorial statement? Listen to find out – and learn why D.A.R.E.’s abstinence-based approach to drug education was so unsuccessful, what alternatives exist, and where you can get yourself some D.A.R.E. merch to pull off the 90s alt-aesthetic you’ve always wanted. 

To learn more about DPA’s harm-reduction based drug education curriculum Safety First, visit

Special thanks to our intern Jake Samieske for his help on this episode.

Listen to more podcasts. 


Intro  (0:00)   
Welcome to Drugs and Stuff, a podcast from the Drug Policy Alliance. 

Gabriella Miyares  (0:02)   
Hello everyone, and welcome to another episode of Drugs and Stuff. I'm your host Gabriella Miyares. Now, if you're a regular listener to Drugs and Stuff, you'll be familiar with Puff or Pass, our ongoing series where we examine how drugs and drug use are portrayed and mis-portrayed in pop culture. I grew up in the 90s in public schools, and like many of you went through the D.A.R.E. program of quote unquote, "drug abuse resistance education". But even if you didn't go through it yourself, you've almost certainly seen the iconic D.A.R.E. shirt with its distinctively ragged sloping capital letters. Today's Puff or Pass episode explores that shirt and the program that created it. Since 1983, D.A.R.E has been trying to prevent adolescents from engaging with drugs through scare tactics. But in this episode, former DPA digital communications interns Dilara Balkan and Marisa Hetzler explain how D.A.R.E. merchandise has developed into a counterculture fashion statement, icon of drug use, and symbol for our country's continued failure to create effective drug education.

Dilara Balkan  (1:27)   
Hi, guys, my name is Dilara. I am a student at Barnard. And I'm also an intern here at the Drug Policy Alliance for the communications team.

Marisa Hetzler  (1:38)   
I'm Marisa, I think like first and foremost, I'm a Sagittarius, but I'm also a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology studying graphic design. I'm also an intern here at the Drug Policy Alliance with the communications team and my intern bestie Dilara.

Dilara Balkan  (1:55)   
Yes! Well, now that you said that, I'm gonna have to add that I'm an Aries. But yeah, we're really excited to bring you guys along with this new episode of Puff or Pass. And, you know, we really are excited about this episode because we see references to drugs and drug use in pop culture all of the time. But it's not always that you'll see a rise in popularity of a reference to the drug war or drug war logic, even if it is ironic. So, as you guys might have guessed, on this episode of Puff or Pass, we're going to be talking about the D.A.R.E. shirt, its rise in fashion, and its new ironic meaning. We've been seeing the D.A.R.E. shirt everywhere recently, you guys might have seen paparazzi pictures of Cara Delevingne, Demi Lovato, Dakota Johnson, other celebrities wearing the D.A.R.E. shirt. I personally have one in my own closet, and I think Issa Rae was even wearing one in the show Insecure. But I'm thinking that before we can truly get into why this shirt rose to fame, we should probably start talking about what the D.A.R.E. program was and when it started. So, the D.A.R.E. program, or what it stands for, the drug abuse resistance education program, was a wildly popular drug education program throughout the 80s and 90s, growing from a tiny local program in the city of Los Angeles to a nationwide program. At its peak, it was practiced in over 75% of American schools and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to run, which includes the costs for its 90s style branded merchandise. Funnily enough, they actually believed that their merch was one of the strongest aspects of the program itself, which will be interesting to note as we continue along this conversation. The main issue with this though, is that D.A.R.E. didn't actually work. In fact, evidence shows that people who went through the program were actually more likely to do drugs than students who didn't. So, D.A.R.E. started by the Chief of Police of LAPD noting that there was a lot of drug busts in local schools, and he wanted to start a drug education program like Smart, which was a program that was happening during the time in the 80s. But he actually wanted it to be taught by the police. So it started to rise in popularity, but then in the early 90s, in 1994 specifically, the Research Triangle Institute reported that D.A.R.E. had no significant success in preventing drug use. And similarly, D.A.R.E.'s predecessor program Smart was also found to have no success in preventing drug use. People actually even noticed that there was this thing called a quote unquote "boomerang effect", where they would teach these students but students were actually more inclined to do the opposite of what they were learning. So needless to say, as a quick summary, we can see that D.A.R.E., despite it being incredibly popular, was really not effective. And I think that's a really good base understanding of the program itself that we can use to understand why it's gotten so popular 30 years later.

Marisa Hetzler  (5:05)   
Yeah, you think it would be a no-brainer that like harm reduction drug education wouldn't start with, like, cops -- but here we are. Today, pretty much as Dilara mentioned, like people weren't really... the D.A.R.E. program wasn't working, people weren't really fans of it, so when it comes to looking at celebrities today wearing the iconic abstinence shirts, it really kind of feels like it's more out of irony than a genuine love for the D.A.R.E. program. So me and Dilara did what any good researchers would do to check that the statement was true... And we went on the internet and consumed thoughts from random strangers to figure out like, Hey, what's really going on here? So the first place we stopped was Reddit, and we were in the showerthoughts sub and user u/socksonplates posted in 2017, "If I see someone wearing a D.A.R.E. shirt in 2017, I automatically assume that they are on drugs." User Kevlars replied, "I switched schools in 1999. Needing a new weed dealer, I wasn't sure who to ask until I saw a kid in a D.A.R.E. shirt. I still buy from her occasionally." And then riptron3000 wrapped up this whole dialogue by saying "1999 makes more sense for this thought. I was like -- 2017? This has been a snarky I do drugs reference for more years that I can even recall." But since we're like really, really good researchers we didn't just stop at Reddit, we also went on Twitter and we did like a keyword search for D.A.R.E. shirt, and Twitter user justsomedumbho, (I don't know if we can say that but I'm saying it anyways) posted, "Thursday night I ordered a D.A.R.E. shirt when I was really high because I thought it was funny and completely forgot about it until today when I got the shipping notification." The last one I'll close this out with is from Ryanweddinggold3, who on March 15 of 2021 said, "wearing my D.A.R.E. shirt now that I don't smoke, it's just a whole different vibe. I just feel like a narc instead of feeling empowered." 

Dilara Balkan  (7:11)   
Wow, I love all of those. 

Marisa Hetzler  (7:13)   
No, they're like ridiculous. I actually feel like I relate to Ryan a little bit, because ever since I stopped smoking like I still own these puff socks that I was gifted in high school, and every time I wear those I'm like, I feel like a poser! Nobody look at me! 

Dilara Balkan  (7:25)   
Oh my God, that is so funny. I'm obsessed. I just I also love the whole fact that everyone recognizes this as an ironic statement, and no one is taking it seriously on everywhere that we looked, but continue.

Marisa Hetzler  (7:40)   
No, it's literally... It's no secret like, which is why it's even funnier, like what you said earlier. The D.A.R.E. program itself is like, oh, our merch was a huge success. Like when you go on the internet for two seconds and it turns out it's just like a laughingstock. But pretty much what Ryan said I feel like really captured the appeal of D.A.R.E. shirts today, because for a lot of people wearing it, despite using drugs, it became a witty form of protest against the poor drug education they received in high school. So their attitudes from the generation who went through D.A.R.E helped propel the shirt from being an 80s high school memory to a prominent trend for teens of a new generation, because what we ended up seeing was in the early 2010s, a huge rebirth of the D.A.R.E. shirt, and this is because of a couple of reasons. So, the teens of the 2010s were pioneers of ironic internet humor, so wearing a shirt for the exact opposite of its intended purpose, which is something that was really appealing to like that set of people. On top of that there was a rise in 80s and 90s design, so you had this shirt, then the scribbly text that was really matching like the vaporwave aesthetic that people were trying to get into. And lastly, thrifting was finally cool- And what was that thrift stores in the 2010s? Well, it was like your 80s windbreakers, grandma shirts, and also D.A.R.E. t-shirts. So  they were low in supply, but high in demand. Everyone wanted one, and when they ran out of places, or when they ran out of shirts at their shops, a lot of people turn to their favorite modern stores. So now if you want to buy a D.A.R.E. shirt, you can look on places like Urban Outfitters where for the low price of $34 you can get a fake, distressed vintage D.A.R.E t-shirt. If that is too expensive for you, feel free to check out Forever 21 for a $20 D.A.R.E. t-shirt that has an additional "say no to drugs" phrase printed on the back. And if you want to take it even further than like a fake reproduction of the original you can even get a parody. Like this is how popular the D.A.R.E. shirt was- people it was beyond the original D.A.R.E. shirt with its intended meaning, it was beyond appropriating the original D.A.R.E. shirt to say like I do drugs. Now you can get a shirt that says C.A.R.E., care about me please, or D.A.R.E., drugs are really expensive.

Dilara Balkan  (10:02)   
My personal favorite was the one that said vape, or "V.A.P.E," and the little acronym at the bottom was "very addictive piece of equipment."

Marisa Hetzler  (10:13)   
Yeah, they're all so funny like you could, all you have to do is Google like D.A.R.E. shirt parody, right into Google Images, you could spend probably hours looking through those and having a laugh. And they just get super random and bizarre, very niche.

Dilara Balkan  (10:27)   
Very niche. And I think it's absolutely hilarious to the Urban Outfitters D.A.R.E shirt that you mentioned that it comes distressed for you. So it'll give you the whole I wore this through the 80s and 90s vibe without actually having to have been through the program in the 80s and 90s- very authentic vibes.

Marisa Hetzler  (10:46)   

Dilara Balkan  (10:46)   
But yeah, we wanted to definitely wrap up this conversation, as hilarious as it is, with one slightly serious point, which is, you know, it's really important to know why these ironies are popular in the first place. And as Marisa said earlier, a lot of it is rooted in the fact that this really was a poor drug education program, and the failure of the program itself is what actually led to our ability to laugh at it, to wear it as a kind of sign of something opposite of what it actually is. You would think that a drug education model that was taught by cops, that was only teaching a preventative model, would be a no brainer for it to not work. Like an abstinence based sex education program, assuming that no one is going to want to experiment with drugs, especially teens, will probably actually cause more harm than preventing it because not only are students not learning how to use safely, but they're also not learning tricks and ways of helping their friends or family members who might need some help. They also don't get any tools or like learn any ways to not use drugs in a non problematic or non chaotic way. And not only that, it also isolates students who've either had experiences using or know someone close to them who does. Along the same vein, students aren't dumb; kids aren't dumb. When you teach an abstinence-based program, kids are going to know that you're hiding something from them, and it actually comes across as really condescending, which we can see as the root of the whole boomerang effect that we talked about in the beginning of this episode. Overall, we just want to end with,  what can we learn from the failure of D.A.R.E.?  We believe that a harm reduction approach is so much better than an abstinence-based approach. And the Drug Policy Alliance has actually developed their very own Safety First model as a drug education curriculum that, you know, is reality based, and has a lot of tools and strategies for parents to talk to their kids to help protect them from problematic and chaotic drug use. You can actually find the Safety First booklet, which is available in over seven languages on And yeah, even though it's really fun to poke fun at the failure of a drug education program and wear these shirts, it's also important to note that there's still a lot of work to be done in educating our communities about drugs and drug use. 

Marisa Hetzler  (13:12)   
Definitely. Yeah, I mean, it's crazy. You think about D.A.R.E that was like 30, 40 years ago, and it's so obvious that it hasn't worked. It's definitely time; We are overdue for the harm reduction approach at this point.

Dilara Balkan  (13:26)   
Absolutely. We are so overdue. But yeah, we want to thank you for joining us on this awesome episode of Puff or Pass.

Marisa Hetzler  (13:34)   
Thank you. Yeah, it was super fun. And definitely remember to make sure to check out any D.A.R.E. shirt parodies- you never know when you need a D.A.R.E. shirt addition to your closet. 

Dilara Balkan  (13:43)   
Absolutely. I second that.

Gabriella Miyares  (13:48)   
Many thanks to Marisa and Dilara for what might be the most entertaining discussion of D.A.R.E. I've ever heard, and for all of their incredible work as DPA interns. They will be missed. To learn more about effective drug education, check out Safety First, a free harm reduction-based curriculum available at I also just wanted to note that the opinions on Puff or Pass are the guests' own, and don't necessarily represent the official position of DPA. So that's it for today's episode. If you have an idea for a new episode of Puff or Pass, we would love to hear it. Tweet us @drugsnstuffDPA. Thanks for listening, and hope you'll tune in next time.

Outro  (14:32) 
Drugs and Stuff is brought to you by the Drug Policy Alliance. If you'd like what you hear in the podcast, do us a favor and rate the show on iTunes. Give it five stars, and a nice review. Also, we'd love to hear from you- tweet us @drugsnstuffDPA, use the hashtag #drugsandstuff, check out our website to see the other work we do, sign up for our emails, and donate. Special thanks to our producer Katharine Heller and to the hard working staff of the Drug Policy Alliance for all of their work. Thanks for listening.

Real Drug Education