Every year, 26 million American schoolchildren are taught to resist the lure of drugs and alcohol by the DARE program, an increasingly popular course that uses local police officers as teachers.

But a new study of the long-term usefulness of DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) raises questions about its effectiveness and popularity. The study, published in this month's Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, found that children who took the 17-week DARE course in elementary school used drugs and alcohol at the same rate 10 years later as children who learned about them in traditional health classes.

"Our results are consistent in documenting the absence of beneficial effects associated with the DARE program," concluded the study, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health and conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Kentucky. "This was true whether the outcome consisted of actual drug use or merely attitudes toward drug use."

Study author Donald R. Lynam said the new research was the first to look at the 10-year effectiveness of DARE, which is now offered in 75 percent of school districts around the country, including many in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. The program emphasizes the dangers of drug, alcohol and tobacco use, and offers strategies on how to resist pressures to experiment. It also concentrates on self-esteem as an important factor in keeping children away from drugs, alcohol and violence.

The new study was harshly attacked last week by the president and founding director of DARE, Glenn Levant, who charged that it used bad science and was part of a vendetta by therapists against the program. He said that for several years psychologists have been critical of the program, and so he was not surprised that the current report is being published in a journal of the American Psychological Association.

"This is directed, voodoo science," said Levant, a former deputy police chief in Los Angeles. "I truly believe they are setting out to find ways to attack our programs, and are misusing science to do it. The bottom line is that they don't want our police officers to do the work, because they want it for themselves. It's a rice bowl issue for them."

Levant's criticism of the study centers on its evaluation of children who took only the 17-week introductory course in elementary school, and not those who took the initial course and then had the follow-up middle school and high school classes. He said that studies done at Ohio State University and the University of California, Long Beach of the full DARE curriculum with middle and high school classes have found clear benefits for students who had taken the program.

Levant said the studies critical of DARE "all seem to cherry-pick jurisdictions that only use DARE in elementary school, but most districts use the full program. I call it academic fraud."

Study author Lynam defended his research, which used questionnaires answered by 1,002 young Midwestern men and women who had taken DARE courses 10 years earlier in elementary school. He said his findings were consistent with numerous other studies which found few long-term reductions in drug or alcohol use among DARE students, though some did show short-term improvements in students' attitudes about drugs and alcohol.

But Lynam also said that Levant had a "serious criticism of our results." He acknowledged that his study may have reached different conclusions if it had tested children exposed to DARE for three sessions instead of one. The DARE program was created by the Los Angeles police department and school district in 1983 and has been modified regularly, including an overhaul and expansion in 1994 to make it more interactive.

"DARE can be a difficult program to evaluate because they frequently change the curriculum and then say it's unfair to judge them on the old one," Lynam said. "We used the data that was available."

Responding to Levant's criticisms, a spokesman from the American Psychological Association said, "The APA believes that drug education is important, and we support effective programs. The purpose of this research is to find what works best."

The heated debate over the effectiveness of DARE is in stark contrast to its almost universal popularity with school and political officials. The program has been embraced at the highest levels, and presidents have noted "National DARE Day" yearly since 1988. In the most recent proclamation, President Clinton commended DARE for "encouraging young Americans to resist peer pressure and to lead lives free from the shadows of drugs and violence."

The program was praised at last month's National DARE Day ceremonies by Barry McCaffrey, director of the White House Office of Drug Control Policy. Speaking to 5,000 uniformed DARE police officers at the ceremony, Levant also described positive findings about the program from research in Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania.

The Ohio State University study was of 3,150 11th graders, and it found that students who had attended DARE classes while in elementary school and again later were 50 percent less likely to become high-risk abusers of drugs and alcohol. The research, which has been accepted for publication by the American School Health Association, also found that DARE strengthened peer resistance skills, made students more likely to discuss drugs and drinking with their parents, and increased respect for police officers.

But Lynam said his review of the literature on DARE led him to conclude "it is not true that there is a plethora of peer-reviewed and published studies out there that DARE is effective long-term. That work is precisely what needs to be done."

In comments following their research findings, Lynam's team ask why DARE remains so popular "despite its lack of demonstrated efficacy." A possible answer, they suggest, is that "adults rightly perceive that most children who go through DARE do not engage in problematic drug use. Unfortunately, these individuals may not realize that the vast majority of children, even without any interventions, do not engage in problematic drug use."