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Darlind Davis

A Career Fighting Drug Abuse through Policy and Programs

by Andrea Warren

Darlind DavisAfter Pennsylvania native Darlind Davis finished her master’s degree in elementary guidance and psychology, her first job was with Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, working in the field of child development. Two years later, in 1972, she returned to Pennsylvania to become chief of the state’s drug and alcohol prevention programs.  

“Moving into prevention felt natural to me. Because of my background in human development, I understood what constituted normal and abnormal behaviors,” she said. “And because my work had been with families and children at Hopkins, I knew how huge the drug problem had become.” 

In 1982 Davis was elected the first chairperson of the National Prevention Network (NPN), an organization comprised of all state prevention directors. “We had few standards at that time,” she said. “Everything was hit or miss. Mostly we just talked about the problems.” 

That began to change in 1983 when Nancy Reagan, then the First Lady, hosted a two-part landmark show on PBS called “The Chemical People.” Focusing on the seriousness of drug and alcohol abuse among young people, the program sparked national interest in community-centered efforts to combat these issues. “’This television show became an important milestone in the war on drugs,” Davis said. “Mrs. Reagan’s leadership helped focus public attention on the drug problems we faced as a nation.  It was during the Regan administration that organized approaches to drug prevention came into prominence.”

In 1982 Davis became Assistant Director for Prevention with the Maryland Alcoholism Control and Drug Abuse Administration. Among her new duties was administering state grant funding for alcohol and drug abuse prevention. She was also still chair of the NPN, a position she held for three years, and it was during this time that the organization started an annual conference to inform practitioners about new methodologies and evidenced-based drug prevention programs.

Not Enough to ‘Just Say No’

“In the 1980s, D.A.R.E. and Nancy Regan’s ‘Just Say No’ campaign were out there,” Davis said, “and we had a few evidence-based programs like Project SMART.  Project ALERT was in development, but we wouldn’t have it until 1990. However, coalition approaches were growing. The Hilton Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation were important participants in looking at ways to involve the whole community. We also started questioning how the government and the private sector could work together, and who was responsible for what. We learned that everyone has roles to play. It was very positive.”  

A turning point occurred in 1986 when college basketball great, Leonard Bias, died of a cocaine overdose two days after he was signed to the Boston Celtics. “The nation was shocked that this could happen to such a fine athlete. His death turned everything upside down,” Davis remembered. “That was a very important year for drug prevention, because the government became fully committed to addressing the growing drug crisis. The result was the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP), which we still have today.”

Davis moved to the Washington, DC area in 1987 to work for the Department of Education as a senior project officer for drug prevention programs in higher education. This began a seventeen-year stretch of working for the federal government in drug prevention. From 1988 to 1997 she worked as a deputy division director at CSAP, working with various coalitions on drug prevention. She served as liaison to several foundations, including the Hilton Foundation and the BEST Foundation, which they support. Ever since she has had an ongoing relationship with the BEST Foundation and Project ALERT.

Working Under Presidents Clinton and Bush

Her final position was with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. She worked in an office building next to the White House from 1997 to 2004, during both the Clinton and Bush administrations.

The highlight of Davis’s tenure there was creating an interagency document titled Evidence-Based Principles of Prevention, which summarized the most important criteria for effective drug prevention. “My responsibility was to define what works, in line with what the research was showing. By then we had probably 25 different federal agencies with drug prevention programs, including HUD, the office of Juvenile Justice, and the Department of Education, and each agency had its own language and buzz words and we had to cut through all of that. We wrote the document in very simple language, saying that if you’re going to do drug prevention, here’s what it should look like.”

Today Davis looks back on her long career with a sense of satisfaction. But she knows there’s much work yet to do.

“We can’t stand still,” she said. “A new drug of choice is always going to come along, young people are always going to experiment, and we have to be on guard.

“Many times in my career I wondered if we were actually making progress. But I can see how far we’ve come. None of it happened easily. Many committed people have been involved through the years. Looking back, I’m very proud of all we’ve done.”

Davis and a Drug Free Moore County board member recently staffed an informational booth at a fall festival.


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