ATLANTIC CITY — In a state that is poised to consider legalizing recreational marijuana, a core group of education and law-enforcement experts gathered Monday to talk about where New Jersey stands in the conversation on drug prevention.

“There are many challenges ahead of us,” said Chief Robert Kugler, a 33-year member of the Saddle Brook Police Department in Bergen County. “We must work together to do what’s right for our communities.”

More than 400 police officers and other law-enforcement experts, educators and government and civic leaders are attending the three-day Law Enforcement Against Drugs 21st Century Drug and Violence Prevention Training Conference and Marijuana Symposium at Harrah’s Resort.

U.S. Department of Justice Associate Deputy Attorney General Steven H. Cook spoke at the conference Monday about federal policies and approaches to drug crimes under President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

“He (Sessions) has traveled to states all over the country to speak with law-enforcement groups with the message that we support law enforcement,” Cook told the crowd. “The attorney general strongly believes in what you’re doing, that you’re making a difference.”

Cook focused on detailing Sessions’ actions, such as seeking to improve morale among law enforcement across the country via the “Back the Blue” campaign, enforcing opioid drug-crime prosecutions and reviving initiatives such as Project Safe Neighborhoods, a George W. Bush-era strategy that focuses on aggressive prosecution of gun and gang crimes.

He also made clear that Sessions supports older drug-prevention initiatives, such as former first lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign.

“He believed then and now that those programs worked,” Cook said.

Many drug-crime experts, addiction-treatment advocates and researchers have criticized the effectiveness of “war on drugs” campaigns and initiatives such as “Just Say No” and Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E.

“D.A.R.E. does not work to reduce substance use,” researchers said in a 1998 National Institute of Justice report to Congress. “The program’s content, teaching methods and use of uniformed police officers rather than teachers might each explain its weak evaluations.”

D.A.R.E. upgraded its programs in the late 2000s, including creating the "keepin' it REAL" curriculum. The U.S. Surgeon General identified program as an effective prevention strategy in a 2016 report.

Nick DeMauro, a veteran of the New Milford Police Department in Bergen County and executive director and CEO of LEAD, said his organization’s newer education programs on youth drug prevention in New Jersey are evidence-based and have had proven results in helping children stay away from trying and using substances.

The curriculum, developed with the Mendez Foundation, is taught to students in kindergarten through 12th grade and includes information about violence and alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.

DeMauro said he hopes the program extends to other states as a guide for educators and law enforcement to teach kids about the dangers of drugs, which may become even more relevant in New Jersey as Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration champions legalization of marijuana.

Curriculum such as LEAD may be needed more in the near future if the state moves forward with legalization, members said.

“It has been a trend among liberal states to approve it (recreational marijuana),” Kugler said. “I believe it’s opening a Pandora’s box and will lead to more young people engaging in drug use. But if (the state) moves forward with it, we want a seat at the table to talk about it.”

Kugler, who is also chairman of the LEAD board of directors, said in addition to recreational marijuana, other challenges for drug preventionists include appealing to a younger generation of parents that grew up in a drug culture and who have become “desensitized.”

The current opioid and heroin epidemic sweeping the nation is also an immediate concern, he said.

“Now more than ever, we need programs like LEAD, not just in New Jersey, but in other states, because it teaches kids the benefits of staying clean of drugs,” Kugler said.

The conference ends Tuesday with a marijuana symposium.

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Contact: 609-272-7022 NLeonard@pressofac.com Twitter @ACPressNLeonard

Previously interned and reported for Boston.com, The Asbury Park Press, The Boston Globe

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