DARE, the program that uses police officers to spread its message about the dangers of drug abuse among adolescents, is backing away from directly targeting marijuana use in its fifth-grade curriculum.

According to the website for DARE, which stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education, "For the general population of 5th/6th grade students, the topic of marijuana is not age appropriate. Most students in this age group have no basis of reference to the substance."

Westport DARE Officer Ned Batlin acknowledges some fifth-graders are perhaps too innocent to be taught about the potential pitfalls of marijuana use.

"A fifth-grade classroom can run the gamut, depending on what they're exposed to in their private life," he said.

"I've had kids go home and tell their parents they can't have marinara sauce anymore," he said, after a lesson about avoiding marijuana. "There are some who are very innocent."

"Other fifth-graders have asked me, `When are you going to get to cocaine and heroin?' "

Although some fifth-graders may already have some knowledge about drugs, according to the national DARE organization, "Research has found that teaching children about drugs (they) have never heard of, or have no real life understanding (of), may stimulate their interest and curiosity about the substance."

Batlin said the national organization's decision to revise the fifth-grade curriculum was follows up revision of the group's the middle school curriculum a couple of years ago. Previously, he said, only 15 minutes was devoted to the subject of marijuana during the 17-week course, and that if students bring up questions about the drug, DARE officers will still answer them.

"The kids will bring it up on their own," said Officer Jenna Victoria, Fairfield's newest DARE officer.

"From the classes that I've taught so far, I find that kids know drug terms already (and) I think that they're pretty aware of things going on, probably from what they see on TV."

She said when they bring up a subject like marijuana, "then you use that as a teachable moment."

However, according to Robert Francis, executive director of the Bridgeport-based Regional Youth Adult Social Action Partnership, DARE isn't necessarily the vehicle to do it.

"I am not sure they are the best teacher," he said of officers in the role of anti-drug educators. While he believes the program teaches young people to have more respect for law-enforcement officers, the anti-drug-abuse message "should probably be taught by a substance abuse treatment professional, so I agree with them not to teach it."

"RYASAP's survey data indicate that the average age of first use of marijuana is 14, or about eighth grade," Francis said. "Some exposure to it in fifth grade may not hurt, but more reinforcement with more information in middle school will probably have a more positive effect."

Although there are middle-school curriculums available through DARE, neither Fairfield nor Westport offer the program beyond fifth grade.

"We need to focus on the effects of marijuana on the adolescent brain," Francis said. "The potency of today's marijuana is much greater than the marijuana of the '60s generation."

While the DARE curriculum will no longer directly teach about the effects of marijuana, the program still provides teachers with guidelines for answering those questions if they arise.

"I think that (DARE) just wanted to update the program and they wanted to make it more applicable to other things that kids would be dealing with in real life," Victoria said.

"I think the focus, especially at the elementary level, is about making good choices," Batlin said. "If we're going to make good choices, we're going to be making good choices whether it's about cheating or drugs or bullying. The goal is to make safe, responsible decisions."

"DARE is important for kids because it's something they can use in their everyday lives," Victoria said. "It can be anything, from being offered drugs, to being asked if they want to skip school. ... They can apply it to almost anything.

"It's giving them skills that they can use throughout their entire lives, not just in situations involving drugs."