Federal Anti-Drug Ads a $1.4 Billion Boondoggle

    What if you smoked pot, and lived to tell about it?

    After two decades of scare tactics and “just say no” ear-plugging, the federal government’s media campaign against substance abuse has begun asking just that sort of question as part of a new arsenal of strategies to keep kids away from drugs.

    “I smoked weed and nobody died,” an average-looking teenager says in one TV ad. “I didn’t get into a car accident, I didn’t OD on heroin the next day, nothing happened. We sat on Pete’s couch for 11 hours. Now what’s going to happen on Pete’s couch? Nothing.”

    These ads don’t exaggerate the physical dangers of marijuana, harp about its potential as a “gateway drug” or use the cheesy visuals that characterized several of the other ads in this year’s $220-million bilingual campaign. Instead, they take a page from the book of realism and argue that pot makes you, well, lazy.

    It’s a new and interesting approach for a long line of anti-drug campaigns that have largely proven ineffective — and hopefully a sign that attitudes toward the prevention of substance abuse are changing for the better.

    I grew up with the “just say no” campaign, which was conceived by Nancy Reagan in the 1980s and ran into the early 1990s. The intent behind the campaign was noble, but by its very nature, was doomed to fail. Anyone who has spent time with teenagers knows that one of the best ways to get a teen to do something is to tell them emphatically not to do it.

    Not surprisingly, the “Just Say No” program proved largely ineffective. Even during the height of the campaign, there was no significant reduction in drug use.

    The ad campaigns of the D.A.R.E. program that followed concentrated on the physical effects of chronic drug use, such as the now-famous fried-egg ads (“This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs.”). Major studies by the Surgeon General’s office, the Government Accountability Office and the Department of Education showed the D.A.R.E. campaign to be equally impotent at preventing substance abuse.

    The icing on the cake comes from a recent report on the ineffectiveness of the past few years of anti-drug campaigning. A five-year study, sponsored by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. shows that exposure to the federal ad campaign is actually associated with increased marijuana use in some groups. According to the report, “greater exposure to the campaign was associated with weaker anti-drug norms and increases in the perceptions that others use marijuana.” For white children and 14- to 16-year-olds, greater exposure to the TV ads is associated with higher incidences of first-time drug use.

    And the sprinkles on the icing on the cake? This ineffective anti-drug ad campaign has cost the federal government $1.4 billion since 1998. (That’s an “oops” with nine zeroes on the end, if you’re counting.)

    That’s not to suggest that the ad campaign is actually causing kids to pack a needle and spoon along with their copy of Little House on the Prairie. It’s just that the campaign is certainly not dissuading them from trying drugs.

    Should we be surprised?

    “Just Say No” encourages a head-in-the-sand attitude for both at-risk youth and their parents. While it may give children and teenagers a convenient way out of one or two sticky social situations, it also discourages them from thinking critically and making good decisions in the face of peer pressure. Any teenager with an anti-drug belief system based on easy-to-remember slogans will be susceptible to every bong-toting comrade with an equally sexy rationalization. (Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign springs to mind.)

    Scare tactics fare no better. Particularly when kids have seen or experienced drug use first hand, focusing on the worst-case effects of drugs can undermine credibility. In interviews designed to gauge the effectiveness of California’s anti-drug campaigns in the early 90s, children routinely laughed off the notion that they were being told the whole truth about the dangers of drug use, tending to view the whole program with dubiousness.

    Consider Montana’s infamous “Not Even Once” anti-methamphetamine campaign of 1999, which plastered the state with ghastly images of meth addicts — and which managed to cause a statistically significant increase in the number of teenagers who saw no risk in trying meth once or twice. (In Montana’s defense, the campaign was privately funded.)

    So what should we do with the next $1.4 billion?

    The thrust of the most recent ads would be a step in the right direction — if only exposure to ads weren’t linked to greater use of illegal substances. Perhaps the most valuable lessons can be found in the NIDA’s own recommendations for anti-drug programs.

    Of the 10 examples given by the NIDA’s pamphlet “Preventing Drug Use” — each of which is based on actual research on what is effective — only one takes direct aim at combating drug use itself. The other nine focus on encouraging involvement in academics and after-school activities, strengthening communication between family members and creating a strong sense of self-esteem, belonging and community.

    The best way to keep teenagers away from controlled substances is not to throw the scariest possible statistics in their face. In fact, the most effective anti-drug programs probably don’t mention drugs at all. The greatest anti-drug comes from eliminating the need to resort to substance abuse — be that substance marijuana or Vicodin — and the only way to do that is through treating a person like the reasonable, responsible, involved human being they ought to become.

    On another front, the committee responsible for reviewing the mission and role of Residential Security Officers released a preliminary report in early September.

    It’s disappointing that no students served on the committee, particularly when the original Undergraduate Student Experience and Satisfaction report recommended that “at least” three students be included. (Ironically, principle three of the U.S.E.S. committee: “Valuing Students as Important Members and Stakeholders of the UCSD Community and Opening Avenues for Ongoing Interaction.”)

    It’s also disappointing that the committee was composed entirely of administrators and police officers who are direct stakeholders in the RSO program.

    But despite the lack of student representation and an almost laughable absence of rigorous methodology — the report relies heavily on admittedly anecdotal evidence, without making any attempt to, say, verify it — the report does have a few promising spots.

    “The work group doesn’t believe that efforts to ‘scare straight’ students works,” the report reads. “Effective communication that increase the understanding of the fundamental principles of behavior and the use of alcohol here will assist with generating a community of respect, and should de-emphasize the need for heavy enforcement.

    I’ll second that.

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