Krissy Oechslin is assistant director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project.
Football fans may have noticed that there were no new anti-drug ads during this year's Super Bowl. For the past several years, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) had spent millions in taxpayer money to purchase airtime during the game, debuting the infamous ads that linked drug use to terrorism and a particularly outrageous one featuring stoned teenagers running over a little girl on a bicycle.
But now the ad campaign is on thin ice. It seems that everything connected to the ad campaign is falling apart.
Just two years ago, White House Drug Czar John Walters had $180 million to blow on ads each year. This year, after an intense lobbying effort by MPP, Congress allocated him only $120 million. It's still a huge amount of money, to be sure, but that represents a 33% cut in the ad budget—a substantial reduction in the universe of federal funding.
Why the budget cut? Simple: The ads don't work. Study after congressionally mandated study has shown that the ads have failed spectacularly to reduce teen drug use. For example, ONDCP commissioned an evaluation of the ad campaign by an independent third party—the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication and research firm Westat. A report released in January 2004 found that "[Y]outh who were more exposed to Campaign messages are no more likely to hold favorable beliefs or intentions about marijuana than are youth less exposed to those messages…"
The ad campaign has also come under fire recently as just one of numerous examples of the government making payoffs for favorable press coverage of various Bush administration priorities. ONDCP had sent out video news packages promoting yet another anti-drug initiative, encouraging TV stations to air the clips unedited. Viewers watching at home had no indication that they were watching government-produced, taxpayer-funded reports read by actors, not journalists. There is now a move in Congress to require all such ads—because they are ads, not news—to bear notice that they were taxpayer-funded.
Maybe I'm nitpicking, though. No multimillion-dollar program—especially a government one—is without its flaws and inefficiencies. If the ads actually did decrease teen drug use, and if they were aired with full disclosure, would ONDCP's ad campaign be acceptable? Absolutely not.
It's not that I (or anyone in the drug policy reform community) want kids to use drugs. On the contrary: I'd like to eliminate drug use among children. But that's never going to happen in the real world. The best we can do is give kids the facts and encourage them to make smart decisions.
ONDCP's ad campaign is fundamentally flawed, then, because it spreads myths and half-truths instead of honest answers. According to the geniuses at ONDCP, not only is marijuana the most dangerous drug you can possibly use, but heroin and cocaine apparently don't even exist, given that they are never mentioned in the ads. At the November 2004 annual conference of the American Public Health Association, ONDCP officials gave a lecture on the ad campaign, and not once were the words "cocaine," "heroin," or "methamphetamine" mentioned. These drugs kill, while marijuana has never killed a single person in thousands of years of recorded use.
But ONDCP's flawed message is impacting kids, and in a dangerous way. According to the 2004 Monitoring the Future survey—a federally funded annual study on teen drug use rates—eighth-graders rate the occasional use of marijuana as being more dangerous than trying crack or drinking nearly every day.
Yes, you read that correctly: Teens consider marijuana more dangerous than drugs that can actually kill them. Since ONDCP's blitz of anti-marijuana ads started in 2002, the percentage of eighth-graders seeing great risk in occasional marijuana use rose from 46% to 50.5%. The number seeing great risk in trying crack or drinking nearly every day also rose (from 47.4% to 49.0% and from 29.6% to 31.0%, respectively), but by only one-third as much.
Over that same time period, the number seeing great risk in occasional or regular inhalant use went down (by 4.1% and 3.5%, respectively), as did the numbers for trying heroin without a needle (by 1%).
The numbers for 12th-graders are more interesting. As kids get more exposure to drugs—either through their own use or their peers'—by the time they graduate high school, their perceptions of risk become more realistic, particularly in regard to hard drugs. But even 12th-graders rate occasional marijuana use as more dangerous than near-daily drinking (25.4% vs. 23%), and they rate regular marijuana use as more dangerous than weekend binge drinking and nearly as dangerous as having five or more drinks on most days (54.6% vs. 43.6% vs. 59.2%, respectively).
It's no longer an exaggeration to say that ONDCP's ads are literally threatening the lives of children. I guess the ads do "work" after all.