Anti-drug ads lack moral message

Illegal drugs are not usually associated with wholesome family fun. But now that’s all changed. On Monday, the Drug Enforcement Administration Museum and Visitors Center opened at the DEA headquarters in Pentagon City. At no cost, visitors can view the museum’s permanent exhibit “Illegal Drugs in America: A Modern History,” containing an array of photographs, documents and such eclectic artifacts as inventive homemade smoking apparatus and genuine chocolate rolling papers.

While one might question the value of a diorama depicting “An American Head Shop, Circa 1970s,” nowadays every two-bit cultural phenomenon is claiming legitimate historical significance. We can hardly begrudge illegal drugs, whose social impact far outweighs that of other museum subjects, like Barbie or Pez Dispensers, an institution all its own.

I, for one, think the museum is a fantastic idea (and not a bad use for “acquisitioned” cash). In considering the whole concept further, I realized that, not only is a national drug museum necessary, but its collection could also stand to be augmented.

I can think of numerous potential acquisitions crying out to be retired for posterity. A front contender would have to be those mandatory sentencing laws, which have senselessly filled the nation’s prisons with non-violent, first time offenders. Outmoded and shortsighted, our marijuana policies are a prime candidate for a much-deserved interment. And then there are the inconsistent penal codes for crack and cocaine offenses, which disproportionately punish poor and minority offenders. In fact, it seems whole theaters of the “drug war” could be relegated to museum-status.

My top nominee for induction would have to be anti-drug advertising. Sure, this billion-dollar government program is trivial in comparison to other egregious practices. However, the ad campaign deserves a hallowed place in the drug history, not only because it is a glaring waste of money, but also because it epitomizes all that is wrong with America’s purported war on drugs.

Anti-drugs ads are a flagrant example of the high profile, feel-good, overly simplistic, ineffectual “solutions” that politicians are always so eager to fall back on. The most recent installment of the government’s anti-drug media campaign was instituted last fall. The billion-dollar effort ($195 million a year, through 2004), initiated by drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey, was enthusiastically embraced by Clinton and the GOP. It may be ridiculous to bemoan this petty expenditure (it amounts to approximately one percent of annual drug war spending). But surely this money could be better utilized by currently underfunded treatment programs. At least, unlike the extravagant ad campaign, treatment programs have a chance of doing some good.

You and I are the first generation to benefit from the Madison Avenue battalion of the drug war. Twelve years ago, the Partnership for a Drug Free America was established and began producing TV ads for the major networks. We will never look at a fried egg the same again.

To their credit, the PDFA made a concerted effort. They got top-notch advertising agencies to create “shocking” ads that would, it was hoped, strike a chord in the nation’s cynical youth. The ads did accomplish one goal; they reached an enormous audience. The images are etched into pop-culture iconography.

Quick: a sizzling frying pan. That’s right, it’s your brain on drugs. What do you want to be when you grow up? A junkie, of course.

These hallmark spots, for all their good intentions, have had little effect other than to bolster a flourishing T-shirt industry and to provide ongoing inspiration for hilarious Conan O’Brien skits.

Using somewhat questionable logic, advocates of anti-drug advertising actually claim the effort was a great success. According to a 1994 study, 96 percent of American teens can recall the infamous egg ad, and, of those teens, 98 percent can identify the message (i.e., drugs are bad). There is no question that the campaign was incredibly successful at saturating the population with its message. But I think it is safe to say that, though a significant percentage of teens know and understand the message, they use drugs nonetheless.

Thirty second TV spots are excellent tools for selling soft drinks and sneakers. Unfortunately, they are not so good at instilling morals or initiating major lifestyle changes. Drug education is essential, but it is not accomplished via media indoctrination. There are no simple solutions to the drug problem: the DEA Museum makes this abundantly clear. Our nation has been battling illegal substance abuse for over a century. The war still rages on.

As far as I can see, only two possible explanations exist for why the anti-drug ad campaign is so fervently championed by Washington. Maybe our leaders are so out of touch that they don’t understand the futility of this billion-dollar program. I would tend to believe that politicians realize the program is a joke; they just don’t care.