Drug Bust

The federal drug czar's famous advertising campaign is suffering a serious buzz-kill. The series of anti-drug radio, TV, print, and Internet ads produced by the Office of National Drug Control Policy is under unprecedented fire--including a recent call for its elimination from dozens of Congressional Republicans. That caps a series of scandals and dismal evaluations of the program that brings such bon mots as “Parents: The Anti-Drug” and “Above the Influence” to your TV screen.

With the Iraq war and Katrina cleanup straining the federal budget, the Republican Study Committee--a klatch of over 100 Republican members of the House of Representatives--called in September for the ads warning young people about the dangers of weed, speed, and other substances to be scrapped to save money. The campaign had a budget of $100 million for last year, and has cost taxpayers well over $1 billion since its inception in 1998. But as the Republican group, headed by Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, pointed out in a statement, "there is no solid evidence that media campaigns are effective in either preventing or reducing the use of illegal drugs."

Indeed, research commissioned by the ONDCP itself has consistently failed to find any evidence that the ads are turning kids off of drugs. A series of Congressionally mandated studies conducted under the ONDCP's auspices by the Maryland research group Westat, Inc., and the University of Pennsylvania concluded that “youth 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.”

“We found there might have been some impact on parents in terms of their willingness to talk to their kids about drugs, but none on the kids,” sums up Professor Robert Hornik, a University of Pennsylvania researcher who led the study team. “There was even some suggestion that they may have boomeranged, making kids more interested in drugs.”

The ONDCP, however, is still selling its ads hard.

“Advertising is a trillion dollar industry for a reason: it does work,” says spokesperson Tom Riley. “The Westat evaluation was an attempt to do something that has never been done before--measuring specific responses to specific ads. That's not how any other advertisers track their effectiveness.”

Proof of the campaign's impact, says Riley, is in the declining numbers of young people who report using drugs. “That's in large part due to the increase in awareness of the harm drugs cause, and that's due to our media campaign,” says Riley. “I haven't heard any other credible argument as to what has caused the drop.”

Youth drug use does seem to have slipped in recent years--though not by much. An annual survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse released in late December reports small but significant drops in high school students' drug use (with the exception of prescription painkillers and sedatives) in recent years--but the downward trend began in 1996, before the ONDCP's ads began airing. Just over half of all teens will have tried some illicit drug by the time they graduate, the survey found, with marijuana the overwhelming favorite--a figure only about ten percent lower than its mid-90s peak. Another survey conducted two years ago by the Dept. of Health and Human Services found that 10.6 percent of youths between 12 and 17 years old were currently using illicit drugs, mostly marijuana, down from 11.6 percent in 2002. Then again, both figures are higher than the 9.7 percent the same study found in 2000.

Its questionable results aren't the only controversy the campaign has kicked up. Two executives of a media company formerly hired to create the ads were jailed this last summer for over billing the ONDCP. Last year, a General Accounting Office report declared that prepackaged “news stories” created by the drug czar's office and distributed to local TV stations, where many aired without acknowledgment of their origin, constituted illegal “covert propaganda.” That finding echoed a scandal from 2000, when Salon magazine revealed that the ONDCP was allowing networks to fill public-service announcement requirements by inserting anti-drug storylines into popular shows like ER.

Even the ads that admit they're ads have come under frequent criticism. In 2003, the ONDCP was ridiculed for its $4 million Super Bowl ads alleging that drug users are indirectly funding terrorists, and linking a teenage girl's unwanted pregnancy to her pot smoking. A series of print ads rolled out last year connects weed to serious mental illness.

“Most people who have ever used marijuana know they're being lied to by these ads,” says Aaron Houston, director of government relations with the Washington, DC-based Marijuana Policy Project. “How are they going to get kids and adults to trust them if they make such wildly outrageous statements?”

The MPP and other drug reform groups have opposed the ONDCP's ad campaign from the start. Houston says he's not surprised to now find himself shoulder-to-shoulder with a bevy of Republicans. “It's a waste of taxpayer money. Every independent analysis has shown it to be an utter failure,” he says. “Cutting this program is entirely consistent with conservative ideals.”

Many in Congress apparently agree. The media campaign's budget was cut by some $20 million last year, and now stands at the lowest level in its history. Caught between spendthrift conservatives, drug reform activists, and an overburdened federal budget, the drug czar may soon be forced to retreat from the airwaves.

Vince Beiser is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer specializing in criminal justice issues. His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, and Mother Jones.