Priming the Propaganda Mill

Much noise has been made, and rightly so, about the Bush administration's habit of secretly paying pundits and columnists to tout the White House line in the guise of independent journalism or commentary. But as we sound the alarm over covert propaganda, shouldn't we also be concerned about the overt kind?

The federal government spends enough scarce tax dollars on overt propaganda to make the $241,000 paid to Armstrong Williams look like chickenfeed, and that ought to be cause for real outrage. In a democracy, the people are supposed to tell the government what to think, not vice versa.

On just one issue – our policy toward marijuana and illegal drugs – the federal government has spent over a billion dollars in recent years telling Americans what to think. Every time a proposal to allow seriously ill patients to use marijuana for medical purposes under their doctors' supervision comes before voters or legislators, officials from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) stream into town, repeating dire and often misleading warnings. That those warnings often have little effect (Montana voters ignored the White House and gave 62 percent approval to a medical marijuana proposal last November) does not make the practice any less inappropriate.

Perhaps even more pernicious are those ONDCP anti-drug ads on television, radio and in print. Though officially aimed at curbing teen drug abuse, independent evaluations of the campaign have consistently failed to find any such effect. Business Week got it right last October when it reported, "The ads' main focus is anti-marijuana messages aimed at state ballot initiatives for drug-policy reform."

Here the White House is having it both ways: Overt propaganda aimed at kids that also serves as covert political propaganda targeting adults. Worse, the ads are misleading and very likely counterproductive.

In recent years ONDCP's commercials have focused overwhelmingly, almost obsessively, on marijuana. But marijuana is well-documented to be far less toxic or addictive than alcohol and tobacco, much less cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine. A scientific review by Oxford University researcher Leslie Iversen in the February issue of Current Opinion in Pharmacology concludes, "Overall, by comparison with other drugs used mainly for 'recreational' purposes, cannabis could be rated a relatively safe drug."

But you would never know that from those government ads, which suggest that if you smoke a joint you will shoot your friends, run down little girls on bicycles and end up a homeless derelict. Far more dangerous substances are rarely mentioned in this ad blitz, whose government origins are typically disclosed in a minimal, easy-to-miss fashion.

There are clear signs that this distorted emphasis, driven by politics instead of science, is hurting our kids. According to the latest federally funded Monitoring the Future survey of American teenagers, adolescent use of marijuana declined slightly last year while use of potentially lethal inhalants and cocaine went up. And teens rated occasional use of marijuana as being more dangerous than trying crack cocaine, drinking nearly every day or taking LSD regularly.

Amazingly, White House drug czar John Walters called the survey's results "good news for American parents and teens." One can only wonder what he thinks bad news would look like.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is preparing to introduce legislation requiring all government-purchased ads to state that they were bought at taxpayer expense. Such truth-in-labeling is an essential step in the right direction. An even better idea is for the government to get out of the propaganda business entirely.

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