Millions More for a Failed Anti-Drug Propaganda Campaign? Ridiculous!

Indiana House Republican Mark Souder, a White House point man in Congress for its propaganda war against drugs, recently took to the airwaves to defend one of the Bush administration's sacred cows: its National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign.

If you've had access to a television or a newspaper over the past few years, you're probably familiar with the federal ad campaign. It's the one that's spent over $2 billion since 1998 to produce public-service announcements implying that smoking pot supports al-Qaida and may make you pregnant, among other dubious anti-drug messages. So dubious, in fact, that the campaign has flopped miserably among its target audience. Of course, this fact matters not to the White House, which recently demanded $130 million to run the ads through 2008 -- a 31 percent increase over current funding levels.

Speaking recently with MSNBC's Tucker Carlson, Souder vehemently defended the administration's decision to increase spending for the much-maligned campaign, stating, "The fact is, I believe in results and conservatives believe in results." That said, the results couldn't be any worse.

Consider this:

  • A 2002 review by the research firm Westat Inc. and the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania found "no statistically significant decline in marijuana use or improvement in beliefs and attitudes about marijuana use" attributable to the media campaign. Authors of the report -- which was sponsored by the federal government -- later told Congress that the negative results were among the worst in the history of large-scale public communication campaigns.

  • A 2003 performance assessment by the White House Office of Management and Budget criticized the Media Campaign for failing to achieve any tangible goals or objectives. There exists "no evidence that paid media messages have a direct effect on youth drug-related behavior," the report concluded.

  • An August Government Accountability Office (GAO) evaluation reported: "[E]xposure to the advertisements generally did not lead youth to disapprove of using drugs and may have promoted perceptions among exposed youth that others' drug use was normal. ... [E]xposure to the campaign did not prevent initiation of marijuana use and had no effect on curtailing current users' marijuana use."
  • A January Texas State University study published in the journal Addictive Behaviors reported that teens are more likely to express their intent to use marijuana after viewing the Feds' anti-pot ads. Investigators concluded, "It appears that ... anti-marijuana public statement announcements used in national anti-drug campaigns in the U.S. produce immediate effects opposite [of those] intended by the creators of the campaign."

Souder's response? "Just because some study comes to some conclusion that the liberals doing the study wanted to have, doesn't mean the study is accurate. Results are results."

Indeed. And in this case, the results are in. There is nothing to be gained by exaggerating claims of marijuana's alleged harms. (In the same MSNBC interview, Souder claimed -- falsely -- that thousands of Americans die every year from the occasional toke.) On the contrary, by overstating pot's potential dangers, America's policymakers and law enforcement community undermine their credibility and ability to effectively educate the public of the risks that may be associated with cannabis or with more dangerous drugs. This is the reason why the Feds' multibillion dollar media campaign, and the government's drug 'war' efforts overall, have consistently fizzled.

Rather than continue down this failed path, federal officials like Rep. Souder ought to take a page from the government's far more successful campaigns discouraging drunken driving and teen tobacco smoking, both of which have fallen dramatically since the mid-1990s. America has not achieved these results by arbitrarily outlawing the use of alcohol or tobacco, or by targeting and arresting adults who use these products responsibly, but through honest, health- and science-based education campaigns.

Until we as a nation apply these same principles to our educational efforts regarding cannabis, there will be little change in either teens' perceptions of pot or their patterns of marijuana use, regardless of how much money Souder and Congress spend.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel.

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