Drug Bust

A man smokes marijuana recreationally in Toronto, May 27, 2003. When it comes to marijuana, youthful indiscretion has come of age. Lots of American politicians, including three of the Democratic presidential candidates, show no fear of fessing up to lighting up in their wild-oats days. Indeed, some who deny dabbling in illegal drugs give the impression that instead of feeling self-righteous, they're a little nervous about coming across as dishonest or just square.
This column was written by Vince Beiser.
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 has a budget of $100 million for this 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."