ONDCP's anti-marijuana ad campaign

Rich Lowry

1/13/2003 12:00:00 AM - Rich Lowry
If you want to see drugs and violence on television, you don't need to bother tuning in to "NYPD Blue" or loading up a game of "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City." You can just watch one of the Office of National Drug Control Policy's latest anti-marijuana ads. Two teenagers in a marijuana-induced haze sit in a family den, foggy with smoke. After some typical silly banter ("your sister is hot"), one of the kids pulls out his father's gun, says it's unloaded, and to prove it, aims at his friend's head and fires. ONDCP, showing some residual good taste, spares viewers the splattered brains, but we are supposed to learn that smoking pot will kill you. Other spots suggest that smoking pot will get you raped or make you a rapist, prompt you to run over children on bikes, and otherwise transform you into a rampaging beast. Thus is the sensationalistic dishonesty of the War on Drugs broadcast for all to see in a saturation-ad campaign coinciding with the NFL playoffs. No kid will be dissuaded by these ads from trying marijuana, since the ads are so at odds with nearly everyone's experience with the drug. But ONDCP can't produce more tempered and truthful ads about pot -- because it simply isn't that scary. There is, of course, an extremely slim chance that someone smoking pot might be shot by his bong-mate. The odds, however, are probably equally great of smoking dope, writing a hit song about it and becoming (at least temporarily) rich and famous -- which was Afroman's experience with his 2001 song "Because I Got High." In fact, alcohol is more likely than pot to be associated with all of the ONDCP tragedy scenarios, since it is a drug that tends to induce aggression rather than passivity. The ONDCP would never admit this because it raises the question of why pot is illegal and alcohol isn't. Rather than rationalizing drug policy, ONDCP, under the leadership of Bush nominee John Walters, is more interested in demagogy. Last year's ads airing during the Super Bowl maintained that drugs users support terrorism. The illegal markets created by drug prohibition create this niche for outlaws in the first place, but never mind. Now the latest batch of ads recall the over-the-top propaganda of the cult-classic movie "Reefer Madness." An honest anti-pot campaign would stipulate that smoking the drug might make you feel a mild euphoria, but ultimately you should have better things to do with your time. No ad campaign will ever say this, which is one reason that they are so roundly disregarded by kids. Corporate-funded anti-drug TV ads started running in major buys in the early 1990s, and youth marijuana use took off. Operating on the theory that if something doesn't work, it should be funded by taxpayers, the federal government essentially took the ad campaign over from the private sector in mid-1990s. The emphasis on marijuana in the current spots might seem odd, given how benign it is compared to truly dangerous drugs like heroin, but the campaign has a political point. Marijuana is the weak link in the War on Drugs, and the Bush administration is hoping to shore it up. The Washington, D.C.-based pro-legalization group, National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, has obtained a Nov. 1, 2002, letter from White House aide Scott Burns to prosecutors across the country urging them to crack down on pot, because "no drug matches the threat posed by marijuana." Drug warriors have long tried to blunt criticism about drug-war overkill by arguing that no one is ever arrested just for using marijuana. That line of argument is apparently inoperative. One of the new ONDCP ads features two kids smoking dope before the cops swoop in to bust them. Here, finally, is an accurate depiction of one of the potential harms of marijuana: Smoking it can get you arrested. Why that should be the case is one of the great mysteries of the past 70 years.