Vin Suprynowicz

The Libertarian

Vin Suprynowicz

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The federal government has spent about $1.2 billion since 1998 on scores of television, print and radio ads designed to “discourage drug use” among youth. President Bush has requested another $120 million for next year.

The words “discourage drug use” are in quotation marks because it’s unlikely anyone in government wants to discourage children from taking their prescription medications. Nor would changing the phrase to “consciousness-altering drugs” really solve the problem, since Time magazine has reported as many as 50 percent of the boys in a typical American high school are now on Ritalin, Luvox, Ritalin, or some other similar nostrum, with the full cooperation of school authorities seeking to keep them docile and in their seats.

Everyone knows the purpose of such ads is to discourage children from buying and getting high on controlled drugs available on the black market. Problem is, comparative ethnopharmacology is a field that requires a certain amount of biochemical and botanical research, nuance and analysis, while “one-size-fits-all” 30-second TV spots are rarely about any of those.

Not only do these nanny-state admonishments not work, they turn out to be -- like so many ham-handed government interventions -- counterproductive.

Based on an independent evaluation of the campaign by Westat, Inc., the Government Accountability Office on Aug. 25 recommended cutting back funding for the effort.

Westat found the ads -- overseen by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy -- had no “significant favorable effects” in deterring children from trying marijuana or in getting them to stop. In fact, it found that more 12- to 13-year-old boys and girls were trying the drug after seeing the ads.

This should hardly be a surprise. One recent TV ad, for example, shows a nurse standing over a boy who appears to have his fist stuck in his mouth. The boy mumbles something, and the nurse translates: “Yesterday my friends told me to smoke some pot and I did. Then today they said I should try and fit my fist into my mouth. It fits but I can’t get it out.”

Wow. Deep stuff. Imagine some “study questions” based on that ad. What does this tell us about the relative degrees of tolerance and withdrawal -- key measures of addictiveness -- experienced with marijuana, as opposed to alcohol, nicotine or even caffeine? Can we roll that back to see how many nanograms cause impairment?

Another ad in the campaign famously showed an egg frying in a pan, warning, “This is your brain on drugs.” Far from recoiling in horror, the same puckish American sense of humor that caused our forebears to adopt the disparaging Redcoat anthem “Yankee Doodle” as their own marching song has led Americans to create T-shirts warning “This is your brain on podcasts,” “This is your brain on political correctness,” etc.

The ads are humor-impaired and laughable. Beyond that, the whole system that implies government can and should manipulate individual behavior through such nanny-state admonitions is insulting -- as is the notion that government can or should decide what we’re “allowed” to put in our own bodies, when you come right down to it.

“Public service ads” generally run at a lower cost -- or free, on a “time available” basis -- under the rationale that they, well ... “serve the public.”

Such an explanation makes it sound as though commercial stations can run them or not, as they please. In fact, so long as the federal government has the authority to renew a station’s license -- or seize this multi-million-dollar asset and hand it to someone else -- station managers know the time they dedicate to such “public service” ads and programming are being added up, and that any shortfall can be held against them.

If the ads or programming in question simply familiarize viewers with voting locations, or flood warnings, that’s fine. But the reason America has a free press is that our founders realized the public would be best “served” by a vigorous public debate on issues of the day.

Do those who believe the war on only some drugs is misguided or counterproductive get an equal amount of free air time to counter these “pro-drug-war” ads? Of course not. How about groups of parents who would like to see viewers better informed on the risks of low effectiveness rates of some vaccinations, the better to make their own, informed choices? Of course not.

“Public service,” in this context, is increasingly a euphemism for “propaganda” -- only the official government line need be presented.

Americans -- even America’s kids -- show an admirable skepticism toward such simple-minded “orders from on high.”

If the administration wants to encourage a healthy, substantive debate on these matters -- acknowledging, for instance, that voting majorities in many states have now legalized medical marijuana, and that many now seek to legalize possession of small amounts of these drugs, in hopes of winding down a new prohibition which has made our inner cities far more hellish than that other “Prohibition” of 80 years ago -- fine.

But if we’d been looking for an ad campaign that would encourage more kids to try drugs, I suspect Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong could have gotten the job done for a lot less than $1.2 billion. Man.

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