Let the anti-drug ads continue

Most liberals hate those spots linking drug use to terrorism. But as a former drug abuser, I think exposing the seamy drug-trafficking underworld is a fair way to make kids think twice.

Published February 12, 2002 11:21PM (EST)

The anti-drug ads broadcast during last week's Super Bowl drew howls from critics, and the howling may well continue: Reportedly those ads were just the beginning of a new ad campaign by the Office of National Drug Control Policy to convince kids to just say no. Liberals are among the loudest critics of the new ad campaign, but I happen to think the government is right to do what it can to persuade children not to buy illegal drugs -- and I like the new ads.

The two ads, in case you missed them, are called "AK 47" and "I Helped." The ads don't mention specific drugs -- marijuana, heroin, speed, cocaine, ecstasy, nicotine, caffeine or Johnny Walker Red -- but they're clearly aimed at illegal drugs for which an underground economy exists.

"AK 47" is sort of a parody of the "For everything else, there's MasterCard" commercials. No voice is heard, only sounds -- crickets, a modem connecting, a door opening. The sounds accompany a series of quick, menacing video shots. Some are grainy like surveillance footage, others sharp like evidence photography; on the screen appear prices: "fake I.D.: $3,000"; "Box cutters: $2," etc. At the end, we appear to have gathered an arsenal of terror and are driving through an urban tunnel, presumably to the airport. The text on the screen then asks, "Where do terrorists get their money? If you buy drugs, some of it might come from you."

The other ad features the faces and voices of teenagers in a sort of call and response pattern: Stark admissions of wrongdoing -- "I helped murder families in Colombia"; "I helped kill policemen"; "I helped a bomber get a fake passport" -- are answered by spineless justifications -- "It was just innocent fun"; "I was just having fun"; "All the kids do it." It ends with the words on the screen: "Drug money supports terror. If you buy drugs you might too."

One response near the end, in which a woman rasps, "My life: My body," is reminiscent of what a woman might say in defense of her right to an abortion, which hints at a larger conservative agenda, but for the most part the ads stick to the point: When you buy illegal drugs, you really don't know what criminal enterprise you are supporting.

Now, some would argue our government lacks the moral authority, strictly speaking, to make such pronouncements. Certainly there have been instances in which U.S. officials looked away from an ally's involvement in the drug trade, for geopolitical reasons. There is also the valid question of whether taxpayers support the social message behind the ads -- and whether taxpayers should be paying for it.

Still, as an argument for thinking twice about buying illegal drugs, I think the ads are effective. And I think those who find fault with the ads ought to pause and consider whether in this case the life-and-death importance of the message -- and I do think drug abuse can be a matter of life and death -- trumps the contradictions and rhetorical excesses of its delivery.

The White House drug office got a lot of negative attention after Salon revealed it had essentially paid networks -- through a complex pro-bono advertising match program -- to insert anti-drug messages into the scripts of prime-time television shows. I opposed that kind of subliminal prime-time propaganda. But these ads are clearly ads, there's no flim-flam about who's behind them, and since I think it's clearly a social good to do whatever can be done to help kids refuse hard drugs, I think it's an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars. I also don't see anything wrong with the government drafting the best and brightest of the advertising world to try to win those hearts and minds; Ogilvy and Mather reportedly created the units pro bono, after wrangling with the drug office a couple of years ago over whether they'd overcharged for earlier marketing services.

Most important, I really don't see a problem with the ads' reasoning: Granted, the extent to which drug selling financed the Sept. 11 attacks is probably small, but why shouldn't the attack on the U.S. be used to remind Americans of the possible connections between drug purchases and terrorism? We know that poppies are a big cash crop in Afghanistan, as is coca in South America, and we know that the people who run the businesses that refine poppies and coca into salable drugs do not choose their business partners from the local Jaycees. To ground this argument in geopolitical reality rather than in "Reefer Madness" hysteria makes good sense.

So I think in this case, the government is doing the right thing. The ads used powerful rhetorical devices to make a valid moral point. The images were no more exaggerated than the depiction of babies smoking in the womb, or the Marlboro Man with cancer, or coat hangers as a reminder of the danger of making abortion illegal. And they were better than the "this is your brain on drugs" commercials, because rather than strain an already weak metaphor to the breaking point, they dramatized a genuine, real-life dilemma that I suspect troubles many youth today, as it troubled me and people I knew when I was a drug-buying hippie.

The purchase of illegal drugs is a morally questionable act. Young people are right to be troubled by it. As a hippie in the 1960s, I and many of my compatriots were troubled by this same issue. There were those, perhaps, whose only drug was marijuana, purchased only from those who grew it themselves or personally knew the grower, and thus were not complicit in crimes other than the crime of growing, selling and purchasing what many people still think should be legal. But in my long and varied history of drug-buying and selling, in the course of purchasing speed, cocaine, LSD, ecstasy, opium, hashish and MDA, I met characters for whom drug selling was only one revenue stream in a repertoire of activities that included prostitution, burglary and extortion. And who knows what far-flung network of unsavory characters supplied the domestic distribution chain.

Part of this drug-purchasing career was carried out in Miami, of course, and these were clearly not nice people. But I was a nice person. I was a literature major, for heaven's sake. I just wanted the drugs. (And, OK, I admit it, I liked the danger and I admired criminals for their ability to tolerate risk and live outside social norms. So who's perfect?)

The Miami area was a major import point for pot and cocaine. Anybody who wanted to could make a thousand bucks in one night offloading a boat. In Miami, the hippie revolution ran into the criminal revolution. Innocent people died on the streets as kingpins fought an international turf war. So recreational users had to confront a serious moral contradiction. Seeing bodies on the sidewalks outside strip malls took a little shine off the romance of drug dealing and drug doing.

It troubled us, properly, as it should have, as the distant effects of their purchases trouble some people who buy Nike shoes or eat at McDonald's -- and lead others to avoid making those purchases. There really is no escaping the moral dimension of a drug purchase -- and the ads may be the final flicker of light to an awakening drug-user who is already troubled by his or her personal drug use.

So I am a little offended at the high-minded indignation others in my liberal world have expressed toward these ads. We need to do whatever we can to try to prevent drug use by children, and the disturbing reality of the business is one of the few tools we have.

A kid can learn through experimentation and experience not to touch a hot stove. A kid can see what will happen if he runs in traffic. But how can a child learn not to do something that feels good, that leads to fun times, that his friends admire him for, that his heroes endorse, that only adults and other irrelevant personages disapprove of, that feels a little dangerous, that turns on the opposite sex, that carries an aura of danger and excitement, that causes no immediate pain and only over time wrecks his life? How is a kid supposed to make that mental leap? He can't, on his own. We have to help. Propaganda aimed at children should not be judged by the same standards as propaganda aimed at adults. Children can still be powerfully affected by a vivid and essentially true moral proposition.

There are always going to be addicts. No one fated to become an addict is going to be dissuaded by propaganda. But for those recreational users on the cusp of abuse, teetering on the brink of addiction, powerful propaganda can mean the difference between leading a productive, happy life and going to prison.

Let me say, finally, that I don't think drug addicts should go to prison. I'd like drugs to be legalized so that addiction could be treated as a public health problem. I'd like to see the drug war turned into a turf war between the government and criminal syndicates. I'd like to see the government wrest control of territory, distribution and market share from the syndicates and hand over the manufacture and distribution to closely regulated and highly taxed private industry. And even if drugs were legal, I would favor the continuation of a robust propaganda campaign against their use by children.

But for the time being, drugs are illegal, yet available, so we need to do what we can to help children avoid them. The government's new ads are a step in the right direction.

By Cary Tennis

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