Don't Do Drug Ads

Here's a Downer Story for the Media

Most people already know that anti-drug ads won't stop kids from getting high. But The Wall Street Journal saw the news value on May 14 when U.S. drug czar John Walters announced a survey that shows the government's anti-drug ads have completely failed to slow down teen drug use. Over the past five years, the feds spent $929 million to spread the message, and what did they get? A quarter of high school seniors still use illegal drugs, and after seeing the ads, some 13-year-old girls started smoking pot.

This is a big story, one of many recent signs that the drug war is a failure. (To be fair, Walters thinks the answer is to spend more money on scarier ads, like the ones linking teen drug use with terrorism. "Drugs are bad for you," he likes to say. "Drugs are bad for your country.")

On May 15, ABC, CNN, and NPR reported on Walters's claim, and an A.P. story landed in a few papers, including the Daily News. But the drug news was snuffed out, even before we learned that Bush heard early hijack warnings. If you only read The New York Times or The Washington Post, you would have missed it altogether.

So why did the Times and Post consider this a nonstory? Is it because the Journalis a competitor, and editors are loath to publicize their rivals' scoops? Or could their silence reflect a deeper conflict of interest? When the government started paying the media to run anti-drug ads in 1998, both the Times and the Post participated eagerly in the campaign, running the anti-drug propaganda ad nauseam and receiving thousands of dollars of financial credit from the government in return. On its Web site, the drug czar's office still boasts of working with the Times to produce anti-drug curriculum guides. Could they be too close for comfort?

Lo and behold, all such conspiracy theories appear to be unfounded! A spokesperson for The Washington Post says the company has no current arrangement to run the anti-drug ads—and it wouldn't matter if it did, because the editorial and business sides are run separately. Post national editor Michael Abramowitz explains innocently, "You have a good point. I heard the reports and thought, Gee, that sounds kind of interesting. It's one of those things we ought to have done, but it just fell through the cracks. We've been in a very busy news cycle."

Asked why the Times did not report on the drug ads last week, Washington bureau chief Jill Abramson said the story was "definitely on my radar screen," adding that it is Times policy not to comment on editorial decisions. A Times spokesperson insisted that news and business "maintain a rigorous separation. If the business side has received advertising revenue from the government, it is unlikely that the editors are even aware of it, and they would be justifiably insulted by any suggestion to the contrary."

Newspaper execs did not cook up this scam. It was thrust on them by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, a nonprofit group that persuaded the government to spend a billion dollars on anti-drug ads and that is now spinning to cover up the alleged failure. (In a statement posted on its Web site last week and now removed, the Partnership blames the bureaucracy and says it warned about problems long ago.)

Why is the Partnership freaking out? Most media outlets treat the patriotic-sounding group like a sacred cow. Even The Wall Street Journal's Vanessa O'Connell never explicitly identified the Partnership in her article, despite two references to a "nonprofit group" that supplied the ads.

Perhaps the Partnership is threatened by New York-based freelancer Daniel Forbes, who calls the feds' campaign a "political construct" and says its failure "calls the Partnership's whole paradigm into question." Forbes was puzzled by the Journal's omission of the Partnership's name. "If it's important enough to the story to mention it twice, why leave your readers in the dark?" he asks. O'Connell did not return a call.

Writing for Salon in January 2000, Forbes exposed a clever scheme used by the government to encourage newspapers, magazines, and TV networks to support the drug war. If a media company agreed to incorporate anti-drug messages into its original content, the government offered financial credit, thus reducing the amount of advertising a participating company was required to provide. The feds were so keen on crafting the message, Forbes reported, that some networks submitted their scripts for advance approval. The Washington Postlater revealed that the Times, the Post, and USA Today received $893,000 in financial credits from the drug czar's office, a/k/a the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

I have my own questions about the Partnership's intentions. In a 1992 article for The Nation, I revealed that the Partnership is a silent partner to the legal drug industry, condoning the use of "good" drugs by targeting only the "bad" ones. (Partnership ads conspicuously avoid mention of tobacco, alcohol, and prescription pills.) At the time, the group had accepted $5.4 million from legal drug manufacturers, including alcohol and tobacco kings Anheuser-Busch, Philip Morris, and R.J. Reynolds.

The Partnership has stopped taking tobacco and alcohol money, but it still accepts donations from pharmaceutical companies. According to the group's 1999 annual report, donors include the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation, Johnson & Johnson, Du Pont, Hoffmann-LaRoche, and the Pfizer Foundation. (Message to kids: Marijuana is bad. Codeine, Valium, and Viagra are good.)

Of course, it's a worthy goal to reduce the dangers of drug abuse. But given the hypocrisy that pervades the drug war, it's no wonder kids don't buy into it. Indeed, Forbes says the true purpose of the taxpayer-funded campaign is not to discourage teen drug abuse, but rather "to target adult voters and keep them supportive of the massively expensive war on drugs. Marijuana is by far the most-used illegal drug and the drug most adult voters remember using. That's why it's the linchpin in the struggle for opinion."

As evidence, Forbes cites his July 2000 Salon story, which revealed that the government decided to pay for the anti-drug ads in direct response to 1996 referenda in Arizona and California, in which voters approved the use of medical marijuana. At a meeting convened by former drug czar Barry McCaffrey, drug warriors attributed the success of the medical marijuana initiatives to a $2 million ad campaign funded by George Soros and colleagues—and vowed to raise the money to fight back. Partnership execs lobbied Congress, and a year later, the anti-drug campaign was born. (The government and the Partnership have denied a political motive.)

For more proof that the U.S. drug war isn't working, just look to Europe. In March, a British government agency recommended reducing the criminal penalties for marijuana possession, because the drug "is not associated with major health problems." Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Luxembourg have recently decriminalized possession and use of most drugs. On May 3, The Washington Post put this news on the front page. How long before the Times gives us a similarly honest report on which drug policies work, and which don't?


ccotts@villagevoice.com

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