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1980s Redux: The New Wave of Anti-Cannabis Propaganda

By John Rojack

1980s Redux: The New Wave of Anti-Cannabis Propaganda

"I believe that D.A.R.E. was instrumental to our success by educating children on the dangers of drug use," said Attorney General Jeff Sessions at a D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) conference in July 2017. "I firmly believe that you have saved lives. And I want to say thank you for that. Whenever I ask adults around age 30 about prevention, they always mention the D.A.R.E. program. Your efforts work. Lives and futures are saved."

The D.A.R.E. program was ineffective according to several studies, including a 2003 General Accounting Office report that concluded "no significant differences in illicit drug use between students who received D.A.R.E. [and those who did not]." Others suggest that D.A.R.E. actually made teen drug use worse through goofy programs like "keepin' it REAL" and propaganda like its highly ridiculed board game. More recent studies also criticized the program's lack of evidence-based information. 

Sessions does not appear to be big on evidence, so he naturally concluded his speech with proclamations like "we need D.A.R.E. to prevent [drugs] from finding new victims" and "we must have Drug Abuse Resistance Education." For those who don't know the D.A.R.E. story, the program started in the 1980s, but like Sessions, its propaganda roots started much earlier. 

In the 1930s, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics commissioner Harry Anslinger warned that cannabis incited smokers to murder, rape and commit suicide, and hysterical propaganda was disseminated through print media and exploitation films like Reefer Madness (1936), Assassin of Youth (1937) and The Devil’s Harvest (1942). But by the 1970s, many Baby Boomers had firsthand experience with cannabis, and such films were played for laughs in midnight movie screenings. Anti-pot crusaders knew they needed to revamp their scare tactics. The message switched from “it will make you become an axe murderer or jump out a window” to “don’t let your friends peer pressure you into smoking because you will become a loser unable to get a job, and you may grievously injure yourself or others in a grass-fueled haze.” Three anti-drug campaigns in the ʼ80s spearheaded the new approach: “Just Say No,” D.A.R.E. and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

After President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, his wife Nancy declared that one of her goals as First Lady was to raiseawareness of the issues of peer pressure and teen drug use. When she made a 1982 appearance at Longview Elementary School in Oakland, California, a girl asked her what to do if someone offered her drugs, and Reagan advised, “Just say no.” The catch phrase took off, and Nancy Reagan appeared on TV shows like Diff’rent Strokes, Punky Brewster and Dynasty to trumpet her anti-drug message. In the spirit of charity records like USA For Africa, she even appeared in a video for the 1985 song “Stop the Madness” alongside Whitney Houston, David Hasselhoff, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and La Toya Jackson. Her husband established a “Just Say No” Week in 1986. More than 5,000 “Just Say No” clubs were organized, a “Just Say No” theme song was written and the Kiwanis Club put up more than 2,000 billboards.

Another program with a bumper sticker slogan—“D.A.R.E. to keep kids off drugs”—began in September 1983 in Inglewood, California, under the leadership of Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates. In the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, a police officer visited a fourth-, fifth- or sixth-grade classroom for 10 weeks and advised how to resist peer pressure and avoid drug abuse, gangs and violence. Kids signed a pledge not to take drugs or join gangs and were encouraged to report any drug-related activity they observed by dropping notes in the D.A.R.E. box—including activity by their own parents.

A third organization, Partnership For a Drug-Free America, emerged in 1985 when a group of advertising executives vowed to use their skill for selling products to “un-sell” drugs. Employing market research and focus groups, they analyzed the choice to buy drugs as if it were another item at the supermarket, and they decided the best way to change the habits of youthwould be to make drugs “uncool.” To this end, they resolved to make commercials that were more compelling than the “Just Say No” campaign.

Their most famous ad, in 1987, opened on an image of a frying pan as the announcer intoned, “This is your brain.” An egg was cracked on the pan and quickly fried. “This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?

In the mid-ʼ80s, with the yuppie/preppie zeitgeist in full swing, one of the most popular lines of anti-cannabis rhetoric was that it rendered the smoker a “burn out” unable to achieve upward social mobility. One of P.D.F.A.’s most pointed ads showed two slackers lounging around watching TV while getting stoned, scoffing at the idea that “marijuana can mess you up.”

“We been getting high for what, 15 years? Nothing’s ever happened,” one of them insists. “I’d say I’m exactly the same as when I smoked my first joint.”

Suddenly his mother calls out from the other room, “Eddie, did you even look for a job today?”

“No, Ma!”

The announcer closes out the ad with, “Marijuana can make nothing happen to you, too.

The campaign branched out to reprimand parents as well, especially the now-middle-aged Baby Boomers responsible for popularizing recreational drug use in the ʼ60s and ʼ70s. In another 1987 spot, a father bursts into his son’s bedroom clutching the boy’s stash, demanding, “Who taught you how to do this stuff?

“You, all right? I learned it by watching you!

The announcer summarized over the fade out: “Parents who use drugs have children who use drugs.”

Other P.D.F.A. commercials resorted to scare tactics, though the message was slightly toned down from the lurid hype of the ʼ30s and ʼ40s. The ads didn’t warn thatcannabis would drive you to murder your family or rob a bank—but it would, they asserted, impede your ability to function safely. In one, a kid in wood shop class blithely boasts that pot didn’t hurt his concentration—while his hands move perilously close to the large power drill. In another, a gang of stoners in a fast food drive-thru runs over a young child because “their reaction time was slowed.” A third features a doctor unable to hold his scalpel straight.

The P.D.F.A. came under increased scrutiny in the early ʼ90s when journalists like The Nation’s Cynthia Cotts pointed out the instances when the group crossed the line into untruths. The most famous example was the commercial that purported to show an EEG graph recording the brain activity of a 14-year-old on pot. Actually, it was the graph of a coma patient. 

Cotts also listed the dollar amounts of contributions the group had received from pharmaceutical, tobacco and alcohol companies such as Johnson and Johnson, DuPont, Procter & Gamble, Philip Morris and Anheuser-Busch. She wrote, “The war on drugs is a war on illegal drugs, and the partnership's benefactors have a huge stake in keeping it that way. They know that when schoolchildren learn that marijuana and crack are evil, they're also learning that alcohol, tobacco and pills are as American as apple pie.” P.D.F.A. stopped accepting funding from alcohol and tobacco companies in 1997, though it continues its association with the pharmaceutical industry.

D.A.R.E. also faced mounting criticism in the ʼ90s. In 1994, the non-profit RTI International research organization stated “D.A.R.E. imparts a large amount of information, but has little or no impact on students’ drug use.” In response, The Los Angeles Times reported, D.A.R.E. “spent $41,000 to try to prevent widespread distribution of the RTI report and started legal action aimed at squelching the study.” In 1995, a California Department of Education report stated, "California's drug education programs, D.A.R.E. being the largest of them, simply don't work. More than 40 percent of the students told researchers they were 'not at all' influenced by drug educators or programs. Nearly 70 percent reported neutral to negative feelings about those delivering the anti-drug message.”

Today, the “Just Say No” Foundation has long since “evaporated,” as Mark Stricherz quoted its president Ivy G. Cohen in a 2014 article in The Atlantic. Stricherz noted that it was the rise of the medical marijuana movement that was most responsible for changing the national attitude toward cannabis. The P.D.F.A. endures (as Partnership for Drug-Free Kids) and maintains “the use of marijuana or any substance in adolescence is an unhealthy behavior for kids,” but on their website FAQ, they decline to take a yes or no position on whether marijuana should be legalized. D.A.R.E. also perseveres, despite being branded ineffective by Time Magazine in 2001, though the national attention it received this year came when its website accidentally published a pro-legalization editorial by a former Ohio deputy sheriff named Carlis McDerment. The site posted the piece before reading it thoroughly.

 



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