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National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign: Is it a Fiasco?

When the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) created the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, it was intended to reduce drug use among young people through the use of multi-media advertising and public communications strategies that included television, radio, and print advertising. Over the past 6 years, Congress has appropriated more than $1 billion to the Media Campaign, making ONDPC, and it primary partner, the Partnership for a Drug Free America, one of the nations largest advertisers.

The campaign has been controversial. Government studies find the ads ineffective in reducing drug use. The Drug Czar's office has used this campaign to twist the arms of television networks to change their scripts and magazines to editorialize certain subjects. They were accused of violating federal law by manipulating measurement criteria to make the media campaign look effective, and faced Congressional heat over its decision to make contracts with certain advertising agencies that have over-taxed citizens for their work on the campaign. The recent, "drugs and terror" ads were criticized by many, including the Partnership for a Drug Free America, and was called propaganda. These ads were cancelled.

Congress took the first step in renewing the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, when the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources, approved HR 2086, the Office of National Drug Control Policy Reauthorization Act of 2003", a bill that renews the drug czar's office and the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign. Some state Representatives supported renewing the controversial ad campaign, despite the fact that the government's own studies have found them to be failures.

Section 10 of HR 2086, has provisions amending the statutory ban on using the media campaign for partisan political purposes to allow the drug czar to use taxpayer money for partisan political purposes as long as the purpose is used for opposing drug legalization, including making marijuana legally available to AIDS and cancer patients. If enacted, the ONDCP could spend up to $195 million of taxpayer money every year on advertising opposing medical marijuana laws and trying to defeat candidates that support more compassionate drug laws. It would give the President the power to use taxpayer money for political attacks on his or her opponents.

The Drug Policy Alliance is urging Members of Congress to cancel the expensive ad campaign and spend the money on drug treatment, after school programs and other programs that cost less and are proven to work.

NIDA has concluded that the ad campaign not only fails to reduce drug use, but may actually make youth more likely to use marijuana in the future. The ads may give youth the perception that drug use is common among their peers, and may trigger what psychologists call "reactance" . . . the more someone is told what NOT to do, the more they want to do it. Other experts believe the ads are so ridiculous that young people dismiss them outright, assuming they're being lied to. NIDA's final evaluation will be released later this year, after Congress decides whether to renew the campaign or not.

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