Pubdate: Fri, 26 Sep 2003
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Address: 901 Mission St., San Francisco CA 94103
Copyright: 2003 Hearst Communications Inc.
Author: Mitch Earleywine

The Cannabis Crusades


Sometimes the most well-meaning plans backfire. The federal government's 
attempt to curb teenage drug use with a multimillion-dollar ad campaign 
dramatizing the perils of marijuana has backfired spectacularly.

It is now obvious that these ads are doing more harm than good, and 
Congress should pull the plug immediately.

Unless you've been living in a cave the last two years, you've probably 
seen the commercials sponsored by the White House Office of National Drug 
Control Policy. Sensationalized and scary, these ads suggest that teens who 
smoke marijuana are likely to commit date rape, run over little girls on 
bicycles and even shoot their friends.

As a psychologist who studies drug abuse, I worried about these ads from 
the beginning. The "facts" in them are exaggerated and out of context. 
Their single-minded emphasis on marijuana, rather than far more addictive 
and lethal substances such as cocaine and methamphetamine, makes little sense.

Now, scientific data -- from the very surveys that Congress set up as 
yardsticks to measure the success of the drug control policy office -- tell 
us that these ads have boomeranged.

Back in 1998, Congress chose to evaluate the office's performance via two 
well-known surveys of adolescent drug use: the federally funded "Monitoring 
the Future" study and the privately run Parent's Resource Institute for 
Drug Education survey. Both are considered reliable indexes of teen drug 
use. The goal was to reduce the percentage of teens using illegal drugs 
within the last month to 3 percent of the adolescent population over a 
period of five years, starting in 1999.

It hasn't happened. The numbers from the 2002-2003 PRIDE survey, released 
Sept. 3, are devastating.

Not only is teenage use of illicit drugs running at more than five times 
the goal set by Congress, it went up last year, not down. And the biggest 
increases were seen among the youngest kids.

Last year, for example, 7.2 percent of eighth-graders smoked marijuana 
within the last 30 days. This year, it was 10.2 percent -- a third more. 
Among sixth-graders -- we're talking about 11-year-olds here -- past-month 
use of marijuana doubled, from 1.7 percent to 3.4 percent.

Kids aren't just tuning out the government's messages about marijuana. They 
are also ignoring warnings about drugs that are far more dangerous. 
Past-month use of cocaine was up in every age group this year, often by 
alarming percentages, while use of heroin in the last month was up 50 
percent overall and 60 percent among junior high school students.

While the newest "Monitoring the Future" results won't appear until later 
in the year, the latest data from another government-sponsored survey, the 
National Survey on Drug Use and Health, also show teen drug use rising. 
While the government claims that changes in this survey's methodology make 
comparisons with prior years impossible, I have found nothing in these 
changes to account for the sharp spike in drug use -- except that more 
people, including teens, are using drugs.

None of this is a surprise. An independent evaluation of the ad campaign, 
conducted by the University of Pennsylvania, reported in January, "There is 
no evidence yet consistent with a desirable effect of the (ad) campaign on 
youth. " Worse, the researchers found indications that the ads may actually 
be making some youths more likely to approve of drug use, not less.

All of this jibes disturbingly with what I hear informally from undergraduates.

I'd do almost anything to stop teens from developing problems with drugs. 
But I do not want to throw good money after bad. The millions that the 
administration wants for its anti-drug ads for next year could be justified 
if the program was working. It's not. All the evidence suggests the 
government's ad campaign is making things worse, not better. For the sake 
of our kids, Congress should put a stop to it. This money would be better 
spent on effective interventions such as Project Towards No Drug Abuse or 
organized after-school activities. Research supports that these programs 
can decrease drug use in teens. Silly commercials obviously can't.

Mitch Earleywine is associate professor of psychology at the University of 
Southern California and author of "Understanding Marijuana" (Oxford 
University Press, 2002).
- ---
MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens