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Anti-drug Messaging on The Cheap


A casualty report in the war on drugs appeared in the press at summer’s end. The findings showed that the $1.2 billion the U.S. government has spent since 1998 on television, print and radio advertisning designed to discourage drug use among the young actually had no “significant favorable effects.” In fact, the Government Accountability Office determined, more 12 1/2- to 13-year-olds and girls tried marijuana after seeing the ads.

This failure, like the war on drugs, is bipartisan – the program started in 1998 – and doubtless will continue to be so. After all, in well over 400 of the country’s 435 congressional districts, opposing efforts to curb illegal drug use is probably an electoral loser.

Nevertheless, as Ryan Grim recently reported in Slate, the Bush administration has carved out its own special claim to failure in this particular policy misfire: the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the White House drug office have known since early 2005 that the ads had a perverse effect, yet they held up the release of the report that demonstrated the fiasco.

Perhaps it’s not the funding, it’s the ads themselves. One showed a car full of potheads run down a little girl on a bicycle; another showed an unfortunate youth in a hospital with his fist stuck in his mouth, the result of trying a stunt suggested by the same friends who put him up to trying marijuana.

These ads don’t do two things that Trainspotting, my nominee for the Best Anti-Drug Film, does: they don’t fairly depict the attraction drugs hold for so many people who use and abuse them, and they don’t effectively communicate the consequences many abusers suffer. Having to get your teenage fist pulled out of your mouth by a doctor is certainly embarrassing but probably not even near the worst thing that a teenager will experience. Vehicular homicide of a bike-riding little girl is of course far worse, but the commercial did not communicate the horror to those of us – and that’s mostly teenagers – no longer astonished by what computer-generated imagery can do for a video.

Directed by Danny Boyle and starring the then little known Ewan McGregor, Trainspotting (1996) does a much more effective job of illustrating both the allure of illicit drugs—heroin, in the movie—and the damage they cause. Ostensibly, the cause of all the damage the characters cause and suffer is boredom, which leads to drug abuse, but the anti-drug crusader looking for a visual message shouldn’t be distracted by that detail.

Dir. Danny Boyle

Mark Renton (McGregor) is at the center of this story of a group of young Scottish smack addicts. Renton doesn’t deny the appeal of heroin: “Take the best orgasm you ever had, multiply it by a thousand and you’re still nowhere near it.” Has there ever been a clearer statement about why people might get hooked on the stuff? “People think it’s all about misery and desperation and death and all that shit which is not to be ignored, but what they forget is the pleasure of it,” Renton says. “Otherwise we wouldn’t do it. After all, we’re not fucking stupid. At least, we’re not that fucking stupid.”

The movie sure does a memorable job of depicting that misery. The characters move in a world of AIDS, dead babies, and desperation so horrible that Renton will – in the scene that has stuck in my memory for a decade – dive (literally, in his hallucination) into the filthiest toilet in Scotland and swim in search of an opium suppository that he let get away from him. Disgusting and, yes, funny: but no way do you miss the point about what this drug has done to him.

Finally, the other great anti-drug lesson from Trainspotting goes beyond causes and consequences in explaining that serious drug abuse is itself beyond cause and consequences: Renton asks, “Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?”

Am I seriously suggesting that the government begin screening Trainspotting in junior high schools across the country? Not really, although it’s a perfectly enjoyable film. I do not think it would stop any teenagers from trying marijuana. Then again, unlike the ads the government is currently running, I don’t think it would cause any of them to start smoking weed.

Ryan Grim offers what may be the sanest advice for those “serious about reducing teen marijuana use…, start employing a time-tested method of behavioral control designed by parents: Stop talking about P-O-T.”

Share  Posted by mzeringue at 2:24 PM | Permalink

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