The hypocritical message behind the new anti-drug ad campaign

The White House is touting its brand-new anti-drug advertising binge as the "largest and most comprehensive...media campaign" of its kind "ever." Over the next five years, the government and the nation's television networks will spend about $400 million annually on TV, radio, print, billboard, and Internet ads designed to reduce drug use.

Among the more memorable commercials: An updated version of the old "this is your brain on drugs" spot, specifically pitched to the approximately one-tenth of 1 percent of citizens aged 12 or older estimated by the government to have used heroin in a typical month.

"These ads are designed to knock America upside the head and get America's attention, and to empower all of you who are trying to do the right thing," said President Clinton, with Newt Gingrich by his side in a rare display of bipartisan solidarity. "Kicking America's drug habit," added the president, "requires a dramatic change in attitudes, accompanied and reinforced by a dramatic increase in personal responsibility by all Americans."

How strange, then, that the campaign will whisper nary a peep about the most wildly popular--and most purely recreational drug--to invade our nation in recent memory. In the four months since this drug first appeared, over 2 million Americans have experimented with it, apparently hooked by its intensely pleasurable, though short-lived, high.

Wild-eyed boosters--including a prominent former senator and presidential nominee!--boast of the drug's "magic" effects and downplay its dark side: It can depress the blood pressure of some users to dangerously low levels, and it may cause others to become aggressive. Federal agencies have already received unsubstantiated reports of 30 deaths linked to the drug's use.

I speak, of course, of Viagra, the impotence pill that has already become one of the most successful drugs of all time since its release in March.

The arms-wide-open welcome for Viagra--it was approved by the Food and Drug Administation and has been the subject of dozens of largely uncritical newspaper and magazine articles--contrasts sharply with decades-old government policy toward illegal (and hence, "illicit") drugs.

From the command bunker of the War on Drugs, it is A-OK to let men spend around $10 a pop to get and maintain an erection. Yet it is beyond the pale of serious public policy to ask whether some illegal drugs might, like liquor, be consumed moderately and responsibly; or that drug prohibition--like liquor prohibition in the 1920s--imposes social costs that outweigh its benefits.

Indeed, it is scandalous to suggest that illegal drugs may have any true medicinal value: In 1996, when Arizonans and Californians overwhelmingly passed ballot iniatives allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana to cancer, AIDS, and chronic-pain sufferers, drug czar Barry McCaffrey--the first real general to lead the drug war--called the votes a "tremendous tragedy" and a "dangerous development." "There could not be," said the general, "a worse message to young people than the provisions of these referenda."

But one wonders also of the ultimate message that will be sent by the government's latest anti-drug campaign, which equates any and all drug use with abuse and addiction--and which is being pushed by a president and House speaker who both have admitted to smoking pot on the way to their current high offices. (Unlike former Sen. Bob Dole, neither has copped to trying Viagra.)

Children, the primary target of the ads, are small but not stupid; they see hypocrisy and propaganda for what it is--and they resent it. They--and adult Americans--deserve a more honest discussion of drugs and drug policy in our society than we are likely to see over the next five years.

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