The cherubic face of a teenage boy appears on the television screen, framed against a black backdrop. “I kill families in Colombia,” he says matter-of- factly. The startling confession is quickly followed by another teenager’s disclaimer: “It’s just innocent fun.”
Such was the beginning of the Bush administration’s $10 million multimedia campaign against illegal-drug use. The advertising spot was strategically aired on Feb. 4, while millions of Americans were tuned in to watch the Super Bowl.
Targeted at teenagers and their parents, it featured a succession of young actors portraying drug users, their faces half-hidden in shadow, telling viewers with a shrug, “I helped kidnap people’s dads,” and “I helped kill policemen,” and “I helped a bomber get a fake passport.”
The message? “Drug money supports terrorism. Buy drugs and you could be supporting it, too.”
The federal initiative includes print and broadcast advertising, lesson plans for teachers, and an information campaign on the Internet at www.theantidrug.com and www.teachersguide.org, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
“Drug use hurts our families and our communities. It also finances our enemies,” the director of the office, John Walters, said in a Feb. 3 statement. “To fight the terror inflicted by killers, thugs, and terrorists around the world who depend on American drug purchases to fund their violence, we must stop paying for our own destruction and the destruction of others.”
The White House’s drug office contends that 28 of the terrorist organizations identified by the U.S. Department of State traffic in illegal drugs, and that Americans who use drugs help finance the operations of those groups.
But some experts say the administration’s decision to hitch the war on drugs to its popular war on terrorism carries a significant risk of backfiring, particularly with young people.
“I think this could, in a very perverse way, glamorize drug use because terrorism right now has a very high profile in this country,” said Mathea Falco, the president of Drug Strategies, a nonprofit research institution in Washington. “The whole point of our efforts in the past was to make it seem like a waste of time, uncool, dumb. This type of advertising could in fact make drug use seem more exotic to teenagers.”
Ms. Falco said she also worried that the terrorism angle might further stigmatize drug users. “We’ve been trying for many years to medicalize this problem,” she said. “I think [the ad campaign] is sending all the wrong messages, and the money could be better spent on treatment.”
The Lesson Plan
The attention-grabbing Super Bowl Sunday commercial was immediately followed by advertisements with equally pointed messages in some of the nation’s top newspapers.
One features a tightly framed shot of a teenager’s face with a message in white lettering: “Last weekend I washed my car, hung out with a few friends, and helped murder a family in Colombia. C’mon, it was a party.” A similar ad quotes a teenager saying, “Yesterday afternoon, I did my laundry, went for a run, and helped torture someone’s dad.”
The portion of the campaign aimed directly at schools is a lesson plan for teachers, designed for 11th and 12th graders. The background material and classroom activities are designed to fill a 60- to 90-minute class period, with one to two follow-up class discussions at teachers’ discretion.
Included in the lesson plan are two high-profile examples of how drugs finance terrorism: The Afghan Taliban’s financial reliance on the worldwide, illegal sale of opium, and the $300 million in drug sales that the U.S. government says finances the terrorism campaign of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as Teen Drug Use and Terror Linked In Television Spots