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).
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle