Back in the 1980s, I often saw ads like these on TV:
“Just say no”
“This is your brain on drugs”
The Original Rachael Leigh Cook Brain on Drugs
Yikes! Oh, wait, in 2017, that same actress made this:
What happened? Well, she was exposed to the truth, the WHOLE truth, about the actual results of the anti-drug crusades from the 1970s onward.
The truth is indeed coming out, as I discovered recently.
Drugs Are Bad
“Don’t do drugs” is a stock aesop that has been sledgehammered into children’s television shows at the request of the United States government. It usually results in anvilicious moralizing and very special episodes; though it can also be done well, with perspective and sincerity, particularly by artists who have firsthand experience with the downside of the drug scene.
Although drugs, both legal and illegal, can have devastating effects on the lives of their users, Drugs Are Bad shows and commercials often exaggerate how bad they actually are, very commonly becoming a Clueless Aesop with all the Narm associated with it. Often, even the villains of shows, when presented with an opportunity to sell drugs for profit, will decline on the grounds that Even Evil Has Standards.
Alternatively, drugs make people feel wonderful the first time they take them, but every subsequent time the same drug (or a harder one) makes them feel worse than Hell. But it’s too late because they’re already “hooked” after the first time, and according to the gateway drug theory, if you give a teen a marijuana cigarette, he’ll inevitably wind up doing something harder. The theory has no proper scientific basis whatsoever (some people do, some people don’t, and there’s been tests done on animals, but it’d be pretty unethical to hand out pot to kids and see how many move on to crack), but science would just get in the way of some scare tactics.
On the other hand, many anti-drug advocates would argue that compared to all the rest of the ugly, violent history of the War On Drugs, simply advising kids to steer clear of them should be the most obvious, straightforward, and least controversial course of action possible. Although hyperbole can easily sabotage the intended message.
A common way to express this trope is via the character arc Descent into Addiction, which depicts a character’s gradual slide into addictive behaviour.
Note that the full name of the trope should be “Recreational Drugs Are Bad”, which is not to say that prescription drugs can’t be dangerous when abused. If you or the characters take the title at face value, you’ve got a case of Mistaken for Junkie.
Its hard to disagree that there was a considerable element of hypocrisy in Hollywood producing so many works with this message, considering how widespread drug use has always been in the entertainment industry. While the recent pendulum swing in the opposite direction may mean the industry is now admitting its own issues more honestly, that still may not constitute being objective about the matter (however one wishes to define objectivity).
Any story about Prohibition Era gangsters is likely to walk an odd tightrope, since Prohibition was rescinded and society no longer condemns alcohol the way it does other drugs, but gangsters murdering people to make a buck off the stuff are still likely to be portrayed very negatively (though, like pirates, they’re also likely to be highly romanticized).
The Aggressive Drug Dealer
A trope of yesteryear, born from The ’80s‘ DARE programs and resulting commercials, “inspirational films,” and very special episodes. The Aggressive Drug Dealer is out there trying to force your kids into doing drugs. He won’t take casual avoidance for an answer and will seek out and use intimidation just to coerce his target. So a type of training is required to “Just Say No.”
This just isn’t how it happens. No drug dealer in their right mind would risk attracting attention to themselves that way, especially not in the middle-class environments these commercials are aimed at. Any who do so will get caught very quickly, and be far less likely to actually get any customers. The same way children are more likely to be abducted/molested by someone already in their lives than a stranger, they’re far more likely to do drugs with their peers than some shadowy figure lurking in the playground. Most drug users have their first taste at a party or some other social setting where the substance is being shared and they give it a try. From there, if they want more, they’ll seek out the dealer themselves.
Problem was, an anti-peer pressure approach to PSAs would wind up contradicting the prevailing theory held by Moral Guardians at the time: that deviant behavior arose from anti-social tendencies. They thought children, if anything, should be taught not succumbing to peer pressure is a bad thing. Not only that, any such PSAs would also break the illusion any child might have had that their parents are a bastion of safety and morality. In the strict household hierarchy of yesteryear, that last point in particular was a no-no.
The only option left, then, was to fabricate this villain. “Talking to your kids” by scaring them with this nightmare was a lot easier than trying to understand the social environment one’s child was in, and instilling values that would stand up and that parents agreed with. It’s much easier to demonize an evil outsider inexplicably hell-bent on getting Little Johnny hooked to drugs than to talk about the fact that the people who are actually likely to be encouraging him to try will be his friends and peers.
And that is exactly why the anti-drug efforts tended to fail, because they were based on lies and many people would later figure that out and reject the message.
The sheer hypocrisy of cracking down on certain drugs (including marijuana, which is not only not addictive but has many medicinal properties and other beneficial uses even when not smoked) while not only permitting other drugs like alcohol and tobacco but also taking tax money from their being sold should also be obvious.
Indeed, the attempt by moral guardians to ban all alcohol in the United States with the Eighteenth Amendment to the U S Constitution was a failure, causing society to become MORE corrupt and violent once alcohol was banned (because making the sale of alcohol a crime meant that only criminals would be selling it). As a result, that Amendment was repealed by the Twenty-first Amendment, but the hypocrites went on to ban other substances instead.
Today, marijuana is slowly being legalized in various places, so why not legalize ALL drugs? The common perception that doing so would cause society to fall into utter chaos has no basis in fact whatsoever. Rather, it is an example of “if you tell a falsehood a thousand times, people tend to believe it”.
A drug campaign based on TRUTH and logic is being waged in Norway. Check this out:
None of that confusing human brains with cooking eggs bullshit!
The Association for Safer Drug Policies
We work to replace punishment and alienation with education,
human rights, harm reduction and compassion
There is no question that drug addiction is a horrible thing, just as addiction to alcohol and tobacco are. Drunk drivers cause injuries and deaths due to accidents just as high drivers do. But that’s why we need to encourage addicts of ALL kinds to get treatment if the addiction is destroying their lives. News flash: Most consumers of alcoholic beverages are not alcoholics, just as most occasional drug users are not addicts. Otherwise, the poster shown above would make no sense and there likewise would have been no movement to repeal the Prohibition Amendment that had been proven such a counterproductive failure.
Contrary to popular belief, in many cases people do not actually die from “drug overdoses”. Rather, because of certain drugs being illegal, they are not regulated by the government and so a user will take a drug not realizing it is contaminated with some kind of poison due to lack of quality control, resulting in death. This does not usually happen to those who consume legal alcohol.
We were ALL lied to and now we need to solve our medical, legal and racial problems with the truth, compassion and logic. Our children’s well being depends on it.
Post script: President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy were strong supporters of the anti-drug campaign in the 1980s. But many years earlier:
And he NEVER took part in any anti-smoking campaign, even though tobacco kills millions of people every year!