House Republicans anticipated smooth sailing for legislation to reauthorize the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), including its controversial antidrug media campaign. But Democrats rebelled in late May over provisions that would have allowed drug czar John Walters to use the publicly funded advertising as he saw fit to oppose state ballot initiatives or even specific candidates.
The ads, mostly on television, have stirred controversy since Walters took over and began running strident drugs-equal-terrorism spots that declare that personal use of marijuana supports terrorism. The House Government Reform Committee tabled action on HR 2086 after negotiations broke down over how far ONDCP could use its social marketing muscle to influence elections. The two parties will attempt some sort of compromise when the matter is considered during the first week in June, but it’s hard to see how the Republicans’ goal of allowing Walters sole discretion to use the ads to “oppose any attempt to legalize” drugs can be squared with Democrats’ opposition to even more overt White House electioneering than in the past. The media campaign cost taxpayers $930 million during its first five years; Republicans seek to boost its five-year funding through fiscal year 2008 to $1.02 billion. (Actual total media time and space will be closer to $2 billion since, by statute, ONDCP makes its ad buys at fifty cents on the dollar.)
By Walters’s lights, even allowing dying cancer or AIDS patients some pot to alleviate their pain is de facto legalization. Until drug reform lobbyists sounded the alarm and Democrats dug in their heels, starting this fall he could have used the ads to urge voters to reject initiatives permitting medical marijuana or mandating treatment rather than jail for nonviolent drug addicts. The ads might also have been used against such candidates as Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank and Texas Republican Ron Paul, who have introduced legislation banning federal prosecution of pot-using patients in states that have legalized medical cannabis. Said Steve Fox, director of government relations at the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), “It’s now clear that this media campaign is about politics, not prevention.” And, tossing aside seventy years of broadcasting law by exempting ONDCP from the requirement to identify itself as the ad sponsor, the proposed bill would shred the principle that viewers are entitled to know who’s attempting to persuade them.
Republicans offered a compromise provision that would have stipulated that the ads would not expressly advocate support for or defeat of a candidate or ballot initiative. But that didn’t fly, since the ads could still have described a candidate as soft on drugs. Said the Drug Policy Alliance’s (DPA) Bill Piper, associate director of national affairs (who caught the bill’s indirect language that would totally free ONDCP’s hand), “Anyone who knows campaign finance law knows that’s not any kind of real barrier.”
Republicans also offered language preventing the ads from targeting candidates. But even targeting only referendums was not acceptable to the ranking Democrat on the Government Reform Committee, California Democratic Representative Henry Waxman. While acknowledging that “If the Republicans really want it, they’ll find a way,” one Democratic staffer said they have “pulled it for now. It was a small victory.”
However temporary the victory, it rose from an all-out effort by the DPA and MPP, with additional support from the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. And opposition to the bill is mounting. The libertarian Orange County Register led the nation’s editorial pages in slamming “a drug war slush fund.” That was followed by the Baltimore Sun’s condemnation, titled, “Propaganda Czar,” and the Los Angeles Times‘s discussion of “Dopey Federal Thinking.”
Opponents of the government’s antidrug ad campaign note that there’s no evidence that the ads reduce teen drug use. At the House hearing, Walters referred to an ongoing survey which showed positive results, but the survey was not made available. In June 2002, a National Institute on Drug Abuse evaluation found “little evidence of direct favorable Campaign effects on youth…and no tendency for those reporting more exposure to Campaign messages to hold more desirable beliefs.” In fact, among girls and younger kids, NIDA found that more exposure to the ads was correlated with greater rates of starting to use marijuana. And for the half of the media budget that is directed at voters–sorry, “adult influencers”–NIDA also found no effect on teen drug use, though parents did become more aware of their need to address the issue. It’s unclear how the recent reauthorization stalemate will unfold.
Though they control the Government Reform Committee, Republicans want a bipartisan veil over any move to even further politicize the ad campaign. Should Democrats continue to balk, Republicans may just settle for continuing the current “smoke a joint and support terrorism” (or “shoot your friend or run over a kid on a bicycle”) messages. A total of some $96 million in ads featuring those and other mayhem-and-death scenarios flooded the country during and just after last year’s election season. MPP campaigners pushing marijuana decriminalization in Nevada often heard from voters about the “opposition’s” ads they had seen.
What those voters didn’t know was that they had paid for these ONDCP ads with federal tax dollars.
In fact, the ONDCP campaign was born of partisan politics, engendered by the passage of medical marijuana initiatives in California and Arizona in 1996. (For more on the campaign’s history, see my article on TomPaine.com.) And why limit the propaganda to drugs? During the costly, high-profile Super Bowl broadcast, ONDCP showcased an ad titled “Pregnancy.” Having the baby was the only option for a young teen who lost her moral compass after smoking marijuana and getting pregnant as a result. As a spokesman for the American Life League told me, “Without question, there is a very strong but subtle prolife statement in this commercial.”