Shades of Reefer Madness

Recently President Clinton announced the earmarking of millions of dollars for a drug prevention advertising blitz. The first television spot by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America featured a young woman smashing an egg with a frying pan and then beating the kitchen to smithereens, all the while stating that heroin affects your body the same way.

I shook my head in dismay trying to decide how reasonably intelligent adults could have made an ad so ridiculous and demeaning to our teens', or for that matter anyone's, intelligence.

But it was the adolescent audience that was the target of those ads. The No. 1 rule in advertising is to get people's attention, but what ever happened to giving viewers useful, factual information, instead of just hype?

Teens around the Seattle area who were shown the ad responded with an "Oh, no, not the egg again." And rolled their eyes, remembering the old ad campaign "This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs" featuring a fried egg. My feelings exactly. Have we taken steps forward in drug education only to be dragged back a decade to the era of Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign?

Antidrug advertising or telling people to say "no" will not keep children of any age or adults from doing drugs. What we need is to treat people with dignity and respect, allowing them to use their God-given intelligence to make decisions on their own. Even if we disagree with the decisions they make.

For the last few years I have been involved in drug prevention work. I have traveled the State of Washington and surrounding areas and spent time with thousands of students, talking with them, playing games, and just basically hanging out.

I have learned that teens, like adults, respond best when presented with the facts. Teenagers can smell a lie - or scare tactics - from at least three miles away. But they do have questions about drugs and life and need honest answers.

My teaching partner from the Drug Enforcement Administration and I unabashedly provide those answers. We let people know that one can die from first-time heroin, crack, or cocaine use, but first time marijuana use will not kill a person in and of itself, unless he walks into traffic under its influence and gets run over by a semi truck or falls off the roof of a building. We discuss the long- and short-term effects of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco and show real-life pictures of friends who have destroyed their lives or served jail time for drug-trafficking.

WE also teach teens what they would lose for the rest of their lives if they are convicted of felony drug possession. In many states they would never be permitted to vote, hold a public office or government position, or start a career in which a state license is required, as in such professions as law, medicine, teaching, hairdressing, or dentistry.

We have found that scare tactics do not work in promoting any message. Antidrug advertisers should know by now that simulating a car crash or an overdose, or showing a person destroying things on television have little long-term effect on people's decisions. In fact, most of the comments from teens to these tactics are "Oh, cool" or "Gross!" And then life goes on as before. Except with a few more novelty T-shirts being sold. (Remember the one that said "This is your brain, this is your brain on drugs, this is your brain with bacon, eggs, and toast"?)

To keep teens from doing and becoming addicted to drugs, parents and other role models first of all need to be drug-free themselves. I know saying this sounds inane, but I have met plenty of kids who say their parents use. And being in the the grip of a drug addiction themselves, those parents all agree that they want something better for their children. They want them to remain drug-free. Positive adult role models need to be involved in the adolescents' lives. The adults need to be living proof that one can be cool and not do drugs, nor get drunk. The role models also need to be able to provide answers to somewhat difficult questions, or at least to know where to look for the answers about drugs. As a society we are not going to raise generations of drug-free kids by telling them what to say and what to do. And even though we would hope one day to be a part of a drug-abuse-free and crime-free society, those goals remain distant ideals.

We, as adults, need to be the educators and the support for our teens. And we need to be realistic: All the dollars in the federal budget, hordes of anti-drug advertising, and smashing skillets will not change people's lives or views.

* Jill L. Ferguson is a drug-prevention/motivational speaker based in Seattle.

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