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Debating the drug ads Government's TV campaign linking terrorism to narcotics trade provokes outspoken reactions

by Ray Delgado and the Washington Post
Feb 05, 2002
From San Francisco Chronicle Feb 05, 2002. Please read this article at their site.

The Bush administration took a new approach to the war on drugs yesterday with Super Bowl advertisements that linked the illegal narcotics trade with terrorism.

If you buy drugs, you might be helping to finance terrorist activities, the advertisements warned, the first time the link between drug activity and terrorism had ever been used in a government-sponsored anti-drug ad.

Until yesterday, the President's Office of National Drug Control Policy typically ran ads that focused on how users harm themselves, the classic example being the "this is your brain on drugs" advertisement with an egg sizzling in a frying pan.

The new approach has sparked a range of reactions from drug treatment experts.

"It's a cynical, cheap shot to take in the current political environment," said Matthew Briggs, an assistant director of New York's Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates changes in drug laws. "To make it sound like a kid who smokes pot is responsible for putting cash in the hands of Osama bin Laden is ludicrous."

The two Super Bowl ads, which cost nearly $3.5 million to place during the widely watched Fox television broadcast, claim that money to purchase drugs probably ends up in the hands of terrorists and narco-criminals.

"Where do terrorists get their money?" says one of the ads, which portrays a terrorist buying explosives, weapons and fake passports. "If you buy drugs, some of it might come from you."

About half of the 28 organizations identified as terrorist by the State Department are financed by sales of illegal drugs, according to the drug office.

The two 30-second ads (which aired three times before and during the game) were funded by the drug office's $180 million advertising budget, the largest of any government agency.

The ads kick off a four-to-six-week nationwide campaign, which also includes ads on radio and in 293 newspapers, an augmented Web site ( and teaching materials to be distributed to middle and high school students. John Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, estimated the campaign's cost at $10 million.

"Considering that Americans spend over $60 billion on (illegal) drugs a year, this is a pretty well-leveraged investment," he said.

Chris Canter, the director of the Walden House Foundation in San Francisco, which offers a variety of drug treatment programs, said he didn't object to the ads, but felt they missed the target audience.

"My initial reaction is that I thought it was kind of compelling," Canter said. "But when you think about it, probably your most problematic addicts aren't watching the game anyway."

Canter said he thought the government's previous ads warning users about the harm they do to themselves were more effective. These ads, he said, seemed motivated by the current political climate.

"It seems like everybody is trying to link everything to terrorism," Canter said. "This ad, I felt, missed its mark. It was not money well spent."

Briggs added, "There is something very disturbing about the fact that the federal government is spending almost $3.5 million to blame nonviolent Americans for funding terrorism when . . . people who need drug treatment can't get it."

Walters, who was chief of staff under former drug czar William Bennett, defended the new approach.

"We're not blaming Americans for terrorism, we're blaming terrorists for terrorism," Walters said. "We're telling Americans that if they use drugs, they should be aware that some of that money is being used to support terrorism in many cases."

Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, the drug office contacted New York advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather, asking for ideas on how to link the war on drugs to terrorism in an ad campaign. The drug office knew the Taliban was partially funded by sales of opium, which can be refined into heroin.

What followed, said British film and commercial director Tony Kaye, who produced the ads, was unprecedented fact-checking between the drug office and government agencies, including the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, CIA and the Departments of Defense and State. Details down to the price of AK-47 assault rifles, featured in one ad, were debated. "The FBI said, 'Is the price retail or black market?' " said Alan Levitt, chief of the drug office's education division.

Each line of dialogue is explained by a story on the agency's Web page. For instance, in one of the ads, a teenage actor says, "I helped kill a judge." On the Web page, that line is linked to a drug-related killing in South America.

The ads were shown to teenagers in focus groups. The teenagers showed "a strong decline in intention to use" drugs after seeing the ads, Levitt said. And, he said, parents called them a "powerful way to initiate conversations" with their children.

Chronicle staff writer Ray Delgado and the Washington Post contributed to this report.