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Public Disservice

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Public service announcements of the War on Drugs have long been lampooned, and for good reason. Nonetheless, many have accepted such advertisements as a relatively benign, if irritating, collateral consequence of watching network television. Not unlike obnoxious pitches for ShamWow, we shrug our shoulders, chuckle, and move on. As rates of drug abuse have only increased throughout our long War on Drugs, we know that anti-drug PSA’s are at best an ineffective tactic and a poor use of taxpayer’s money. A closer look at anti-crack PSA’s in the Crack Era suggest that drug warrior TV spots were hardly benign. In many ways, this anti-drug effort proved to be socially irresponsible, misleading, and quite possibly, counterproductive.

If TV news of the period had not made it abundantly clear, PSA’s of the period reaffirmed popular assumptions that crack was an urban nonwhite problem which threatened to spill into suburban districts and victimize white youth. Despite the reality that crack was indeed an urban problem, the target audience of most PSA’s appear to be white

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In addition to offering an oversimplified message for drug avoidance most spots also advance the myth that one-time crack use kills. Just ask Pee-Wee Herman, “It’s the most addictive kind of

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Drug warrior PSA’s that spotlight dealers portray such villainous characters in urban districts, and the dealers are frequently young black men. A 1991 anti-crack spot follows a young black dealer swaggering along a playground—with

crack dealer.

The rare commercial spots that appear to address urban youth convey a very different message than those targeted to suburban youth. In one spot, rappers in a dark alley lit with only police lights and sirens address urban youth directly as drug dealers, repeatedly invoking the word thug. The rhyme warns: “Police are getting serious, you got to get out of this. You want the fancy cars, you want the money, but then you go to jail like all the other dummies.” Perhaps the most troubling advertisement uses an ugly trope often invoked in the 1970s and 1980s by anti-drug crusading Black clergy like Oberia Dempsey, Wendell Foster, and Jesse Jackson: the ad compares drug abuse to slavery. Behind stock tribal music taking us back to the “Dark Continent,” the commercial takes us on a 30-second tutorial of the Atlantic Slave Trade, shamefully chastising possible nonwhite users, “don’t dishonor” your enslaved ancestors “by becoming a slave to heroin, cocaine and crack.” The commercial ends with shots of nodded out black users sleeping on each other on the floor of a small room. The narration closes: “make no mistake, drug abuse is the new slavery.”

Now teens are told that buying marijuana supports terrorism. When youth have rightfully become cynical of the misinformation they are fed in the War on Drugs, they are less likely to respect the popular wisdom that drugs are dangerous. Perhaps this leads to escalating experimentation, and a desire to learn the truth about drugs on their own. As we know, this is entirely more dangerous than educating youth with real knowledge about drugs, drug abuse, and addiction. Rather than continue laughable attempts to scare our youth, arming them with legitimate information might be a step in the right direction. In the midst of a heroin epidemic that recently prompted five million additional dollars to address the problem, we are confronted with the contradictory, problematic nature of how we view drugs. Just as Bruce Willis spoke sternly against crack while hawking liquor to young men, big pharma has packaged serious narcotics as safe,

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