Approaches to drug control


Interview: The White House drug czar discusses his office's recent media campaign and its vision for the future.

May 04, 2002|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

The television ads are startling:

"Yesterday afternoon, I did my laundry, went out for a run, and helped torture someone's dad," one young man informs the camera. "Last weekend, I washed my car, hung out with a few friends, and helped murder a family in Colombia," another says.

"Drug money helps terror," both ads warn. "Buy drugs and you could be supporting it, too."

That is the message the White House has been sending across the country as it pushes the war on drugs by linking it to the fight against terrorism. And though the strategy has produced some controversy among those who question the wisdom of associating drugs with terrorism, it certainly has attracted attention.

The White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, run by drug czar John P. Walters, has a media budget of $180 million to use in the war on drugs.

Walters, who worked in the drug office under the first President Bush, joined the current Bush administration in December. He recently sat down for a question-and-answer session on his plans and policies. He was asked about the advertising campaign - including these ads and others - against drugs, and other issues. Here are excerpts from the discussion:

Are these advertising campaigns successful, and how do you measure that success?

We have a media campaign that is designed to produce changes in the attitudes about taking drugs and prevent drug use. We have a sophisticated evaluation mechanism that measures attitudinal changes and tries to isolate what contribution the ads themselves make. Means to the end of actually achieving something through action.

Does it really pull the community together? Does it energize key institutions? Do they work together to get people into treatment and provide better safety to get more young people from the ravages of use and addiction? It works in two stages. Do people understand and accept and remember the message? And, do they act on it?

There certainly is evidence that there is understanding, particularly. Part of our media campaign is targeted at youth and part at parents. If parents reinforce the message with young people, we get maximum effect.

The last evaluation showed that not only had the message to parents been received but that the questions asked of young people - do your parents talk to you about drugs? ... showed that kids were actually having conversations with their parents initiated by their parents in larger numbers than any advertising campaign before. ... Ultimately, our goal is to reduce drug use.

What is the most effective way to reduce drug use: prevention or interdiction?

The most important thing we do is prevention. I know it's difficult to demonstrate. We can do more harm than good if the administration and national leadership suggests this is not a priority, not a serious matter, is not on the agenda or is something that we talk intelligently or seriously about. That is not essentially measured in dollars. ...

Most law enforcement is done at the local level. Most prevention and treatment is done at the local level. We are providing revenue and resources to other people. Our leadership is very powerful. It can have negative consequences if we don't do it right. But it can have positive consequences by setting a tone for young people. We know that if young people don't use drugs through teen-age years, they are unlikely to use them later on. ...

Whom are you trying to reach to prevent drug use? And what drugs are at the root of this country's drug problem?

Of the 4.5 million who need to benefit from drug treatment [in the United States], 23 percent are teen-agers. We've never had an estimate suggesting that high a percentage of people with substance abuse problems were that young.

Secondly, people have not talked about and focused on marijuana. Of the 65 percent of those people in that dependency category, their primary or secondary dependence is with marijuana. It is by far the single largest factor in illegal drug addiction in the country. ... The conventional view out there today is that marijuana is a soft drug, that marijuana is harmless and that it is not addictive, and there is no withdrawal. It's not just a gateway drug. ... If you are not talking about marijuana, you are not talking about the central part of the problem.

How does that fit into the debate concerning medical use of marijuana?

The medical marijuana issue should be handled directly in the way that we do other things in medical science. We have the finest health care system in the world and in world history. We have very reliable ways of taking substances that have medical efficacy, proving that efficacy and safety. ... The medical marijuana debate has been used as an argument that [officials] are unjustly keeping people who are suffering from medicine. ... The problem is that the debate is sidetracking legitimate concerns about the drug, and people are suggesting that there is some kind of bigotry ... by those who express concerns about the drug.

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