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Partnership for a Drug-Wrecked America

The Partnership at Drugfree.org has always felt free to lie—blatantly, openly, stupidly—about drugs. In fact, lying to obscure the realities of drug abuse in order to protect powerful interests and constituencies is the reason the Partnership exists.

Called the Partnership for a Drug-Free America when it formed in 1985, it was funded by alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceutical and big-advertising interests worried that escalating War on Drugs fervor might impact its profits. Big funders then included American Brands (Jim Beam whiskey), Philip Morris (Marlboro and Virginia Slims cigarettes, Miller beer), Anheuser Busch (Budweiser, Michelob, Busch beer), R.J. Reynolds (Camel, Salem, Winston cigarettes), and Big Pharma firms like Bristol Meyers-Squibb, Merck & Company and Proctor & Gamble.

In 1997, the Partnership abstained from legal-drug funding and now gets its bucks from the drug-war cabal, which is hardly more honest.

Lying about critical issues in gigantic advertising campaigns has been the Partnership’s motif. In a 1989 ad, the Partnership mispresented the electroencephalograph of a comatose patient as “the brain waves of a marijuana smoker.” Another Partnership ad declared that 10 million of the 15 million Americans who used cocaine had died from the drug and the remaining 5 million required medical help, wildly excessive figures exposed as fabricated in an inquiry from Scientific American. And of course, there was the Partnership’s famous egg-frying “this is your brain on drugs” idiocy.

The Partnership is the latest in America’s long history of phony lobbies—the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) is the White House branch—that revel in misinformation and misdirected policies that perpetuate the social crises they claim to be attacking because they tacitly profit from making them worse.

While the Partnership for “Drug Free” (if this blog had a laugh track, cue it now) America was bankrolled by magnates whose legal-drug products caused hundreds of thousands of deaths annually, the new Partnership can now boast of a similar achievement: during its quarter-century of multi-billion-dollar ad campaigns, deaths from illicit drugs soared by the tens of thousands and now also constitute a major public health crisis.

When the War on Drugs, pivotally shaped by Partnership ideas and lobbying, was launched in the mid-1980s, Centers for Disease Control tabulations showed around 9,500 Americans died every year from illicit drug abuse. Today, after three decades of anti-drug warring, tens of millions of arrests, and lavishly funded Partnership crusades, illicit-drug abuse deaths have quadrupled to nearly 40,000 and now kill more Americans than guns or traffic crashes do. Mission accomplished!

Credible United Nations estimates now indicate the United States, with 5% of the world’s population, now accounts for fully 60% of consumption of illegal drugs worldwide and suffer drug tolls far in excess of any other country. The latest World Health Association figures show Americans are 6 times more likely to die from drug abuse than citizens in comparable Western and Latin American countries.

Social catastrophes such as a widespread, lethal drug abuse epidemic is the ideal outcome for American drug-war interests led by ONDCP and the Partnership, the predictable result of their stubborn, punitively ineffective “harm maximization” strategies sensible nations have long rejected.

The Partnership, in particular, aided and abetted the rise of the deadliest illicit-drug abuse pandemic in American history with good old market research delineating how to use misinformation and emotional images to divert attention from real drug issues. Through continual surveys and focus groups, the Partnership honed a set of pleasing lies blaming drug problems on an unpopular minority—a long proven tactic, dating back to the Chinese-opium, Negroes-cocaine, and Mexicans-marihuana days, and now vilifying young people—as the ideal means of popularizing its message with politicians, funders, and the public.

For example, the Partnership’s latest “Not in My House” campaign (with funding from Big Pharma) ignores the drug-related deaths of tens of thousands of Americans—inconveniently centered in middle-aged whites who abuse pharmaceuticals—in favor of shrewd, candied-up PR ads soothing that the big problem is just teenagers pilfering pills from their parents’ medicine cabinets. The ad notes that pharmaceutical abuse has become the nation’s worst drug crisis, then pretends the crisis is teens (a couple of hundred of whom died in 2011) while ignoring the middle-aged epidemic (more than 10,000 deaths).

A truthful and useful campaign—far too rough for the wimpy Partnership and ONDCP authorities—would be the opposite; to advise kids how to deal with parents and elders whose abuse of illegal pharmaceuticals is disrupting families and communities and is the real predictor of later drug abuse by their kids. But such an honest campaign might really help reduce drug abuse, or at least describe it accurately to inform effective policy—results that would horrify entrenched drug-war interests.

During the 30-year Drug War and Partnership reign, drug abuse has exploded to generate hundreds of thousands of addicts driving record fatalities, intractable crime, and—except where sensible reforms such as California’s Proposition 36 have intervened—are filling prisons in record numbers. This is not an accident.

Drug War lobbies again and again roll out distracting, emotional crusades vilifying teenagers to quash efforts to establish genuine, research-informed, effective drug abuse amelioration measures. Maintaining drug abuse while pretending to "war on drugs" serves a myriad of powerful industries, including the Partnership. This is why their seemingly stupid ads like “Not in My House” must be taken seriously as evidencing yet again how privatized social policy driven by interest groups profiting from misery continues to saddle the U.S. with the worst social epidemics of any modern society.

Keywords: drug policy, Mike Males

Posted in Blog, Political Landscape

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