Superbowl ONDCP Ads davidk in hollywood

I almost choked on a pretzel while watching the Superbowl. Twice. The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) fired off two of the most evocative ads in recent memory, linking illegal drug use with hijacked planes and imploding buildings. Like the Master Card commercials, where a number of desirable things are shown, along with a price tag, culminating in some greater intangible that remains "priceless," the first ONDCP ad enumerated various tools of terrorism, from rental cars to box cutters that enabled some more sublime horror. Thank you, illegal drug users, for funding all of this. Priceless. The second and only slightly more subtle commercial presented brief clips of people in full confessional pleading their lack of malicious intent in aiding and abetting murder, mayhem, and terrorism. All inadvertently funded by their drug money. The howling and shrieking that arose around those two ads from my friends and myself -- big- and small-L liberals -- would surely have pleased and amused the ONDCP and our leader, George W. Bush. Quite a few of us felt an especially big finger being pointed in our uncomfortably exposed direction.

These ads are/will be pitched as "a wake up call" to anyone who has used any illegal drug, at any time. If you use drugs, you support terrorists. You are either with us, or you are against us.

Such a simplistic approach is easily (and rightfully) dismissed by anybody with a modicum of critical thought. The Colombian drug lords do not make a habit of blowing up their customers on international stages. They bleed them slowly in the best traditions of the legal drug market. Neither the Mexican mafia nor their San Bernardino County meth lab operators mail anthrax-laced letters to news outlets and senators. And militant Pacific Northwest pot-growing extremists are among the rarest of ducks. Quite a bit of the drug trade is local, and unless we're expanding the definitions of either "support" or "terrorism," the ONDCP is putting out unsupportable and irresponsible propaganda.

Embedded in this campaign however, is a kernel of unavoidable reality. You may not already know it, but your purchase of drugs goes to support some truly awful people and acts. This much is fact, and one with which any intelligent, socially conscious person who uses or considers using an illegal substance is morally obligated to struggle. When you buy your dime bag of weed, you are feeding an economy that has resulted in robbery, extortion, and the murder of innocent people.

But this is the same ethical dilemma that presents itself in every economic transaction. From running shoes to agribusiness, from automobiles to energy, one way or another, some of our money will eventually support bad people and bad policies . Significant amounts of money contributed by every law-abiding, tax-paying citizen of the U.S. go to support all manner of questionable regimes. We insulate ourselves from some of these bitter notions with convenient justifications. "If we don't defoliate their country and destroy their crops, I won't be able to prevent my kid from using drugs." "Yes, this company abuses their seed and water monopolies in regions of famine and scarce resources, but golly wouldja look at the size of this tomato?" "Yes, the money for my gasoline goes to fund monarchies with dismal human rights records, who in turn foment just the sort of anti-American fervor that leads to flight school -- but hey, it's cheap and my Esplanade is thirsty." The drug user is merely one among many uninformed contributors.

This leads me to consider several questions which these ONDCP ads raised and lie just beneath the surface of their provocative campaign:

  1. Where exactly is the line between crime and terrorism? Is all crime terrorism?
  2. If a drug user supports terrorism through his habit, does that make him a legitimate target for anti-terrorism measures and penalties?
  3. Are tax-payers and gas buyers supporters of terrorism as well? Exactly how far does the liability go? Does it apply to corporations? Governments? How do we hold them accountable?
  4. What is it about legal drugs that makes the presence of terrorists scarce? What's more important to terrorists' cash flow: that they sell drugs specifically, or simply that they deal in a high-demand, high-profit black market commodity?
  5. What is the responsibility of alcohol drinkers for the well-documented and overwhelming (relative to illegal drugs) amount of societal damage wreaked by their drug of choice? How do those effects compare to those of terrorism? And finally,
  6. Is demonizing drug users of any stripe an effective way to manage the societal effects of drug abuse, a phenomenon regarded by all but the most religiously convicted to be a medical, rather than criminal concern?

Over recent years, huge strides have been made in understanding drug use and abuse. Many have come to understand that the criminal approach is unsustainable in a civil society that values health, security, rationalism, and liberty. The ONDCP ads need to be examined and explained. Their uncritical acceptance would be a step backwards in our gradual progress towards a realistic and wholly consistent drug policy. Furthermore, the ONDCP took a thin but pungent slice out of a large onion of economic and social relationships. The opportunity is too rich to be nothing but another occasion for uptight squares and paranoid stoners to point fingers at each other without making any progress.