Above the Influence

Ever been to Pete’s house?

Pete likes to get high and sit on his couch for 11-hour stretches. Does he watch a little television between bouts with the munchies? It’s possible — but dollars to donuts his unthinking ass is parked on that stained blue relic in his basement, dying one moment at a time.

Pete is a loser, one of many inhabiting a world created by the government-funded anti-drug folks at Above the Influence. Their menagerie includes juveniles who attach leeches to themselves, girls who flatten into boneless, two-dimensional pancakes, and young men capable of shoving their fist in their mouth. There’s also a touching periphery of characters who listens to indie rock or says inappropriate things. The one element tying this vast teenage wasteland together? Marijuana abuse.

What does listening to the White Stripes have to do with smoking pot? It’s doubtful Above the Influence knows, or cares — its government mandate isn’t to employ logic and reason to the ongoing drug debate, it’s to waste copious amounts of money on flashy advertising. How else does one explain the comic antics of a burnout telling his dog to walk himself, or a commercial where a girl has been crushed into a midget accordion thanks to the magic of special effects and peer pressure? In what universe does advertising like this work? Who in their right mind will see this print and media campaign and toss their bong?

No one — and the government agrees.

The Government Accountability Office recently released the results of a five-year study showing federal ad campaigns targeting teenage drug use did little more than waste $1.2 billion, and similar evaluations going back to 1998 also concluded little to no positive reaction to these programs. Furthermore, the report found “greater exposure to the campaign was associated with weaker anti-drug norms and increases in the perceptions that others use marijuana.” In other words, teenagers viewed the increased media exposure to marijuana as a cue to try pot for themselves.

The GAO submitted their findings in August 2006. What was the eventual reaction from the Bush administration? Increase funding to $130 million over the next year. Yes, that’s right — the White House and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which oversees Above the Influence, are pursuing further funding for a program statistically proven to be a money pit.

“The administration has asked for a 31 percent increase in funding for the advertising campaign,” said Ryan Grim of The Politico. “The bad study results weren’t news to the White House, which sat on the research for a year and a half while continuing to fund the ad campaign on the basis that the study was still ongoing. The White House proposal would increase the program’s budget to $130 million over the next year.”

$130 million.

$130 million.

Stop and think for a minute what $130 million, spent properly, could do for our youth. We could hire more teachers to alleviate crowded classrooms, or purchase books and other materials for schools so that our children aren’t reliant on out-of-date textbooks and poorly maintained computers. Arts programs shuttered across the country could be re-opened, and an appreciation for art, music, and creativity could foster in young minds once again. While all of these things won’t necessarily halt marijuana use in teens, at the very least their lives aren’t reduced to dull, lifeless state indoctrination five days a week. And that’s a plus.

I’m not averse to providing programming to children that has a positive impact. However, ad campaigns like Above the Influence and Truth (the abomination that pledges tobacco awareness by having men shave letters into their backs) are proven to negatively affect these kids. Why continue to fund them? Why expand their funding?

What’s more addictive: street drugs, or spending government cash on useless programs?

It’s a given that government is wasteful; look no further than the loss of wealth and life in our pursuit of global hegemony. And I’ll admit, I appreciate the advertisement with a responsible brother teaching his younger sibling to exercise freedom of thought and reject drugs. But good families don’t need ad campaigns to teach ethics and morality to one another, and the bad ones aren’t going to listen, anyway. Drug use is by and large a personal choice, and teaching conformity through non-conformity is an insult even to non-users.

(Seriously, “now I’m not pretending to like indie rock … and people think that’s cool?” The subject is still dependent on what other people think of her — she’s just not hungry all the time.)

With the shift in power in Congress, Bush’s proposal could flounder. Will the project get cancelled? One can only hope. When the government takes a look at one of its own programs and unabashedly declares it a failure, you’d think it’d get the axe. But as with all things government, failure is success. We could be looking at head-scratching “edgy” ads for a long time; after all, there’s that rising meth addiction rate to take care of next!

If Bush really wanted to combat pot smoking, he should clean up and re-air the mid-’80s public service announcement with the mustachioed father and high-pitched son. The haunting scream of “You, all right? I learned it by watching you!” echoing across America would never sound sweeter, and kids would be too busy clutching their stomachs in laughter to reach for a pipe and a dime bag.