In many instances, anti-drug programs are our children's first encounter with the cannabis leaf and other archetypal drug imagery. The image of the evil leaf is stamped indelibly on the child's visual memory, sharing cerebral space with favorite toys and cartoon characters. It's an abrupt childhood pit stop, an occasion to scare the bejesus out of impressionable young minds.
And it's been going on for decades. Essentially, innocent children have had their classrooms invaded -- along with their TVs, smartphones and computer screens -- by one professionally crafted, government-funded propaganda campaign after another. Ironically, the practice of targeting young children with these anti-drug programs constitutes a widespread indoctrination of American kids into the subculture of marijuana, as well as other illegal and actually dangerous drugs. In some instances, these propaganda efforts -- ranging from the ubiquitous Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program to Nancy Reagan's insipid "Just Say No" campaign -- have actually been shown to encourage drug use.
But before DARE and Nancy Reagan, there was Art Linkletter. He was the host of House Party, a popular afternoon talk show. Its most famous segment was "Kids Say the Darnedest Things," in which an avuncular Linkletter interviewed several children and elicited humorous responses.
In 1969, Linkletter's daughter Diane committed suicide. The distraught father blamed a "bum trip" on LSD for her death, but the toxicology report came back negative. Even so, following passage of the federal Controlled Substances Act in 1970, Linkletter became an avid anti-drug crusader and, because of his supposed rapport with children, visited schools across America to "educate" them about the evils of countercultural dope. Linkletter would earnestly relate the tragic story of his daughter. But he didn't tell students the whole truth about Diane: that she'd been suffering from serious depression independent of any drug use. Then again, revising the inconvenient truth is an enduring hallmark of the War on Drugs.
Linkletter would also provide children with "drug coloring books" during his visits. One memorable page featured an anthropomorphized wolf -- dressed like a hippie, of course -- looking over his shoulder. (Why? Because pot was making him paranoid.) But for virtually all of the students, that wolf drawing would be their introduction to the subject of marijuana.
Significantly, a child's view of a wolf is that of a sneaky, dangerous predator, the fearsome creature of fairy tales like "Little Red Riding Hood" and "The Three Little Pigs" with their Big, Bad Wolf. However, for many kids, the wolves in coloring books and similar depictions may have lent an undercurrent of allure to the drug/pot experience on a subconscious level. And in fact, Linkletter's school-to-school touring did little to deter kids from experimenting later in life. The so-called "drug culture" may have had its origins in the 1960s, but many have argued that it didn't really enter the mainstream until the 1970s. Cannabis became so culturally pervasive that a sitting president -- Jimmy Carter -- actually advised Congress to decriminalize marijuana nationwide in 1977. The anti-drug crusaders weren't about to let that go down, but it's still indicative of how popular cannabis use had become among Americans, despite the best efforts of Linkletter and others.
By the 1980s, Linkletter had faded away and Nancy Reagan became the nation's primary anti-drug crusader, famously instructing a generation to "Just Say No." Pot use did, in fact, decline during the '80s -- for a time. But trite rhetoric never gains much long-term traction, and by the early '90s, cannabis had made a complete cultural comeback. DARE was formed by the late Daryl Gates, the controversial and combative police chief in Los Angeles. It flourished in the '90s by employing a more interactive strategy, in which cops were hired to brainwash kids with Drug War propaganda for 10 weeks. Afterwards, students would pledge to stay drug-free for the rest of their lives during an over-the-top "graduation ceremony."
But there has been one big benefit to these organized anti-drug efforts: They provide cold, hard stats proving that the propaganda shoveled out by the likes of DARE was not only worthless but counterproductive. A federal study in 2003 found that DARE exposure triggered a "boomerang effect" in young people, making some "DARE graduates" more likely to try illegal drugs. And a government-sponsored report in 2006 revealed that advertising propaganda weakened anti-drug norms while increasing the perception that other kids use marijuana (thus conditioning young viewers to believe that such use is acceptable -- perhaps even desirable).
And throughout its history, DARE has courted controversy by essentially training kids to serve as "junior narcs," encouraging them to spy and inform on their parents and other adults using drugs.
So is there an alternative to this failed approach? Sure enough. If the government remains gung-ho on spending well over a billion dollars on anti-drug programs for young people, then focus on genuine education instead of manipulative propaganda. Teach kids the entire reality of drugs, both the appeal of the high and the dangers of abuse -- and include legal pharmaceuticals!
Let's be truthful about marijuana, because more young people are turning to it these days as an alternative to cigarettes and alcohol, for one very good reason: because they know it's much safer. So why not spend all that money to send scientists, physicians and medical researchers into the schools and give students the best objective, big-picture look at drugs? After all, kids are more likely to listen to adults when they know they're being told the truth.