On September 13, White House "Drug Czar" John P. Walters held a press conference in the Central Library to announce a new $10 million anti-meth ad campaign in Washington and seven other states.
Alongside Representatives Dave Reichert (R-8) and Rick Larsen (D-2), Walters gave the impression that the campaign, which runs through March 2008, is about treatment and based on the success of that approach. The Seattle Times dutifully reported that the campaign "highlights the drug's dangers and promotes the benefits of treatment."
At the press conference, Walters encouraged us "to put our arm around somebody to get them to treatment." He drove home the point that rehab is effective: "The biggest single obstacle is people believing treatment doesn't work." Two-dozen framed black-and-white posters around the room and handouts in every press pack read, "Life After Meth," each with a photo of a former addict and his or her tale of decline and recovery through drug rehabilitation programs.
But the problem with this campaign is that it neither promotes treatment nor funds treatment. So why are they talking about it?
Rehabilitation programs are up to seven times more cost-effective and far more humane than incarceration, making it the favored tactic for handling drug abuse. A 2004 report from the Open Society Institute found that 63 percent of Americans consider drug abuse a problem that should be addressed primarily through counseling and treatment. However, in a political bait and switch, the Bush administration remains hooked on the failed lock-'em-up drug policy. They are trying to appeal to the popular approach while actually enforcing unpopular policies that are simply conservative.
I asked Walters what portion of the ad buy actually comprised messages about treatment—like the ones around the room—and how much of it looked like the ads we've seen around Seattle the last few weeks—pictures of methamphetamine addicts with rotting teeth or ripping skin off their backs. Those ads read, "Meth: Not Even Once," harking back to the failed "Just Say No" messages of the 1980s.
Walter evaded my question by explaining that this was part of a $100 million annual advertising budget. Yes, but what percentage of this campaign reflects the "Life After Meth" treatment theme here? A man in a black suit (secret service?) interrupted me to end the press conference. But I pressed on, "How much of the campaign includes 'Life After Meth'? Walters didn't know, or he wouldn't say in front of the other reporters.
Afterward, Mark Krawczyk, from Walter's Office of National Drug Control Policy, revealed that the "Life After Meth" images are "not part of the media buy." The posters are just a touring display.
David Johansson, one of several former addicts featured in the "Life After Meth" gallery, sat in the front row at the press conference. In the hall, Johansson, who went to prison for meth and is now a massage practitioner, carried a framed poster with his picture and story. When I explained that images from "Life After Meth" weren't included in the campaign that was being hyped today, he was surprised. "There needs to be more of this in print," he said.
In reality, the campaign uses the same old scared-straight approach. The campaign is using print and televisions ads from the Montana Meth Project. They make up at least one-third of the media buy (the ads are running in The Stranger), said Krawczyk. And the ONDCP's national Meth Project's online gallery mostly shows copies from the Montana Meth Project.
Those ads ran as copious print advertising and saturated airwaves in 2005 and 2006, making the Meth Project the leading advertiser in Montana—but they had questionable results. A report released by the project found the state's teens who believed that trying meth just once created "great" or "moderate" risk of getting hooked decreased from 95 to 92 percent—which is within the poll's margin of error but shows no indication that the ads worked in Montana. Likewise, there is no indication the ads will reduce meth use in Washington.
Most important, the talk about actual treatment was lip service. The ONDCP isn't allocating any of the $10 million to treatment resources. Doug Allen, director of Washington's Division of Alcohol and Substance Abuse, said the state's 581 public and private treatment services fall far short of demand. So while one could argue that scaring kids shitless with graphic images and abstinence-only messages might dissuade them from using meth—even though stats show that isn't effective—it's disingenuous to claim this campaign is about treatment and recovery. Even though Walters is busy hyping its effectiveness.