A White House Drug Deal Gone Bad

Sitting on the negative results of a study of anti-marijuana ads.

Since 1998, the federal government has spent more than $1.4 billion on an ad campaign aimed primarily at dissuading teens from using marijuana. You’ve seen the ads—high on pot, stoners commit a host of horrible acts, including running over a little girl on a bike at a drive-through. Or a kid sits in the hospital with his fist stuck in his mouth.

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the arm of the federal government that funds research on drug abuse and addiction, partnered to study the ad campaign’s effectiveness. The White House provided the funding and NIDA contracted with a research firm, Westat, which gathered data between November 1999 and June 2004. The report Westat produced cost the government $42.7 million. It shows that the ad campaign isn’t working, as the Associated Press reported in late August. Instead of reducing the likelihood that kids would smoke marijuana, the ads increased it. Westat found that “greater exposure to the campaign was associated with weaker anti-drug norms and increases in the perceptions that others use marijuana.” More exposure to the ads led to higher rates of first-time drug use among certain groups, like 14- to 16-year-olds and white kids.

Five years and $43 million to show that a billion-dollar ad campaign doesn’t work? That’s bad. But perhaps worse, and as yet unreported, NIDA and the White House drug office sat on the Westat report for a year and a half beginning in early 2005—while spending $220 million on the anti-marijuana ads in fiscal years 2005 and 2006.

NIDA dated Westat’s report as “delivered” in June 2006. In fact, it was delivered in February 2005, according to the Government Accountability Office, the federal watchdog agency charged with reviewing the study. In the time that has elapsed since, the White House justified the $220 million ongoing expenditure on the campaign on the grounds that the campaign was being scientifically evaluated.

The GAO’s Nancy Kingsbury, managing director for applied research and methods, says her agency encountered serious resistance from NIDA and the White House when it insisted that it was entitled and mandated by Congress to review the publicly funded Westat study. The GAO has company in its frustration: In July of this year, the Senate subcommittee that oversees federal drug funding vented in general about secrecy and lack of cooperation by the White House drug office.

When news of the Westat results finally broke last month, the White House argued that the study should be ignored because the data are now more than two years old. But the results of the study are in line with other research that casts doubt on the impact of drug education. So far, at least, it appears to be pretty much impossible to warn kids away from drugs with an ad campaign, no matter how cautious or nuanced an approach you take. Talking about drugs seems to give enough kids the idea of trying them that drug education efforts regularly backfire.

Perhaps the most well-known drug-education effort is the DARE program that sends cops into schools to scare children away from drugs. Major studies have shown that it has no effect on whether a child will use drugs. A youth drug-prevention program called ALERT was found to be equally ineffective by a 1993 study. A project in Montana that sought to reduce methamphetamine use by plastering the state with gruesome photos of the consequences of addiction backfired; it’s associated with an increase in use and a decrease in the perception of the risk of using meth. If the White House is serious about reducing teen marijuana use, it might stop hiding the results of its own studies and start employing a time-tested method of behavioral control designed by parents: Stop talking about P-O-T.