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Advertising Sobriety: The Media War on Marijuana

Since the 1970s, the "War on Drugs" has dramatically changed the way Americans have perceived the usage of illicit recreational drugs as severely detrimental to the health and safety of the citizenry. Marijuana is perhaps the most controversial narcotic, for the implications of its usage are highly debatable. Opponents of marijuana usage believe that marijuana is gateway drug that leads to the abuse of more dangerous narcotics such as heroine and cocaine. The government has waged a massive public relations campaign to inform the public of the dangers of marijuana usage, particularly aimed at adolescence, who are more susceptible to peer pressure to use drugs. In 1999, the federal government launched a $775 million advertising campaign in television, radio, and print ads to aid the "War on Drugs (1).

In response, proponents of marijuana decriminalization have been waging a propaganda war of their own via the Internet where the waves are unhindered by government regulation to debunk the myths surrounding marijuana. They contest that marijuana is not an addictive gateway drug, and that the beneficial effects of marijuana outweigh its harms. They argue that legal controlled substances, such as tobacco and alcohol, are far more harmful. Tobacco and alcohol abuse is some of the leading causes of deaths among Americans, yet there has been no recorded death to date caused by marijuana abuse. The cloud of myth and deceptive anti-drug propaganda has mislead many Americans into believing that marijuana is a drug, the usage of which leads to other narcotics such as heroine and cocaine. However, many reputable medical and governmental commissions have objected to these statements.

The federal government has dubbed the media campaign against drugs the "National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign." The White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey proclaimed that the mission of the campaign is to produce "compelling ads to educate the public on the dangers of illicit substances." However, critics of the media campaign believe that networks and media outlets are compromising their integrity as an independent press. Instead, the money flooded into these governmental projects has created a mouthpiece for the federal government (1).

Marijuana has posed a particular controversy, because unlike other illicit drugs, it has gained acceptance among certain groups in the media. Many commercially successful hip-hop musicians advocate smoking "blunts," a large joint wrapped in tobacco leaves as a daily ritual. The popularity of hip-hop as a youth subculture for urban young urban blacks and young white suburban kids has undermined the governments rigorous anti-drug campaign, especially within the last decade with the ascent of gangster rap as perhaps the most popular form of pop music today. However, gangster rap and the Internet are only few of the components of today’s media with a pro-marijuana message.

Before the rise in popularity of hip-hop marijuana has gripped the imagination of the American populace as part of a subversive youth subculture. Rock and roll during the sixties and seventies advocated marijuana usage. Those years of turbulence and aggression from the left and liberal made marijuana the drug of choice among the independent and free-spirited. Many believed that marijuana opened the spirit and freed the individual from the tyranny of social and political life regimented by an authoritarian government that sought to suppress freedom, individuality, and independence. Some of the most popular pop stars of the era such as the Beatles, The Doors, and the Rolling Stones, immersed themselves in the drug culture in response to what they saw as a world run by a tyrannical white middle class that strove imposed its will on the majority. Later, with the ascent of "third world" artists such as Bob Marley would revive the pro-marijuana youth of his generation. In 1974, "High Times" the premier magazine of the pro-marijuana movement was founded (2).

During the 1960s and 1970s the United States wavered in their response to the marijuana embracing counterculture. During the Kennedy and Johnson administration, the use of the drug became wide spread among the white upper middle class. Reports commissioned by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson found that marijuana did not lead to use of heavier drugs or induce violence. Marijuana policy turned toward treatment and criminal penalties. In 1968, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs was created merging the FBN and the Bureau of Dangerous Drugs of the Food and Drug Administration. In 1970, most mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana possession were repealed. It was widely acknowledged that the harsh laws of the 1950s had not eliminated the drug culture of the sixties and that the sentences imposed were often unduly harsh. The "Comprehensive Drug Abuse Control and Prevention Act" differentiated marijuana from other narcotics and eliminated mandatory federal sentences for small amounts (2).

The Nixon administration, however, saw the return of harsher drug sentencing. Although the Shafer Commission, a bipartisan commission appointed by Nixon at the direction of Congress, considered decriminalizing marijuana, Nixon rejected the recommendation. Individual states throughout the decade decriminalized marijuana and mots other reduced their penalties. In 1973 the United States Drug Enforcement Agency was created, an even larger bureaucracy, which merged the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs and the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement. In 1976, the parents’ movement against marijuana began spurring the current "War on Drugs". Media, the federal government, and law enforcement worked more closely than ever to fight against the use of narcotics (2).

Marijuana has had perhaps the most interesting media history of any drug in the United States. Television networks, rock bands, and the Internet have not been the only media moguls to cash in on the marijuana debate. During the great depression, "Reefer Madness" as known as "Tell Your Children" (1936) was a seminal film in the production of anti-marijuana propaganda. Even the poster was alluring propaganda. It features a man and woman, supposedly the parents of a adolescent boy reaching for the marijuana cigarette that his father holds threateningly out of his reach as the mother tries to hold the boy back. It is a lurid picture of addiction and rebellion. In bold capital letters the poster reads: "SHOCKING DOPE EXPOSE," "SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT," and "THE MARIJUANA MOB." The movie proclaims that marijuana is more addictive than heroine and that, as one contemporary movie reviewer explains, "One puff and your sons will become stark-raving mad murderers and rapists. Your daughters will become tramps instantly." The film focuses on a group of average white middle class adolescents, Jimmy, Bill, and Mary. The kids hang start to hang out at the house of the local drug dealers, Mae and Ralph. Mary winds up dead after her boyfriend Bill sees her being raped by another guy believing that she was making out with him. Mary is accidentally shot when the two men end up in a scuffle. The moral of the story, narrated by the wise and knowledgeable Dr. Carrol is that marijuana destroys lives and that destruction usually end in death (3).

However, a vocal counterculture was also on the seen. Jazz music did not shy away from the debate over marijuana. In fact, many Jazz songs by popular musicians explicitly discussed the usage of marijuana and other drugs. Songs such as "Texas Tea Party" (1933) by Benny Goodman and his Orchestra and "If You’re a Viper" (1938) by Bob Howard and his Boys describe the experience of smoking marijuana in vivid detail. "If You’re A Viper begins, "Dream about a reefer five feet long." It continues on to suggest the primacy of marijuana in the swing jazz culture: "I’m the king of everything/gotta be high before I can swing" (4).

The movie reveals much about that era in American history. The 21st Amendment had terminated Prohibition just three years before "Reefer Madness" had been produced perhaps sparking fears by some who had fought rigorously for making and keeping alcohol illegal that the use of other drugs would rise considerably and that the government would tolerate it. The Great Depression also saw the tension between immigrant communities, such as the Mexicans, and the self-conscious white population who saw their country crushed by the worst economic fall out in the history of the United States. Fears rose among white Americans that marijuana led to violence and other deviant social behaviors common among the "racially inferior" Mexican community who introduced marijuana as a recreational drug around the turn of the century. During the thirties, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) (1930) was created, The Uniform State Narcotic Act (1932), which strongly encouraged states to take responsibility for drug law enforcement was enacted, and the Marijuana Tax Act (1937), which effectively criminalized marijuana restricting possession to individuals who paid an excise tax for certain authorized and industrial uses. In 1936, in response to "Reefer Madness," the Motion Pictures Association banned the showing of any narcotics in films although "Reefer Madness" was clearly anti-drug propaganda (2). The 1930s were a time of political subversion as well. The Red Scare and the McCarthy era were in full swing. The fear and allure of Marxism grew. Social and political instability were real threats in the American psyche.

The media war that surrounds the controversy over marijuana is indicative of America’s equivocal feelings about the drug. The battle over marijuana has been a battle for America’s soul, which on one hand advocates individual liberty and personal responsibility, and on the other wants to salvage "traditional American values" that all Americans respect and by which they should abide. Marijuana will continue to capture the imagination of the American people. The evolution of counterculture into popular culture is at the heart of the debate over marijuana. The media is just one piece of the big puzzle of reconciling the forces of individualism and traditional views of social good. –Kayan C. Clarke

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