Why Don’t Anti-Drug Campaigns Highlight Violence?, Cont.
By Taylor Marvin
Two weeks ago I authored the weekly Friday Puzzler at Political Violence @ a Glance, asking why few American anti-drug campaigns offer drug trade-fueled cartel violence as a reason to abstain from illegal drugs. As I wrote here at the time:
“To be clear, I’m not saying that highlighting cartel violence in Mexico would convince many of the young people public anti-drug campaigns typically target to abstain, but it’s possible that campaigns focusing on the violent drug trade – rather than the personal health and social problems that these campaigns typically highlight — would be effective. I think that today’s anti-drug campaigns are often ineffective because potential drug users are able to see the costs of illegal drug use they highlight as hypothetical: sure, drug use ruins other people’s lives, but it can’t happen to me. Highlighting the violence inherent to the international drug trade, while more remote, is also more real: if I buy illegal drugs my habit will directly lead to further violence.”
By explicitly linking the act of purchasing illicit drugs to very-real violence in Mexico and elsewhere, such a campaign would force drug users to confront the social costs of their habit — or that would be the idea, anyway. In addition to its graphic shock value (which are often a feature of anti-drug public health campaigns, particularly those focusing on drunk driving or tobacco use), such a campaign could be effective because many young drug users see themselves as conscientious and globally-minded. Highlighting the social costs of the drug trade abroad could be a more effective way of speaking to this subset of potential drug users than messages stressing the personal costs of drug use.
However, there are many reasons to doubt the efficacy of such a campaign. As I wrote at the time, “one reason for this absence could be that the connection between American drug use and foreign trafficking-related violence is too remote to influence behavior, or that potential drug users are unlikely to see violence visited on others — and foreigners, at that — as reasons not to use illegal drugs.” There are other reasons such campaigns haven’t materialized, as well. One commenter rightly noted that public health campaigns highlighting the costs of drug prohibition, not consumption, naturally bait awkward questions about the purpose of prohibiting drugs at all. Given that nearly all aspects of the American political establishment favor continuing prohibition — conservatives because they truly appear to oppose the normalization of even soft drug use, and liberals because anti-drug rhetoric is a usefully low-priority issue used to demonstrate Democratic law-and-order credentials — this implicit condemnation of the war on drugs would be deeply problematic.
Commenters also suggested that anti-drug campaigners have run public heath campaigns stressing political violence associated with the drug trade. Specifically, after 9/11 the Bush Administration adopted the supposed link between drug cartels and Islamic terrorism as a routine talking point, and ran a series of ads explicitly accusing drug users of supporting terrorism. However, while this campaign wasn’t specifically what I was referring to in the question, it does raise an interesting inference. If anti-drug campaigns have attempted to use largely hypothetical violence targeting Americans as a reason not to purchase drugs but ignored ongoing violence visited on foreigners, the architects of these campaigns must judge that Americans care only for their compatriots. Interesting, indeed.