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opinion

Elizabeth Renzetti

The history of anti-drug public-service ads is so long and illustrious that it's hard to pick a favourite from the lot. I have a particular affection for the New Zealand commercial that features a man in a club bathroom literally removing a piece of his brain, chopping it in a tiny bloody line and hoovering it up his nose. But then there is also the anti-methamphetamine ad from the United States, in which a doleful voice warns would-be tweekers, "This is where she used to be a cheerleader. This is the sink where she started pulling out her eyebrows."

Is there a teenager alive who would respond to this Reefer Madness 2014 with anything other than snorts of derision? Research has shown that anti-drug PSAs are useless at achieving their stated aim – namely, keeping Kayden and Jaden off the bong or the pipe. So why do they continue to get made?

Why, for example, is the federal government spending $7-million on a series of ads, roundly mocked by their target audience, which warn of the dangers of marijuana and pharmaceutical drugs? The first commercial shows a brain as a series of pipes admitting a stream of pot smoke. As the smoke wafts along (surely a nod to the classic "this is your brain on drugs" advert), a solemn voice intones warnings about marijuana's effect on young users: Pot is much stronger than it used to be; smoking can decrease IQ.

That last claim is contentious at best, as many people have noted in sarcastic responses on social media, and is based on a limited study. "Smoking marijuana," the narrator says sternly. "It can damage a teen for life." The brain is pictured at the end as a smouldering ruin. Well, that'll put them on the straight and narrow! All head shops must close henceforth.

The problem with these anti-drug PSAs is multifold. For one thing, they can actually increase kids' curiosity about drugs. They provide a sense that everyone is high all the time, with the unintended consequence of making it seem more common behaviour than it is. And, in treating the issue of drug experimentation like a scene from Saw, they turn off kids who know, from experience, that it is nothing like that. Billy is not usually left face-down in the snow bleeding from all orifices.

Young people are suspicious of the motives of authority figures, especially governments. It's as if we are all the teacher from Peanuts, droning wah-wah-wah-wah at them while they get on with the important business of their lives, like texting about who's hot. As Carson Wagner, an American academic who studies drug ads, told NPR last year, "Kids are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. Because they'll begin to ask the question, 'Well, from where is this information coming?' "

They're right to be skeptical, because the aim of these ads is not so much public health as political strategizing. The Conservative government launched its anti-drug campaign in 2007 and has since foisted some truly dreadful anti-drug paranoia on the public in the name of bolstering get-tough credibility with its supporters. (One of the ads showed a druggie girl cutting herself and covered in festering blisters, like some William Burroughs nightmare. Those ads, sponsored by our government, were cited in a BBC report about how useless and outdated scare tactics are in abstinence campaigns.)

Three of Canada's main medical groups distanced themselves from the Conservatives' latest anti-drug ads this summer. (I'm amazed those groups were consulted at all; I thought the government relied on a Magic 8 Ball for most of its policy decisions.)

"The educational campaign has now become a political football on Canada's marijuana policy," the College of Family Physicians, the Canadian Medical Association and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada said in a joint statement explaining why they wouldn't be participating in the Conservatives' ad campaign. "We did not, and do not, support or endorse any political messaging or political advertising on this issue."

Of course it's a political issue. The anti-drug ads may come wrapped in the soft rhetoric of public-health advice, but they also come from the same party that released flyers saying, "Justin Trudeau's Liberals have no plan to create jobs, but they do have a plan to legalize marijuana … Their plan to legalize marijuana will make it more available to minors."

Anti-drug ads have little benefit, apart from scoring political points and providing a target for online snarking. "All the research suggests they don't work. They are not cost-effective," Prof. Harry Sumnall of Liverpool John Moores University told the BBC last year. An academic review of the studies around anti-drugs PSAs in 2011 concluded that they were ineffectual: "The dissemination of anti-illicit-drug PSAs may have a limited impact on the intention to use illicit drugs or the patterns of illicit-drug use among target populations."

Translated, I'm pretty sure that means, "Spend your money elsewhere, buddy, if you want to lessen the harm caused by drugs." But this isn't about young people's health; it's about their parents' votes.

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