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Chatting with Drug Addicts about Antidrug Ad Campaigns

Antidrug campaigns never worked for Gabe Gilker, in fact, they had the opposite effect. So, she went out and chatted with some actual drug addicts about how they think antidrug advertisements could possibly prevent addiction.

That D.A.R.E. Lion is really making me feel like getting high. via Flickr.

I had never really thought much about drugs until Grade 8 rolled around. Back in the day, when I was a wee lassie, I was a pretty good kid. All of that changed quite quickly, and soon after my fascination with drugs began, I found myself running into trouble or away from authorities. How can someone do such a complete and thorough 180? Well, I blame drug prevention programs. When my high school brought in ex-football player Alvin Powell—who runs the anti-drug, Saving Station Foundation in Montreal—that’s when everything changed. He gave my whole school a lecture on how he destroyed his life with crack cocaine and all I could think was, “that guy is the coolest guy ever.” It was something about the way he described being high that grabbed my attention and made me listen. It was intriguing to know that you could change your entire psyche by ingesting different chemicals. The way he talked about smoking crack cocaine from a little glass pipe seemed so magical. It was all in his tone of voice and enthusiasm. One of the things that really stuck with me was when he said something along the lines of: “I had so much sex with so many beautiful women, and the all-night parties were incredible. I mean INCREDIBLE!” I wanted to party all night and have a bunch of weird crazy sex with my face covered in cocaine, too! I wanted to experience the craziness that he was describing. I wanted his life, and at that point, I didn’t give a shit about the consequences. Basically, everything television and my elders had told me about why drugs were terrible just made me want to get super fucking high even more than I already did. I know I’m not the only one who felt like this. In a study that came out in 2004 from the United States’ National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, it was discovered that anti-drug TV ads were “associated with weaker anti-drug norms and increases in the perceptions that others use marijuana.” Clearly, their fear tactics failed. What bugs me about this is, since the study was conducted, these antidrug bureaus have not revamped their angle. We still see all those fucked up ads that suggest complete and utter destruction is a couple of bong rips away. Not all prevention programs are horrible, though. Take a look at the alternative “Frank” program from the UK that has been in operation for the past decade. Their ads consist of honest information that shows the positive effects of drugs, like happiness and confidence—but also tells you the downsides as well, like dependence and health risks. These ads are genius, and I wish they would air in North America. They have trashed the scare tactic angle and replaced it with actual information. Interestingly enough, drug use in England has decreased 9% in the past decade. That may not be directly because of Frank, but I would like to think their smart approach to drug education has had an impact on England’s youth. Back here in Canada, according to the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, 60% of illicit drug users are in between the ages of 15-24; but clearly the drug prevention ad campaigns in North America are having trouble communicating with the kids. As a way to brainstorm some new advertising strategies, I sat down with a couple of my compadres that I used to party with (all of us are seasoned addicts or ex-addicts) to discuss how existing drug prevention campaigns could be improved. If we were in charge of North America’s antidrug strategies, here’s how we would keep kids from becoming regular users.


Well, this is effective. via Flickr.

All names have been changed to pseudonyms.

Sean Kavanaugh: Male, 21 years old
Drugs of choice: Heroin, Ketamine, PCP and Acid.
Started using: I started using drugs when I was 14 years old.
Sober since: I’m in and out of rehab and whatnot. What did you think of the anti-drug campaigns when you were a kid?
I didn’t think I would ever have to worry about getting involved with drugs, so I didn’t pay attention to the ads. By the time I realised that I had become the person they were using as an example for young addicts, I didn’t give a shit anymore. How would you keep kids off drugs?
They should make a simulation game that you “play” in groups of eight or ten kids at a time. The game would be played near a derelict building or somewhere equally as disgusting. They would be supervised at all times obviously, but they're on their own when it comes to finding a good place to sleep. They can eat twice a day, but the food will be shit and they have to walk 45 minutes to a dumpster before they can eat. They won’t eat out of the dumpster because that’s not safe, but they can’t eat until they thrash around in the dumpster for a bit. They have to walk around outside for at least five or six hours a day. Their socks would be taken away and their shoes would be filled with gravel or something else hard. Then they would have dirt and bugs and shit in their hair and clothes. They would be humiliated at metro stations and outside grocery stores. No washing, no brushing their teeth, no clean clothes, give them nothing.

Basically, these kids would experience what my every day life used to be. Ben Smith: Male, 21 years old.
Drugs of choice: Heroin, ketamine, cocaine.
Started using: When I was 13.
Sober since: I’ve been sober for four months and four days. What did you think of anti-drug ad campaigns when you were a kid?
When you’re a kid—and the possibility of using drugs is inconceivable—those ads seem really stupid. Then when you reach a point when you are susceptible to becoming addicted to drugs and those ads could actually apply to you, your opinion of them is still ingrained… so you can’t relate at all. How would you keep kids off drugs, knowing what you know now?
It's tricky, because if you try and scare kids, the ones who aren't prone to addiction will get scared, but the ones who are will get curious. Showing the consequences of heavy drug use doesn't really work, because kids don’t give a shit, long-term or short-term, and their power of denial is a lot higher than your power to convince them. I think the best way would be to show kids how becoming a drug addict turns you into a social outcast. Since every kid is terrified of being a social outcast, they could relate to that. Janet Fields: Female, 21 years old
Drugs of choice: My drugs of choice are cocaine, speed, MDMA, ecstasy, ketamine, acid, mushrooms, alcohol…
Started using: 15 years old.
Sober since: I’m not sober per se, but I have been through therapy and I’m trying to cut down. Some weeks are better than others. What did you think of the anti-drug campaigns when you were a kid?
I thought they were bullshit. I didn’t get them. They were just these little weird ads on television that made me feel uncomfortable because they were so vague. I wanted to understand what they were talking about, but no one could seem to answer my questions in a satisfactory manner. No parents, no teachers, nobody. It was annoying, and then they would always get so weird and paranoid when you pushed them to tell you answers. It wasn’t until I got older that I figured it out for myself, and by then it was too late. How would you keep kids off drugs?
There’s a big difference between doing drugs occasionally and being an addict. I don’t think schools and parents should be teaching kids that if you do drugs you’re going to be a complete waste of space and that you will absolutely become an addict. I think that the system should teach kids that if you are going to use it’s ok, but in moderation. Drugs are frowned upon in this society but alcohol is ok, which to me is fucked up because you can get way more gnarly on booze than a bit of blow.

I unfortunately didn’t think about moderation when I was doing drugs, and became super addicted. It took me a while to clean myself up. I wish people would have advocated moderation more, instead of just telling me not to do it. People told me not to do it so I did it. I felt like rebelling. If someone would have said: “Drugs are fine. In Moderation.” I probably would not have touched them. If we educate our kids about moderation it will change everything, I’m 100% positive. Previously:

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