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Drugs

The 90s Anti-Drug PSA 'Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue' Didn't Stop Kids from Getting High

With great national support for the legalization of marijuana, the America of 2015 is Amsterdam compared to the zeitgeist that birthed Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue 25 years ago.

by Justin Caffier
Apr 21 2015, 4:00pm

Anti-drug public service announcements have a long history of missing the mark. From the classic, to the racist, to the admittedly kind of funny, the efficacy of these campaigns have always been dubious at best, and counter-productive at worst. This isn't to say drug awareness and education is not a worthwhile investment of government resources, but as any millennial who was pushed through the wildly ineffective DARE Program will tell you, the choice to use or not to use recreational drugs is a personal one, unlikely to be swayed by thinly-veiled propaganda.

Today marks the 25-year anniversary of the largest anti-drug PSA effort in history: the Saturday morning simulcast of Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue broadcast on the ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox networks respectively. This monumental anti-drug (and, to a lesser extent, anti-alcohol) collaboration came at the acme of Nancy Reagan's "just say no!" era, the message promulgated by then-sitting President George H. W. and First Lady Barbara Bush at the video's intro.

For the uninitiated, a YouTube stream is available here, and yes, that is as HD as it gets. The cartoon was released on VHS after the initial airing and most of the uploads of this feature contain all the charming A/V distortions of the medium.

For those without 27 minutes to kill, here's the basic rundown: The year is 1990 and our protagonist Michael is a wayward teen, whose experimentation with marijuana raises the concern of his little sister, Corey. Corey, fears for her brother's life, so she enlists the help of all our favorite Saturday-morning cartoon heroes like Garfield, Bugs Bunny, Baby Kermit the Frog, and ALF, the sitcom puppet who was ostensibly rendered into a children's cartoon. The gang rescues Michael, A Christmas Carol-style, by showing him his grim future as a ghoulish heroin junkie/crackhead. Michael apologizes to his sister, throws the anthropomorphic James Woods-ish pot smoke baddie (voiced by George C. Scott!) into a garbage truck, and goes to ask his parents for help battling his pot addiction.

As a child, I practically melted the tape running this thing through my VCR so many times. Who among us can deny the appeal of characters crossing over into each other's universes? It's a sweeps tactic still used today by the likes of The Simpsons and Family Guy and is a major component in the success of video game franchises like Super Smash Bros. As an adult, however, I'm burdened with viewing Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue through a more jaded lens, forced to grapple with both the creators' presumed noble intentions and the Machiavellian levels of deception by which they pursued those ends.

Should we expect government and corporate sponsored mission-based programming to delve into the nuance of what contributes to drug use and addiction? Of course not, when the medium is a half-hour animation spot aimed at elementary school kids. Even less so when this is all taking place in the same "don't blame me" epoch that brought us zero tolerance school district policies and "three strike" legal system punishments. That in mind, some of the bullshit awkwardly forced through the mouthpieces of beloved children's cartoons is too egregious to let pass by unchallenged.

Some choice cuts:

  • Michael steals from his baby sister's piggy bank to score money for pot. This is not a product of cannabis usage. This is the product of Michael being an asshole.
  • Many of the cartoon characters are hip to drug slang. Bugs Bunny easily identifies a joint, which isn't too far a stretch given his drinking and smoking cigarettes for decades in the Looney Tunes universe; watching a much more innocent Simon (of the Chipmunks) identify marijuana on sight and describe the effects is a bit jarring.
  • Michael begins his descent into reefer madness the way so many after-school special and so few real-life children do: by stumbling upon some older "cool" kids smoking behind a building and being peer pressured into taking his first hit. The characters constantly assert that nobody has every tried drugs of his or her own volition.
  • Seeing these cool kids doing their thing, Michael obnoxiously greets the group with "You guys cruising for lung cancer or what?" Fuck off, Michael.
  • One of Michael's frenemies offers him crack as the next step up from smoking pot. Everyone in this group is completely on board to smoke crack with no hesitation.
  • A girl in this friend group later offers to get them some crack if they can scrounge $10. The group points out that Michael has $10, right? They grab his wallet and run off with it, as is the norm for drug buys between friends.
  • Michael apparently keeps an ocarina in his drug box.
  • The Cartoon All-Stars escalate from berating Michael (ironically, using peer pressure) to coercing him to change his ways to physically assaulting him and threatening his life with drowning and buzz-saws in the final segment.
  • Michael's future is presented as that of a shriveled up heroin junkie, since the Cartoon All-Stars are staunch propagators of the "gateway drug" narrative. Modern government websites acknowledge that isn't actually a thing.

For the sake of full disclosure, I'll admit that I've done drugs. I've even written about doing them for this very site. I do believe they should be decriminalized, if not legalized, with the government's role focused more on treatment of addiction rather than draconian punitive measures. But you don't have to share my beliefs to see that talking down to tweens and just beginning a recursive bleat of "drugs are bad because drugs are bad because drugs are bad" is not just ineffective, but can often work counter to the goals of the PSA.

Research into the efficacy of these ads has been percolating for decades and, to their credit, "Above the Influence" and other modern campaigns of that ilk that focused less on calling a drug user a bozo, and more on encouraging the viewer to assert their individuality by not following the crowd and partaking have proven more effective at stemming the tide of new pot smokers.

Related: The Secret History of Cabbage Patch Kids


While the PSAs have adjusted their strategy, the pendulum of public opinion seems to be swinging towards outright legalization for marijuana. With 23 states plus DC allowing for medical possession, and four states permitting recreational pot smoking, the America of 2015 is pretty much Amsterdam compared to the zeitgeist that birthed Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue. Who knows where we'll be in 2040?

But have the voice actors changed their tune along with the hoi polloi? Well, ALF voice and puppeteer Paul Fusco certainly alludes to some experience with hard drug usage in this outtakes clip. (Warning: heavy usage of the N-word.)

As for the less bombastic characters, I spoke with Jim Cummings, the man behind Winnie-the-Pooh and Tigger, to see how he felt about the project in retrospect. Jim told me the one-day, solo recording session was fun and, unlike many of his colleagues, he had the foresight to nix any lines that would have Pooh articulating an intimate knowledge of the seedy world of drugs.

"He's an innocent. It makes no sense for him to even know those words," Jim told me.

While Jim admits he'd smoked pot in his early years before the taping of Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue, he doesn't share the opinion of over half of Americans who'd like to see the plant legalized.

"No, it shouldn't be allowed. I don't want everybody walking around two feet off the ground at all times."

A betting man would've picked the perma-chill Pooh as a proponent for change, but let the stark contrast between Jim and his character be a testament to his acting abilities.

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