Critics Decry Ads Linking Drugs, Terror

That message is factually suspect, some in drug control say, because most drug money goes nowhere near terrorists. Worse, they add, fingering America’s millions of drug users, including pot-smoking teenagers, as accomplices to terrorism is unrealistic and counterproductive.

That message is factually suspect, some in drug control say, because most drug money goes nowhere near terrorists. Worse, they add, fingering America’s millions of drug users, including pot-smoking teenagers, as accomplices to terrorism is unrealistic and counterproductive.

“It’s despicable and dangerous,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that favors alternatives to the drug war. “When you start labeling tens of millions of Americans as accomplices to terrorists or de facto murderers, you are creating and stirring an atmosphere of intolerance and hate-mongering that ends up being destructive and dangerous to the broader society.”

Tom Riley, spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said the new message simply tells it like it is.

“Every time you buy drugs, the money goes to people who hurt, kill and maim,” Riley said. “People won’t buy a brand of sneakers because they use substandard labor in another part of the world. This money goes to people who are far, far worse than that.”

The administration seized on the new message in the wake of Sept. 11 and shows no signs of letting go. Riley’s office is running an elaborate ad campaign, leaders are testifying before Congress, officials are meeting in high-profile conferences, budget documents are being carefully crafted; all to make one basic point–that terrorists use drug money to finance their evil works.

In one sense, the new approach fits Bush’s current pattern of casting many of his goals as crucial to the war on terrorism, from tax cuts to health care to energy policy. But the drug message is being broadcast with special vehemence.

The message sprang into public notice when the Office of National Drug Control Policy, often called the drug czar’s office, launched a $10 million advertising campaign with two jarring 30-second ads during the Super Bowl. The ads have run frequently since, and print versions have appeared in nearly 200 newspapers.

In one, a young man says, “Yesterday afternoon, I did my laundry, went out for a run, and helped torture someone’s dad.” In another, a youth says, “Last weekend I washed my car, hung out with a few friends, and helped murder a family in Colombia.”

The ads conclude somberly, “Drug money helps support terror. Buy drugs and you could be supporting it, too.”

The idea, sponsors say, is to get through to jaded young men and women who have been contemptuous of previous anti-drug messages and who view drug use as a victimless crime and a personal choice.

“One of the reasons these ads are so potent is that they appeal to the idealism of young people,” drug czar John Walters said recently. “Where previous anti-drug ads have focused on the devastating toll that drugs take on individuals, these ads speak to young people’s desire to make the world a better place.”

Ads only part of the strategy

The ads are only a small part of the administration’s new drugs-equal-terror campaign. Last December, Bush signed a new anti-drug initiative and told his audience: “Terrorists use drug profits to fund their cells to commit acts of murder. If you quit drugs, you join the fight against terror in America.”

Last week, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft announced the indictment of three members of a Colombian guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, accused of conspiring to ship cocaine into the U.S., and he stressed the “evil interdependence” between drugs and terrorism.

Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Drug Enforcement Administration convened its first-ever conference on drugs and terrorism.

In pushing a $1.7 billion budget request, DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson played up the drugs-terror connection. Hutchinson knows he must compete with the enormous spending on the war on terrorism; Congress approved $40 billion to fight terrorism last year, and Bush is now asking for $27 billion more.

In asking Congress last month for a budget increase, Hutchinson said the proposal would give the DEA “not only the money needed to fight drug abuse and drug trafficking, but would also help break the historic link between drugs, violence and terrorism.”

Critics: Connection is forced

Those who oppose the war on drugs are distressed by this drumbeat. The new message, in their view, is merely a way to reinvigorate a discredited war on drugs. Only a tiny fraction of drug dollars flows to terrorists, they said, and the assertion that buying drugs helps terrorism is questionable at best.

“You have to stretch a long way to make that plausible,” said Peter Reuter, a drug policy expert at the University of Maryland. “Marijuana, which is what the vast majority of drug users use, is grown primarily in the United States and Mexico and has no connection with terrorism.”

Others said a portion of the money from many purchases–from diamonds to athletic shoes–goes to unsavory characters, so drugs are hardly unique in this way. And they questioned the ads’ effectiveness, saying skeptical teenagers were unlikely to buy the argument that smoking marijuana helps Osama bin Laden.

“This is an effort to demonize drug users,” said Eric Sterling, president of the liberal Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. “At a time when many are talking about the importance of drug treatment, this rhetoric sends the message that drug users are not people with chemical dependencies, they are aiding and abetting terrorists and need to be locked up.”

Riley, the drug czar’s spokesman, said such arguments merely reflect the message’s effectiveness.

“The reason the drug legalizers have been incredibly critical of these ads is that their argument has always been, `Hey, drug use doesn’t hurt anyone else, it’s my choice,’” Riley said. “This exposes that. When you buy drugs, you are hurting other people.”

Supporters of the campaign say it is obvious that terrorism and drug dealing form a seamless web: Terrorists use drugs to finance their killing, and drug lords kill to protect their trafficking.

The FARC, a group that has murdered and kidnapped thousands, receives $300 million a year from cocaine trafficking, U.S. officials say. The Taliban, while officially banning poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, nonetheless profited financially from the opium trade, according to the DEA.

Critics say the Northern Alliance, America’s ally in the war, was involved heavily in the narcotics trade. But the DEA says the Taliban ran a “drug state” whose economy “was exceptionally dependent on opium,” and that bin Laden financed and facilitated heroin trafficking.

“Some of the critics say, `I just buy my marijuana locally, it probably comes from Mexico,’” Riley said. “What do they think, it’s from some nice Mexican farmer who FedExes it to your door? It goes through the hands of hideously violent people who kill women and children and probably use organized crime to distribute it in the United States.”

Right or wrong, the public is likely to see more of the drugs-and-terror message in the future. Walters, the drug czar, has ordered up another batch of ads.

“Our goal was to introduce an idea,” Walters said. “I believe we have accomplished that goal.”

Author: Naftali Bendavid

News Service: Chicago Tribune


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