Episode 174: How Your Favorite 1990’s “Very Special” Anti-Drug Episode Was Probably Funded by the US Government

Citations Needed | January 25, 2023 | Transcript

Citations Needed
60 min readJan 25


Home Improvement’s “What A Drag” episode, which aired on ABC on February 24, 1998


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Welcome to 2023. We are in the midst of our sixth season of Citations Needed and thank you again for joining us. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and, if you are so inclined, become a supporter of the show, which is 100 percent listener funded, through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast.

Adam: It really does help keep the show sustainable. So if you do listen to the show and you like it, please help us out there.

Nima: On a Very Special Episode of Home Improvement, Tim and Jill lecture their son about the dangers of marjuana after he’s caught smoking a “joint”. On a powerful episode of ABC’s Sports Night, written by Aaron Sorkin, sportscaster Dan Rydell delivers a four-minute monologue on how dope killed his younger brother. On a devastating episode of CBS’s Chicago Hope a dozen teenagers are rushed to the emergency room after taking a new psychedelic drug at a rave.

Adam: We’ve all seen these Very Special Drug episodes throughout our childhoods and adolescence. For some reason, our favorite shows, seemingly out of nowhere, decided to dedicate an entire episode to the perils of teenage drug use.

Nima: These episodes, mostly from the 1980s and ’90s, have become a cultural punchline, something amusing and mocked but ultimately, one would think, harmless. But what most viewers don’t know is that many of these episodes were not just part of a teen-oriented convention turned TV trope; a number of them were actually funded by the federal government to the tune of hundreds of thousands — sometimes millions — of dollars to promote so-called “drug awareness.”

Adam:The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, or the ONDCP, in the late 1990s made a deal with multiple TV networks to include anti-drug messaging in show plots. In 1997, Congress approved a plan to buy $1 billion of anti-drug advertising over five years for its National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign.

Nima: From at least 1997 to 2000, the Feds paid TV networks to air what was ostensibly drug awareness public health information but was, in many key ways, propaganda to sustain and build support for the war on drugs. $200,000 for WB’s 7th Heaven, $750,000 for Beverly Hills 90210, 1.4 million for ER — the White House drug office paid networks large sums of money to weave so-called “anti-drug” stories in their narratives, undisclosed to the viewer of course, often revising and approving scripts without the show writers knowledge.

Adam: And rather than being harmless — if corny — anti-drug messages we can all now laugh at, these narratives were also part of a broader scare strategy to frighten, misinform, and prop up the federal government’s war on drugs both at home and abroad. On today’s episode, we will review some of the major TV shows that ran these episodes, how much money they took in from the US government, and how these tropes shaped and directly impacted public policy that promoted racism, imperial meddling in Latin America, and of course mass incarceration.

Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be joined by Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

[Begin Clip]

Kassandra Frederique: I think the idea of addiction is super flat and I think people learn differently, but I think there’s still a large group of people that feel like if you try a drug once then you’re hooked forever, completely flattening the conversation around dependence and addiction, and so it completely shapes the idea of what addiction is, I think, our shows and the mandate was really to make it as scary as possible. Also, it shaped the way that we see people who use drugs, and it really made us also arbiters to the dehumanization of other people.

[End Clip]

Adam: This episode is a spiritual sequel to Episode 140: Kicking the Hollywood Habit: Addiction Morality Tales in Film and TV, which we recorded back in July of 2021 with friend of the show, Zach Siegel, where we detailed Hollywood’s treatment of drug abuse.

Nima: Senior drug correspondent.

Adam: Senior drug correspondent. We mentioned briefly the primary subject we’re going to be talking about today, which is the way the federal government actually funds Very Special Episodes, which we’ll get to more later, but we’ve mentioned it only for a few minutes, and we’d really thought it deserved its own episode. So if you want to get a better historical analysis of how Hollywood itself has worked with, or has pushed war on drug narratives, which goes hand in hand with this moralistic, tough love, abstinence-only approach to drugs, by all means listen to that.

Nima: Yeah, there was “Just Say No.” “Users are losers.” “This is your brain on drugs.” McGruff the Crime Dog. “I learned it from watching you, Dad!” For decades now, law enforcement, government agencies, nonprofits and probably your parents as well, have been trying to convince teenagers that drugs are the worst — they’re dangerous, lethal, evil.

Since at least the middle of the 20th century, educational films shown in classrooms and public service announcements — or, PSAs — that aired during primetime TV commercial breaks, kids in America have been bombarded by adults telling them how harmful and sinister drugs can be.

Adam: For instance, I mean, everybody knows about Reefer Madness, the other kind of 1950s and ’60s anti-drug propaganda, but for those not familiar or who are not intimate with a creative genius that was the anti-drug messaging of the 1950s and ’60s, it was very common for PSAs to be produced in concert with the federal government to basically scare teenagers into not using drugs, and of course, these were rife with racism and, of course, propping up the broader war on drugs, which was kind of just taken for granted. So let’s listen to one of those anti-drug PSAs produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica Films in 1951, in partnership with the Juvenile Protective Service of Chicago and the Wieboldt Foundation:

[Begin Clip]

Man: (Music) Youth is a happy time and a carefree time. A time of auto rides and double dates. It’s a time of fun, and pranks and jokes. Of ice cream cones and chocolate sodas. Youth is a time for getting a job, for finding one’s place in the world. But sometimes in these troubled days, the very thoughtlessness of youth has led to a living nightmare: addiction to drugs, too often acquired with tragic carelessness, may take control of a life and force actions not dreamed of before. To these addicts, life’s only work is to find money for drugs. In their desperation, no means is too foul. Their only goal in life is to keep the deadening chemicals forever in their heart’s blood.

[End Clip]

Nima: Sadly, this episode of Citations Needed will not just listen to 1950s anti-drug PSAs Yeah, we are going to talk about other things — I feel like we could listen to those forever — but what is important to recognize is that not only were these PSAs produced for ostensibly educational purposes, but Hollywood got into the game of anti-drug messaging, as well. Early in fact. Dragnet, the show, which began as a 1949 radio show, later became a sprawling franchise that included multiple TV series from 1951 through 1959, and again 1967 through 1969, and later produced as a movie in 1987 with Tom Hanks and Dan Aykroyd, not to mention Dabney Coleman and Christopher Plummer. But Dragnet’s production was closely connected to the LAPD from its inception. As writer Jacqui Shine detailed in a 2015 article, quote:

“The Los Angeles Police Department was deeply involved in every stage of Dragnet’s production, from start to finish. A team of officers culled potential cases, and patrolmen and detectives wrote up their own cases in the hopes of inspiring an episode and pocketing a $100 payment. [LAPD Chief William H. Parker] gave [show creator Jack] Webb extraordinary access to the department and his officers, including, one magazine suggested, crime scene visits. Scripts, which were studded with real jargon and the names of actual LAPD staff, were submitted to Parker or his surrogates twice, once to check for technical accuracy and once for final approval. In 1953, he ordered Webb to stop using the word ‘cop,’ which he (and J. Edgar Hoover) found disrespectful. For several years, Dragnet was actually filmed inside police headquarters. When the department moved to a new building in 1955, Webb built a $40,000 set that replicated the Police Administration Building down to the doorknobs and even used photographs to recreate the views in every office. Webb always used a genuine LAPD badge — a retired style at first, and then a replica detective’s badge — and, when gunplay was required, a technical adviser brought a service revolver to the set each morning. Webb paid the off-duty officers who were on set during filming and gave six percent of the show’s profits to the LAPD, usually in the form of donations to the police academy and the like.”

End quote.


Adam: In June 1971, President Richard Nixon declared the launch of the War on Drugs, officially identifying drug abuse as, quote, “America’s public enemy number one.” Former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman, somewhat infamously, you may have heard this by now, but if you haven’t, we’re going to read it to you, he told Harper magazine writer Dan Baum for a cover story that was published in April of 2016, but was actually an interview from 1995, this is a quote from Baum that Ehrlichman told him in 1995. He said quote,

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people…You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

End quote.

So this is an admission, it’s technically hearsay, you can sort of believe it or not, I think it’s pretty much in line with what people knew at the time, that drugs became a proxy against the left, against Black people, as we’ll argue later, obviously, anti-communism, foreign policy, a way of meddling in Latin America, specifically in the context of the ’90s a way of mopping up the remnants of leftist insurgents in Latin America, because drugs are the ultimate pretexts, right? Because they’re so ubiquitous, you can use them for whatever political aim you really want to use them for, which is why keeping the fear and panic and moral framework around drugs at an eleven at all times is so beneficial.

Nima: The government in Hollywood have always been connected in producing drug related messaging, but by the 1980s, and specifically the launch of then First Lady Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign, anti-drug marketing really started targeting children through the medium of television — not just in cassette tapes like the McGruff Smart Kids Album from 1986, featuring Ad Council-created animated anti-drug mascot McGruff the Crime Dog, of course — and no longer was it just in PSAs.

Indeed, 1986 was a critical year in the media blitz against drug use. That year, The Partnership for a Drug-Free America was created by marketing and media executives who, in the words of the Partnership itself, “believed that the persuasive power of advertising would be effective in preventing young people from trying substances.”

The project, which later changed its name to the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, recounts its own history like this:

Under the leadership of former Johnson & Johnson CEO James E. Burke, the Partnership brought together the donated time and talent of advertising agencies, production companies, the SAG-AFTRA union and major television networks, radio stations, magazines and newspapers in the development and airing of Partnership public service advertising (PSAs). With iconic PSAs, including “Fried Egg” and “Long Way Home,” along with many ads featuring celebrities, prominent sports figures and real families impacted by addiction, the collective body of work is now the largest single-issue public service campaign in the history of advertising.

By the early 1990s, more than $300 million worth of advertising time and space was being contributed annually to these PSAs.

In a 2016 essay examining the propaganda impact of over 40 of these PSAs between 1987 and 1991, Joseph Moreau wrote in the Journal of Social History:

“In the mid-1980s the Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA) began the largest privately run public-service campaign in history. Turning their day jobs upside down, professional advertisers exhorted young people to resist the temptations of some of the most sought after, if illegal, consumer goods in the country. In doing so they entered a long-running debate in educational circles about how best to teach adolescents about drugs.”

Moreau concludes that the messaging of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America “aligned closely with the conservatives.”

Its compelling narratives depicted the perils of drugs and demonstrated why even casual use leads inexorably to serious injury or death. Unlike typical producers of curricular materials, however, many in the Partnership faced a unique difficulty in disseminating that message — their business ties to producers of legal drugs. The PDFA’s ads thus came to rest on an unspoken distinction between the hazards of illicit substances, which were skillfully dramatized, and those of licit ones, which had to be ignored. That inconsistency provoked heated criticism as it exposed fault lines in the War on Drugs and Reagan era politics more generally, which uneasily balanced laissez-faire economics with calls for individual responsibility and a return to traditional values.”

The government and Hollywood have always been connected in producing anti-drug messaging. In the ’80s and ’90s, anti-drug messaging really became embedded into the scripts of TV sitcoms and dramas.

The government, mostly through the ONDCP, worked with writers and producers on storylines, funding shows themselves and often getting networks to donate airtime for the work. Of course, there are, you know, infamous examples like the 1983 Diff’rent Strokes episode, “The Reporter,” on which Nancy Reagan actually pops up at the end to do a bit of “Just Say No” messaging. There was the 1984 “Say Uncle” episode of Family Ties, which also has Tom Hanks in it. There’s the 1987 “Thank God It’s Friday” episode of Growing Pains. And, of course, there is the Saved by the Bell episode with Jessie Spano’s caffeine-fueled freak out.

While drug use by teenagers dropped drastically between the late 1970s and early 1990s, a result less correlated with the simplistic, reactionary and moralistic anti-drug advertising and entertainment than other societal and environmental factors, it began to rise again later in the decade. Janelle Brown, writing in Salon back in 2002, noted that,

“When drug use again began to rise in the late 1990s, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America and the ONDCP renewed their efforts: They began working together, and in 1998 they launched the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign. Congress apportioned some $1 billion to pay for advertising space for the ads produced by the two groups, and an anti-drug media blitz flooded the nation with an assortment of anti-drug advertisements.”

But, the ad scheme wasn’t very popular at the TV networks, since each government-sponsored ad slots had to be coupled with a free one donated to the Partnership by the stations themselves. S, effectively getting half the price for ads didn’t make the network very happy, so a new scheme was cooked up by Alan Levitt, ONDCP’s advertising director, and Zenith Media Services CEO Richard Hamilton, who was then the chief ad buyer for the drug czar’s office. They came up with the idea of using programming itself — via the plots of popular TV shows — to redeem the second ad slot owed the government.

As Daniel Forbes wrote in Salon in 2000:

That spring of 1998, Hamilton and Levitt agreed that sitcoms and dramas that met with the drug-policy office’s approval could be used in lieu of the ad slots still owed to the government. Formulas would be applied to determine the cash value of these embedded messages, and the networks would then be free to resell the commercials they otherwise would have given to the government.

Ultimately, the ONDCP developed an accounting system to decide which shows would be valued and for how much. And its officials began to vet television shows in advance, sometimes suggesting alterations. Tapes of the show as broadcast were sent to the office or its ad buyer to be assigned a final monetary value, which would then be subtracted from the total the particular network owed the office.

Adam: So the Clinton White House 1996, 1997, this is one of the few instances where we actually know based on contemporary reporting, at the time, the actual amounts that the federal government paid through ad subsidies to these networks to weave in storylines. We’re actually going to start off by reading an excerpt from the original report, it was broken by Salon in January of 2000 by the reporter Daniel Forbes, and his article, “Prime-time Propaganda,” he wrote, quote:

“Under the sway of the office of President Clinton’s drug czar, Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, some of America’s most popular shows — including ‘ER,’ ‘Beverly Hills 90210,’ ‘Chicago Hope,’ ‘The Drew Carey Show’ and ‘7th Heaven’ — have filled their episodes with anti-drug pitches to cash in on a complex government advertising subsidy. Here’s how helping the government got to be so lucrative. In late 1997, Congress approved an immense, five-year, $1 billion ad buy for anti-drug advertising as long as the networks sold ad time to the government at half price — a two-for-one deal that provided over $2 billion worth of ads for a $1 billion allocation. But the five participating networks weren’t crazy about the deal from the start. And when, soon after, they were deluged with the fruits of a booming economy, most particularly an unexpected wave of dot-com ads, they liked it even less. So the drug czar’s office, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), presented the networks with a compromise: The office would give up some of that precious ad time it had bought — in return for getting anti-drug motifs incorporated within specific prime-time shows. That created a new, more potent strain of the anti-drug social engineering the government wanted. And it allowed the TV networks to resell the ad time at the going rate to IBM, Microsoft or Yahoo.”

From the The New York Times, Marc Lacey and Bill Carter, who followed up the Salon report on January 14, because everyone knows when alternative media breaks it The New York Times has to come in and do their version, their more polite version.

Nima: They have to make it official.

Adam: Right, of course. If I just told you Salon you wouldn’t believe me, but now I said New York Times you go ‘Oh yeah, of course this is real.’ Quote:

“Under the program, government officials get an advance look at whatever shows the networks want to submit and an opportunity to make the case that anti-drug messages be inserted. Occasionally, the drug policy office might suggest that a scene be changed or a line rewritten to show characters turning down marijuana or ruining their lives through cocaine, said Alan Levitt, an official in the drug policy office who helped create the program…all the major networks had participated in the arrangement, saving more than $20 million in advertising costs.”

Salon would go on to interview one Chicago Hope writer who said he was, quote, “stunned” by the practice. Salon would write, quote:

“This reporter spoke with some 20 writers, producers and production executives for major shows. With perhaps one exception, nobody knew of the arrangement. John Tinker, last season’s ‘Chicago Hope’ executive producer, took the News Corp. call requesting an anti-drug episode. He recalls no mention of CBS being able to recoup something like half a million dollars in ad time for the one shrill episode he helped craft at the show owner’s request. He says the financial incentives are ‘complete news to me.’ He adds, ‘I’m so caught off guard, so stunned. I like to think I’m well informed. I had not a clue about any financial incentives.’ Asked if the scheme gave him cause for concern, Tinker says, ‘Of course. It smells manipulative … All of this is disturbing.’”

End quote.

So what we have here is a rare glimpse into sort of how the machinery works, where the White House has something that kind of seems benign, right? Putting anti-drug messages in shows sort of seems wholesome. Drugs are bad, putting anti-drug messages in the show is not bad.

Nima: Reaching the audience where they are Adam. That’s what is said in communications parlance, right?

Adam: Education, right?

Nima: The kids are watching TV, get to the kids, tell them that drugs are bad, because all of their favorite characters are telling them that or experiencing horrible, horrible realities based on doing drugs, their friends doing drugs, and so they see this, you know, night after night on TV, in shows that they care about, characters they care about, and the messaging is supposed to then work.

Adam: And of course, the problem with that is that it’s bullshit propaganda, because the goal is not to educate people about drugs, which we’ll explain later. We knew at the time, this kind of fear mongering didn’t really help educate or prevent drug use, and in fact, some studies show it to the opposite effect, it enticed teenagers to want to use drugs. The goal was to just support US policy around drugs, both foreign and domestic, and to scare the shit out of people, which as you’ll see in these upcoming clips, is the effective purpose of it. Again, this is this is sort of like when the Gates Foundation, as we discussed in the very first episode of the show, episode one, we’ve done storylines in a similar way where the people involved, the actors, the production, didn’t know they had script approval with ad lines because it was above their pay grade, and when they did it about AIDS prevention, you’re like, okay, that’s sort of seems benign, again, it’s still sort of sinister, you should probably disclose that, but when it starts to become charter schools or education reform, where it kind of veers from inoffensive, public health measure to propaganda, then it becomes problematic. And of course, there’s nothing at all about US drug policy, especially in the ’90s, that can be seen as public health oriented. It wasn’t at all. It was about fear and wrapping up support for doubling down on the war on drugs, and specifically mass incarceration and imperial meddling in Latin America.

Nima: Now, a little over a year ago, December of 2021, writer Gabe Levine-Drizin published a piece on this very thing, and conveniently, in that piece on your own Substack, Adam, are a number of clips. And so we’re going to watch a number of these that are included in that article, because some of them are benign and weird and kind of sad, and then you realize that the government was paying for them and it’s all the weirder and some of them are just completely fucking bonkers.

Adam: Take a trip down memory lane, we are pandering to our Millennial listeners if you’re Gen Z and you don’t even know what a TV show is —

Nima: Write in if you saw these live or if we’re just too old.

Adam: I feel like Gen Z’s just fed like pro drug commercials now, they’re so confused by this. They’re like, what is that? Actually, we’ve gone the other way.

Nima: I know it was a weird and wacky time when we were growing up. So here we go. The first one is from Season 8 of Beverly Hills 90210. Now, these are back-to-back clips from episodes 21 and 23 of that season, and they detail the character Donna’s downward spiral into drug addiction. Now, according to the Salon article that we referenced earlier, based on the price of an ad that ran during the time slot that Beverly Hills 90210 aired, this two season plotline arc was valued somewhere between $500,000 and $750,000.

Adam: So a really quick note on methodology. We knew the amount the show was paid, we know the year the episode aired, it did not say the exact episode, but it’s very, very easy to find because you look at all the episodes of that season, which poor Gabe had to do, and you find the ridiculous didactic drug episode, and we are using our inference to assume that is the one they paid for, and I think it’s fairly obvious which ones those are because they’re very, very often as you’ll see, they’re quite atonal. They’re not like the rest of the show, and they’re very clearly, again, written in an ad script review by someone at the White House.

Nima: So let’s listen to this clip. This is from Beverly Hills 90210 Season 8. These episodes aired February 25, 1998, and then March 18, 1998. So here we go. The character of Donna Martin played by Tori Spelling is popping pills.

[Begin Clip]

Woman: What is that? I thought you were holding off?

Donna: I was until about 4:30 This morning, when it numbed the pain and helped me sleep.

Woman: I hope you canceled your presentation for today.

Donna: It’s tomorrow but I did call in sick today.

Nima: We then see Donna sitting at work taking pills again in her cubicle.

Adam: Taking the amphetamine.

Nima: But not feeling great about it.

Man: Take it, don’t take it. At least you have it in case you need it, right? At least you got it in case you need it, right?

Man #2: I brought you two like you asked, but I’ve got more.

Adam: Now she’s talking to her drug dealer who just handed her a bunch of speed.

Donna: I just did this to get through my presentation. Kelly, where are my pills? Have you seen them?

Kelly: Just a sec. What happened?

Adam: She’s going pretty hard here. So we’re just taking a bunch of pills over a few episodes. It’s not really good.

Kelly: What are you looking for?

Donna: My pills.

Kelly: Pain is that bad, huh?

Donna: No, I just like taking pills that completely knock me out.

[End Clip]

Nima: These episodes showed Donna on this downward spiral. She starts, you know, treating her friends terribly. There’s one scene later where she’s in a doctor’s office and when the doctor leaves, she raids the cabinet to get more speed.

Adam: So again, the show was not interested in talking about the holistic view of what causes someone to get addicted to speed or what the social conditions are, what companies are pushing, right, they’re sort of interested in scaring you and scaring teenagers, but more importantly, scaring the parents of teenagers, which is really the sort of core demographic of all this bullshit, and then to conclude her downward spiral she ends up having, of course, an overdose, which is a common trope you’ll see throughout these. She lives though, goes on, but more importantly, Fox got their money, got their cash.

Season 7 of Home Improvement is up next. Season 7 of Home Improvement aired an episode called “What a Drag” where they found their son’s marijuana stash. Jill and Tim Allen, who of course, was a snitch and spent years in prison as a drug dealer, they have a discussion about the dangers of pot and marijuana with their teenager on primetime television, and they were paid for this little over half a million dollars.

[Begin Clip]

Tim: Sit.

Brad: Look, I told you guys, I was just holding it for somebody else.

Tim: What do you think, we are a bunch of idiots? We’re to believe that you’re all of a sudden in the marijuana storage business?

Jill: Is this your dope or not?

Tim: The truth.

Brad: All right, all right. It’s mine. I came to pick it up after the basketball game and I was going to take it to a party.

Tim: Now you’re a supplier.

Brad: No dad, a lot of kids bring stuff.

Tim: What is it a potluck?

Jill: Is this the only drug you’re doing?

Brad: Yes.

Jill: How much are you smoking?

Brad: I don’t know.

Jill: Once a week, once a month? What?

Brad: I do it when I go to parties. It’s just a way to kick back and mellow out every once in a while.

Jill: I see so you kick back and mellow out to your car, get behind the wheel and mellow yourself right into a telephone poll. You already managed to do that one straight.

Tim: Or were you straight then?

Brad: I don’t get high and drive.

Jill: You were going to drive tonight.

Brad: You know what? Don’t you guys think you’re making a big deal out of this?

Tim: If it wasn’t a big deal why were you hiding under the bench out there?

Brad: Because I knew you’d freak.

Tim: Well, why did you think I’d freak about it? Why do you think so? It’s because what you’re doing is illegal here.

[End Clip]

Nima: Later in the episode. There’s this scene.

[Begin Clip]

Jill: Brad, I know what this is like, you know, when you’re young, you want to have adventures, you think nothing bad can happen to me. It’s just not true. Something bad can happen to you. Why would you want to take that risk?

Tim: Your life is on track, you don’t want to do stuff to get off track, you know, you got so much going for you, you got so much to lose. I mean how about your soccer scholarship?

Jill: And the trust of a family who loves you.

Brad: Yeah, I don’t want to lose my soccer scholarship or the other thing.

Tim: The other thing is the most important thing in your life. Nobody believes or cares in you as much as we do.

Brad: I know that.

Jill: So, what now?

Tim: What are you going to do next time you go to a party?

Jill: Which, by the way, will be a very long time.

Tim: Someone wants you to smoke some pot, what are you gonna do?

Brad: I’ll just say no thanks.

Tim: Oh, come on. Just a toke. Come on, Brad. Come on.

Brad: I won’t take it.

Tim: What are you gonna tell them when they ask why not?

Brad: I don’t know. I mean, I guess I’ll just make up some kind of excuse.

Jill: Here’s what they tell us to use the counseling center. Tell him that you can’t smoke because if you get caught again your parents are going to put you on drug testing.

Brad: Well do you think my friends are really gonna buy that?

Tim: You convinced? Because it’ll be true.

Brad: Okay, I get the picture.

Tim: Good. Now this sensitive emotional moment is over, let’s go back to your room. I’ll talk to you tomorrow after 10 o’clock.

Brad: What then?

Tim: Sentencing.

Brad: Alright, I’m sorry.

Tim: Alright.

Jill: Do you remember when the worst problem that we had with Brad was toilet training?

Tim: Makes sense. Couldn’t get him on the pot, now we’re trying to get him off the pot.

[End Clip]

Nima: In one episode of the show ER from NBC, which aired on October 29, 1998, one of the plotlines revolved around two medical students who very nearly overdose on the drug ecstasy. Now this, and other episodes of ER, included explicit anti drug plots, and were redeemed by the network, by NBC, to the tune of $1.4 million worth of ad time that it could then sell to other companies.

Adam: And this is because ER was the most popular show in the country and it wasn’t even close at the time. So we could garner way more money.

[Begin Clip]

Man #1: Wake up. Wake up. I got a weak carotid pulse, but he’s not breathing.

(Sound of puking)

Woman: Can I do anything? What can I do?

Man #2: He vomited. That’s good, right?

Man #1: No, that’s bad. He vomits and it gets sound into his lungs he can die of aspiration pneumonia.

Woman: His parents live in Downers Grove, we can call them.

Man #3: Up here! Second floor!

Woman: What is it?

Man #1: It’s liquid ecstasy.

Woman: What is that?

Man #1: It’s like a narcotic. Did anybody else take it?

Woman: I don’t know. I didn’t even know Willy took it.

Man #2: Branch took some earlier.

Man #1: I can’t leave Willy.

Woman: I’ll go.

[End Clip]

Adam: ER also had a plot the prior season where a woman had a basically a fetal crack baby, and they had a crack baby episode. We weren’t totally sure which episode was the one they paid for, or if it was both, but just a little context. And we played the clip from Chicago Hope, it was the only clip we played in Episode 140. That’s the ER knockoff, Chicago Hope. They had a similar scare story about raves and party drugs from the same year they were paid $500,000, CBS was, where a bunch of teens go to the hospital and several die from taking an exotic drug called blue nitrile. So there was a real effort to kind of scare kids about this sort of emerging panic around rave drugs or party drugs. I guess maybe they weren’t called raves by then, but they were around ’99, 2000, and those were purely based on people dying or babies being deformed. The medical shows are used less for the kind of sit down preachy stuff and more just to scare the shit out of people.

Nima: 1998 was a real doozy for these kinds of episodes. Take for example, just the second episode of the show Sports Night, created and written by Aaron Sorkin. The episode is entitled “The Apology,” in which sportscaster Dan Rydell, played by Josh Charles, has to issue an apology for something that was revealed in a national magazine’s interview with him in which he notes that he is in favor of legalizing marijuana. So there’s a big uproar. There’s some cursory language in the episode about how the war on drugs is a failure, but still at the end, this is what Dan Rydell says right before commercial break in the ESPN Sports Center knock off show Sports Night.

[Begin Clip]

Dan Rydell: This network, the Continental Sports Channel, has asked me to clarify some remarks I made in a publication that hit your newsstands this morning. It is possible that one could come away from this article with the impression that I don’t believe that drugs are a destructive and deadly force on our culture or economy and on the lives of our children.

Natalie: Uh oh.

Isaac: Talk to me Dana.

Dana: Stay with him.

Natalie: Casey, be ready to take us to commercial.

Isaac: Come on Daniel.

Dan Rydell: I have a younger brother named Sam. Sam’s a genius. I mean, literally, as a kid, he tested off the charts. The first computer I ever had he built from a kid he bought with money here and tutoring other kids in math. Energetic and articulate, curious and funny. A great source of pride to our parents. And there’s no doubt that he’d be living a great life right now except for that he’s dead. Because when you’re 14 years old, all you ever really want to be when you grow up as your 16 year old brother, and in my case, that meant smoking a lot of dope. The day I went off to college was the day that Sam got his driver’s license, and he celebrated by taking a drive with some of his friends drunk and high as a paper kite. He never saw the red light that he ran, and he probably never saw the 18 wheel truck that put them into the side of a brick bank either. That was 11 years ago tonight and I just wanted to say I’m sorry Sam. You deserve better in my hands, and I apologize. That’s all. Casey and I will be right back after this with the American League wrap up, you’re watching Sports Night on CSC, so don’t go away.

[End Clip]

Adam: So, you know, again, you’re going to have some equivocation about the nature of the war on drugs. But ultimately, the message has to hit people, you get drunk, you drive, you die. Okay, you know, it’s very similar to the theme from Home Improvement, which is basically don’t smoke weed when you’re a kid, you will literally die. And for that ABC received $450,000 in rebates. So the next one up, which is the last one on the list, is my personal favorite, because it’s by far the most didactic and unsubtle and cheesy, which is WB’s Seventh Heaven, which earned about $200,000, being on the WB it wasn’t getting the primo bucks for an episode from Season 3, titled “No Sex, Some Drugs and a Little Rock and Roll.” This was November 16, 1998. As we watch these clips, where they discuss in detail the dangers of ephedrine, which is a stimulant, for those who don’t know, and it very much actually just reads like it’s written by a cop, like literally like a federal drug agent would write. So we’re going to listen to a couple of those clips. The first one is the father of one of the daughters, who was given ephedrine by another daughter, and he’s having a conversation with another daughter’s dad, who refuses to listen and is a big fan of having his daughter be addicted to stimulants. So we’re going to listen to that now.

[Begin Clip]

Eric: Thanks for seeing me on such short notice.

Seth: You sounded pretty upset on the phone.

Eric: Well, it’s about some pills that Diane gave Mary.

Seth: Body Petrol Plus. Diane filled me. I thank you for being so concerned about the girls. But with all due respect, I think you might be overreacting.

Eric: How much you know about those pills.

Seth: I take them myself. I bought them in a health food store. They’re natural and they’re perfectly safe.

Eric: Unfortunately, that’s exactly what the makers of Body Petrol Plus want you to think, that if it’s natural, then it’s safe. But in this case, it just isn’t true.

Seth: Well, I don’t think I understand.

Eric: The main ingredient in those pills is something called ephedrine and makers of Body Petrol Plus and hundreds of products like it figured out that ephedrine in large doses has the same effect as speed. Now, some of the manufacturers of ephedrine-based supplements market their product as the natural, legal version of an illegal street drug, other manufacturers market to health conscious people who are looking for more energy in order to work harder or achieve — what do they all say? — optimum athletic performance.

Seth: That’s very interesting because you see —

Eric: You know Seth, according to the FDA, in the past five years, three dozen deaths have been attributed to ephedrine related supplements. A lot of those people were young, healthy kids who never thought that they were taking something that could kill them or leave them with permanent disabilities. It’s just too bad. People had to die before anyone noticed how bad this stuff is.

Seth: I can’t even imagine someone as healthy as Diane dying.

Eric: Really? Heart attack, stroke, angina, heart arrhythmias. Those are some of the side effects from using products that contain ephedrine. Oh, and then of course, there’s seizures, vomiting, memory loss, psychiatric disorders, and if you mix ephedrine with caffeine, like a soda or coffee, then you increase the likelihood of suffering ill effects.

[End Clip]

Nima: Yeah, that just reads like a press release with statistics and really just sort of bludgeoning the audience with, you know, ‘also when taken with coffee, as the kids do these days, this could have ill effects, if you think death is an ill effect.’ It’s not looking good for Diane, incidentally, because once you foreshadow the idea that she’s super healthy, and that her parent doesn’t even care, Adam, what is the inevitable consequence that we’re going to see on this show?

Adam: Well, you get three guesses, your first two don’t count. His daughter and that dad, his daughter, they’re on a basketball court and the skeptical glib father’s daughter is practicing basketball at night really hard because she’s fucking spun out of her, she’s chopping around like a jack rabbit. So let’s watch that clip right now.

[Begin Clip]

Mary: Didn’t you hear anything my dad said to you?

Diane: My dad knows what he’s talking about too. Nothing is gonna happen to me.

Mary: Oh yeah, people have died. Don’t you get it? You can’t be this stupid.

Diane: Look at me. I’m in the best shape of my life. I’m not gonna die.

Mary: You know, I came to talk to you tonight because I thought I could get you to do the right thing and stop taking those pills. But now I realized I can’t make you do something that you don’t want to do.

Diane: Good.

Mary: But I’m not just gonna stand by and watch you hurt yourself. So you’re on your own.

Diane: Don’t go.

Mary: Why should I stay?

Diane: I’ll make you a deal. You stop bugging me about the pills and at the end of the season I’ll stop taking them completely.

Mary: You should stop now.

Diane: I Can’t.

Mary: At the end of the season you’ll stop for good? I guess it’s better than nothing. We’ve still got time to catch my mom making an idiot out of herself with my dad’s wacky friends.

Diane: Right after a quick game of 21?

Mary: Whoa nice shots. Hey, my ball. You okay? Diane?

[End Clip]

Nima: So yeah, hopped up on goofballs, that’s where it gets you.

Adam: Right. And so the obvious question you probably have in your mind while listening to this is wait a second? Didn’t Jessie Spano’s equally dubious caffeine addiction episode.

[Begin Clip]

Zack: You mean, you really are taking drugs?

Jessie: I need them.

Zack: Jessie, give me those.

Jessie: I need them Zack, I have to sing!

Zack: Jessie! You can’t sing tonight.

Jessie: I can! (singing) ‘I’m so excited! I’m so excited!’… I’m so… scared.

Zack: Jessie, Jessie.

[End Clip]

Adam: So it’s caffeine pills, originally in the script it was supposed to be in ephedrine, similar to the Seventh Heaven episode, but they decided that was too heavy for Saturday afternoon. So that’s a little different, that aired prior to this program in 1997, again, we don’t know what kind of deals the White House or the Department of Justice or DEA had with the other TV networks in previous years, we can only speculate, but Saved by the Bell was a Saturday, effectively a Saturday morning program, and Saturday morning programs, there’s a great article called, “The Great Marketing Deregulation. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan changed marketing to children forever.” It was written in July of 2020, by Jamie Logie. We’ll link to that in the show notes. But basically, long story short, the Children’s Television Act of 1990 was designated to provide educational broadcasting programs for kids. It was building off self regulation that basically said in exchange for Saturday morning shows to advertise toys and cereal and action figures and junk food to kids, that there would be a requirement that Saturday morning shows have some educational element to them, which is why Saved by the Bell very frequently would have a episode about embracing cultural differences or embracing, you know, people with disabilities, or in this case, a couple episodes about drugs, and so this falls under a kind of different framework that was not about paying or necessarily giving ad rebates, but was an agreement between the network’s and the FTC to provide educational content sometimes, which he writes, they would try to cheat by running reruns of the Flintstones or the Jetsons and say it had moral lessons.

Nima: They’re like, ‘Oh, no, that was for educational merit.’

Adam: Yeah, one of the reasons why Saved by the Bell was so preachy is because that was part of its position in Saturday morning television. Also Aaron Spelling claims he always wanted to have the show be about lessons. So they would always teach Zack, who was a sociopath, various lessons. That’s kind of, whenever we address this topic, people always say what about the Jessie Spano episode? Because it’s so infamous, we just wanted to touch on that. ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m so scared.’ That probably falls within the purview of the educational requirement of Saturday morning television. So this all kind of sounds benign, right? You sort of want to scare teenagers into not doing drugs. But there have been studies that show that it’s entirely ineffective, scaring the shit out of people is actually not a way to educate people about substance abuse and substance use.

Nima: Yeah, so for example, in a December 2011, Business Insider article, writer Laura Stampler actually details quite clearly just how ineffective this campaign was. She writes this, quote:

“A 2003 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that ‘youth who were more exposed to [the anti-drug advertising campaign] messages are no more likely to hold favorable beliefs or intentions about marijuana than are youth less exposed to those messages.’

In 2006, the Government Accountability Office concluded that the $1.2 billion spent on anti-drug ads ‘was not effective in reducing youth drug use, either during the entire period of the campaign or during the period from 2002 to 2004 when the campaign was redirected and focused on marijuana use.’

“A 2002 report by the White House Office of Management and Budget stated that the ad campaign had ‘not demonstrated the results sought and does not yet have adequate performance measures and related goals.’”

End quote.

Over a billion dollars were spent on these campaigns, despite the fact that they were completely useless. These campaigns were so ineffective that, by 2012, the government cut all funding for them. As recounted in a 2014 article in AdAge noted, quote:

“The decline stems mostly from a move by Congress to eliminate the media budget for the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The office had been funding anti-drug ads aimed at teens since 1998, including a 2002 Super Bowl ad that linked drugs to terrorism, and boasted a media budget of $100 million as recently as 2007. But the government program was constantly under assault by critics who said it was ineffective, and the effort endured a series of budget cuts before it was altogether axed from the 2012 federal budget.”

End quote.

Adam: And of course, it was ineffective by its nominal goal. Its real goal, of course, had nothing to do with public education. In addition, a comprehensive study by Robert Hornik, PhD, corresponding author Lela Jacobsohn, PhD, Robert Orwin, PhD, Andrea Piesse, PhD, and Graham Kalton, PhD in the American Journal of Public Health found that the ONDCP’s National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign had absolutely zero effect on youth drug use. The abstract would read, quote:

“From September 1999 to June 2004, 3 nationally representative cohorts of US youths aged 9 to 18 years were surveyed at home 4 times. Sample size ranged from 8117 in the first to 5126 in the fourth round (65% first-round response rate, with 86%–93% of still eligible youths interviewed subsequently). Main outcomes were self-reported lifetime, past-year, and past-30-day marijuana use and related cognitions. Results. Most analyses showed no effects from the campaign.”


Nima: Womp womp.

Adam: The goal was to inject and reinforce tropes of fear, tough love cliches and abstinence-only, which all by extension promote criminalization. They wanted to reinforce the basic premises and conventional wisdom of the war on drugs. Drug Education quickly became war on drug propaganda when it goes beyond empirical medical advice into sanctimony, fear mongering and moralism.

As the Education Resource Development Center wrote in April 2021, quote:

“Since the 1960s, substance misuse prevention practitioners have relied heavily on scare tactics and fear-based messages as core elements of prevention programming. Focused on eliciting an emotional response, these messages have historically been moralistic in nature, exaggerating the harmful effects of substance use, and often failing to include factual information about the dangers of use. Moreover, most messages have focused entirely on abstinence rather than on reducing rates of misuse or the harmful consequences of use. Though practitioners often turn to this type of messaging reflexively, a significant body of evidence suggests that scare tactics and fear-based approaches have not been effective in preventing substance misuse and, in some cases, have contributed to increased rates of use.”

ERDC researchers cite studies as far back as 1992 to substantiate the claim that “fear-based” drug misuse education doesn’t work. So we knew before the nice ’97 to 2000 program, that fear-based tactics did not achieve their nominal gain. What we propose somewhat cynically is, of course, that wasn’t really the point.

Nima: Right. There was an upside to this, both in political messaging, but also in the, you know, continued funding of the War on Drugs by continuing to ramp up fear about drugs. These campaigns tried to boost support for the war on drugs, as it was central to President Clinton’s increase in domestic policing, provided the core pretext for US involvement, meddling in Latin America, and supporting governments there that would, you know, buy military equipment that would get US training and the like, so it had a political effect far more than a alleged educational effect.

Adam: And this kind of panic, of course, leads to legislative outcomes, as we noted in Episode 140, a lot of the demagoguery around rave drugs, which are these underground parties that your teen was going to go to and die, the Chicago Hope episode about blue nitro or the ER episode about ecstasy, these helped fuel the panic for the 2002 Reducing America’s Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act, or the RAVE Act, which was later renamed the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act of 2002. This created severe penalties around drug paraphernalia that effectively made handing out water illegal at large parties like raves resulting in countless deaths, as Zach Siegel noted in Episode 140.

But more importantly, let’s look at the context in which the Clinton White House, which was, again, looking over these scripts, paying people this money, ostensibly concerned about the war on drugs, what their other political war on drugs messaging was at the time specifically going to focus on Clinton’s creation of Plan Colombia, which was later doubled and tripled down by the Bush White House, which is now viewed as a huge human rights disaster.

Nima: So, under the auspices of fighting “a war on drugs,” in 1999, there was a multi billion dollar plan sent 500 US military personnel to, quote, “train local forces” in Colombia, — ostensibly for the purpose of eradicating coca. This aid was an addition to the already $330 million of previously approved US aid to Colombia. This funding only increased. Earmarked for the year 2000 was an additional $818 million, an additional $256 million the following year in 2001. These appropriations for the plan made Colombia the third largest recipient of foreign aid from the United States at the time.

Looking back, a Truth and Reconciliation report by the Colombian government itself released just last year in June 2022, details the death squads and executions carried out under Plan Colombia as authorized by both the Clinton and Bush White Houses.

In its article about the commission, The New York Times wrote in July 2022, quote:

“[The mounting US] war against drug trafficking had disastrous social and environmental effects, turning poor farmers into enemies of the state and poisoning once fertile landscapes. ‘The consequences of this concerted and largely U.S.-driven approach,’ the report said, led to a ‘hardening of the conflict in which the civilian population has been the main victim.’”

End quote.

So part of the relevance of this is that these operations were happening at exactly the same time that American audiences, teenagers and their parents alike, were being bombarded with this primetime drug war propaganda, right? At the exact same time as they were watching these shows, the US government was literally subsidizing death squads in Colombia, but under the guise of fighting a war on drugs. The New York Times article on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission would go on to say this, quote:

“Other documents show that the United States knew oil companies were paying paramilitaries for protection, and that at least one company gathered intelligence for the Colombian military. One company was ‘actively providing intelligence on guerrilla activities directly to the Army,’ according to the C.I.A., ‘using an airborne surveillance system along the pipeline to expose guerrilla encampments and intercept guerrilla communications.’”

End quote.

The Times goes on to say this that the Columbia army, quote:

“‘…successfully exploited this information and inflicted an estimated 100 casualties during an operation against the guerrillas’ in 1997, according to the report.”

Adam: Plan Colombia was about snuffing out leftist insurgents and the remnants of post cold war opposition to US hegemony in the region, and protecting multinational corporate profits. Drugs, of course, largely protextual, especially since we now know that the pro US President Alvaro Uribe, who worked with US during this quote-unquote “anti-drug campaign,” was himself funded and backed by major drug traffickers, a fact the US State Department openly talked about prior to his rise in the 1990s

From the New York Times a 2018 article, “Cables Contain Claims Former Colombian Leader is Tied to Drug Traffickers.” This is a New York Times article from 2018 would read, quote:

“One cable from 1993 described an embassy meeting with Luis Guillermo Vélez Trujillo, then a Liberal Party senator. The senator complained that the Ochoa Vásquez family — a top Colombian clan in Mr. Escobar’s Medellín cartel — “had financed” Mr. Uribe’s political campaigns.”

The article would then go on to describe how Uribe was funded by Pablo Escobar when he was running for mayor of Medellin and later became a Senator from that same area, as well as governor, that he was basically backed and funded by the drug cartels. And now let’s cut to an article from the time in which the US was supporting Plan Colombia, and later supported Uribe, who became president from 2002 to 2010. This is from January 11, 2000. This is two days before Salon broke their article about the White House Drug Policy Campaign, quote:

“President Clinton plans to announce on Tuesday a $1.28 billion emergency aid program for Colombia to help that country fight the growing narcotics trade and to prop up its democracy over the next two years, a senior administration official said today. ‘The president believes there is a strong national interest in helping Colombia deal with the narcotics threat.’”


So here you have this constellation of things going on. Look, obviously some stupid fucking speech in 7th Heaven is not going to necessarily be the straw that breaks the camel’s back with respect to funding Plan Colombia and other right-wing death squads and backing up right-wing politicians who themselves are funded by narcotics dealers under the pretense of fighting narcotics, but it is part of a broader constellation of propaganda that we’ve been fed and that we were fed far more acutely back then, of keeping, you know, it’s the opposite of the Jesse Jackson Keep Hope Alive, to keep fear alive, you sort of have to constantly keep the panic fear alive, because law enforcement is not concerned with preventing people from doing drugs or educating people. Now, look, do I think some, low level lawyer at the White House thinks they’re doing some good and maybe throws in some decent public health information? Sure. But fundamentally, when you address public health issues as law enforcement issues, they become law enforcement narratives, which deal in fear and abstinence-only and tough love, and these kind of cartoon narratives of trying to scare the shit out of teenagers. Because again, the goal is to scare this shit out of the parents, because that’s how you build public support for a war on drugs.

Nima: And this has been the case since the early ’70s when Nixon literally said that drug abuse is — what Adam? — America’s public enemy number one, right? It wasn’t a public health concern. It was a criminal law enforcement concern.

Adam: So you don’t get a regime where it’s about education. It’s about context. It’s about how to get treatment, it’s about “Just Say No,” right? Even, you know, Home Improvement says “Just Say No,” that’s their fucking magic solution at the end, and it’s all part of this sort of broad cultural milieu of drugs are this nasty foreign thing that enters our lives and corrupts our kids and our kind of white suburban, peaceful neighborhoods. They have no cultural or political antecedents, you know, we’re not even going to talk about the CIA’s role in the drug trafficking trade, you know, just before this, right? It sort of comes out of nowhere and comes in the middle of night, and before you know it your kid is engaged in white slavery, and all this sort of bad stuff happens. It’s not about educating people because if you probably educate people and provide sober advice, that doesn’t really help fuel the war, it certainly doesn’t help fuel the pre textual war, in Colombia for example, or other Latin American kind of, quote-unquote “anti-drug” efforts, that, frankly, make a lot of money and help the US extend a lot of legitimate power, and so, you know, the fact that they were doing all these schlocky script writing on popular TV, while at the same time backing politicians funded by drug dealers, could perhaps maybe one make a little cynical about the point of the war on drugs, in case it’s not obvious.

Nima: To discuss this more, we’re now going to be joined by Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. We’ll talk to Kassandra in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Kassandra Frederique. Kassandra, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Kassandra Frederique: Thanks so much for having me.

Adam: So we began the top of the show talking about the history of the ways in which these Very Special Episodes kind of drilled their way into our collective pop culture understanding of not just TV, of course, but how we view drugs. And of course, we have a lot of laughs, we make a lot of fun of it, but this was a deliberate government effort alongside other efforts that were not necessarily so top down or sinister, to really kind of approach drugs as a, for want of a better term, as a means of scaring the shit out of children, and by extension, scaring parents and using fear to promote drug policy that was based on an abstinence mindset. So I want to sort of begin, if you could, if you would indulge, and maybe speculate a little bit, about how this approach of fear rather than education, abstinence rather than mitigation and education, really kind of began to define how most people understood drugs as this very scary, one pill can kill kind of thing that you’re supposed to have your children avoid at all costs.

Kassandra Frederique: You know, I think one of the things that is so interesting, and actually infuriating when you get into drug policy, is about how much of it was constructed, and how much effort the government has put into infiltrating every part of our lives to shape the way that we think about drugs, and not actually even giving us the opportunity to create our own opinions about how we could experience drugs or anything like that. So I think when we learn that things like the PSAs, or the episodes, as you know, as a kid who grew up in the ’90s, and watched TGIF and can recite, you know, all the lines from the different episodes from Saved by the Bell to Family Matters to, you know, Fresh Prince, the thing about it is you think all these things that you think about drugs are just normal, this is the normal information, and then when you pull the curtain back and you realize like, ‘Oh, no people sat down and thought about this and chose to communicate this information this way so it could potentially impact our behavior, and it failed so miserably.’ It forces me to think what would have been the result if they used all that time and effort to have a conversation that was not fear based, that wasn’t based on abstinence, but was actually more realistic to what everyday people were seeing in their lives. But it really goes to show, you know, the drug war and the things that we’re experiencing are not by happenstance, people actually put these things together, which means that the things that we’re navigating are a result of the bad choices that our decision makers made.

Kassandra Frederique (Credit: Hillary Swift for The New York Times)

Nima: We’ve been talking, as Adam said, about drug messaging, really anti-drug propaganda placed into popular TV shows and such, like as a government mandate, right, like via the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, and so I’d love to just hear from you, you know, as someone that did grow up watching these shows, as I did as well,, what kind of effect do you think this near constant barrage, or at least, you know, season after season, the effect that these kinds of, you know, Very Special Episode messaging through pop culture, aimed at kids, you know, masked as not only entertainment, but education, how do you think that has shaped you know, over the past few decades, the way that we still understand drug policy, the way we understand punishment, the way we understand policing, and the way we understand the war on drugs in general?

Kassandra Frederique: Yeah, I mean, I think there are a couple of things, right? I think the idea of addiction is super flat and I think people learn differently but I think there’s still a large group of people that feel like if you try a drug once, then you’re hooked forever, completely flattening the conversation around dependence and addiction, and so it completely shapes the idea of what addiction is, I think, the shows and the mandate was really to make it as scary as possible. Also, it shaped the way that we see people who use drugs, and it really made us also arbiters to the dehumanization of other people, and also reinforces this idea that people choose drugs over others, right? Their family, their teams, these other things that really connect to this moral underpinning that these people are bad, and the choices that they’ve made are bad, and the bad things that happen to them are because they use drugs, not because of any other thing. So I feel like so much of the ONDCP mandate infiltrating entertainment was really to try to abdicate their own responsibility for the circumstances that people are navigating like poverty, but also making everything super individualistic. This person is making a bad choice and that’s why their life looks like that. Because you know, when you think about all the shows, like everything was focused on that individual, it was really realistic as to how these things happen, and never showed the outside circumstances that shaped people’s choices, and they also never showed the ways of people using drugs and not struggling or ending up addicted or people using drugs and having a good time.

Nima: Right, there was only one path.

Kassandra Frederique: Destruction.

Adam: I suppose if they showed them having a really good time that may not be the best idea. But it’s more realistic, though, right?

Kassandra Frederique: I mean, but also, it’s interesting, too, because think about the drinking episodes, right?

Adam: Yeah, exactly.

Kassandra Frederique: Even the drinking episodes were exaggerated. And so I think, you know, it really fell flat because it was only one note that they wanted to hit, and what I find really ridiculous is that, you know, now you have conversations with ONDCP and they want to talk about stigma, and I’m like, well, you spent 30 years making the stigma.

Adam: Exactly.

Kassandra Frederique: So why don’t you do the same thing, and go into the entertainment world and mandate them to do more realistic versions of drug use?

Adam: Yeah, because there’s never obviously any structural reason. You have these characters, you see them every week, you kind of know them, whether it be a sitcom or a drama, and then drugs are kind of this outside force that sort of comes in one of 150 episodes, and it’s the drug episode, everybody knows what it is, it’s a trope. And the character kind of does this Paradise Lost where they fall, and then are redeemed, and paradise is regained at the end, or they kind of seek help, and it’s like drugs are this foreign invader that comes in rather than something that is, like you mentioned, has material antecedents like poverty or mental health issues or lack of adequate health care and mental health care, all these sort of things —

Nima: Or things that are not so negative.

Kassandra Frederique: Right.

Adam: Sure. But I meant like the social conditions that lead to say, like, for example, a massive increase in opioid addiction, it’s a social phenomenon that has social causes, rather than millions of discrete moral failings.

Nima: (Laughs) Right.

Kassandra Frederique: Well, also, like think of the character tropes, right? There’s you ruining your life. But there’s also the kind of insensitive comedic relief that people do around characters that use drugs and think a lot about, like in African American films about people that struggled with crack, right? Or also how some drugs are more associated with certain classes and you have the conversation about, you know, the rich woman who, anytime dealing with her kids or some fight with her loved ones she pops some pills and takes a sip of wine and everyone, and that characters is like the rich lady who’s just can’t deal with her life and would rather be stoned the whole time. But even that narrative is different from the narrative of Jessie Spano on Saved by the Bell, right? There are these tropes that they really want us to do and even if there is variation there’s always this negative thing around it.

Adam: Well, right you’re supposed the goal is to kind of scare people. There’s the Chicago Hope episode we discussed where I mean it’s, you know, the first time they use it all these kids are dying. I mean, it’s every parent’s worst nightmare, right? You have a 15, 16 year old who goes to you know, says he’s, says she’s spending the night over at Tiffany’s house and the next thing you know she shows up dead in the ER because she was going to some rave. I mean, in this episode, spurned along with other rave related content, spurned the Rave Act of 2002, which basically made any kind of paraphernalia, even harm reduction paraphernalia, like say, for example, water, made it illegal to have in a party setting. So there’s all these kinds of negative consequences of having policy based on ‘Let’s scare the shit out of middle class white people.’ So I want to kind of move on. You’ve written that, quote, “The war on drugs was an absolute miscalculation of human behavior,” which I think is really an interesting way of phrasing it, which is to say it was based on Mc-Morality, kind of Protestant Mc-Morality, where it’s like, seems cheap and easy, “Just say no,” all that kind of stuff, and I want to sort of dive into this, I want to kind of ask you where you think the war on drugs narrative is breaking down of late. Obviously, there’s been shifts, there’s been some efforts to decriminalize, but I want to be very clear war on drugs, despite people saying, you know, post war on drugs, is very much not over, most drugs are still illegal, most, a lot of people still go to prison and jail for drugs, the population is reduced slightly, but it is still very much a thing. If you can, I want you to talk about where you think this narrative is beginning to break down. I know that there was a moral panic recently around Biden wanting to hand out crack pipes that set back messaging around harm reduction about 20 years, unfortunately, and I want you to sort of give an example, if you could, of any recent pop culture, whether it be TV film, books even, even though nobody reads, including me, don’t believe in it, of people who have addressed drugs in ways that you thought were, if not perfect, an improvement.

Kassandra Frederique: I feel like I have a higher standard.

Adam: Yeah, of course.

Kassandra Frederique: You know, right. So people love Dope Sick, and I was like, ‘Oh, I cannot.’

Adam: Well, Dope Sick was an FBI commercial. That was the problem with Dope Sick.

Kassandra Frederique: Yeah. I was like, this is not it.

Adam: Yeah. No, that was serious copaganda. Yeah.

Kassandra Frederique: Yeah. But you know, so many people were really moved by it, and so, you know, I’ve been really careful because there were some people that really saw themselves in that. But you know, and then there’s the conversation, what’s the other show that folks love with one of my celebrity heroes Zendaya, Euphoria, and I’m like, this is so, I I’m like this is outlandish, and there are people in our world that are like, ‘This is better, it’s more realistic,’ And I’m like, it’s still super sensationalized, and it’s still based on this idea of making drugs super scary, and using a strategy of sensationalism to have a really serious conversation, right? And like, there’s no, I have not seen as many conversations about positive uses or neutral uses of drugs. I mean, I think about psychedelics, like with Nine Perfect Strangers, but I think that that’s playing the role that kind of like Weeds played with trying to mainstream a class of drugs that folks with access have, with access and money want access to and want more convenience around, and it’s their own version of propaganda, that helps potential advocacy in the broader space. But I think the shows and the conversations that follow certain drugs will be, you’re not going to see that for heroin, you’re not going to see that for cocaine or crack. I mean, again, cocaine is still exceptionally sensationalized with, you know, our obsession with organizations that sell drugs, right, like even cocaine is still connected and heroin still connected to quote-unquote “drug cartels.” And you know, that part of the drug war. So, you know, I have a hard time coming up with examples of neutral drug use or sensational or they’re doing it better. I find that even the narrative around the drug war, I think a lot of people are like the war on drugs should end, but when you ask people what that means to them, they think that means the legalization of cannabis, right? They don’t think about the other drugs.

Nima: Right, right.

Adam: It’s funny you mentioned cocaine, because one of the things we talked about is the way in which historically, in many pop culture depictions, the racialization of cocaine even extends very much to pop culture. You know, powder cocaine is seen as almost a joke. It’s funny. It’s Wolf of Wall Street. It’s like Scarface, it’s Cocaine Bear. Oh the bear does a lot of cocaine and kills people isn’t that funny? Whereas things like crack, because they’re racialized are seen as kind of dirty, stigmatized under the, it’s sort of not considered funny. So even the kind of, there’s kind of a glib attitude about things that wealthy people do in bathrooms in Manhattan versus the other thing, which is seedy and dirty, and I think that both reinforces and reflects the racial disparities of sentencing and other things which still exist, by the way, as you know.

Kassandra Frederique: Yeah.

Nima: That actually makes me think of this, you know, the war on drugs was in many ways and often explicitly so, part of the official government backlash to the radical anti-war and Black Power movements of the ’60s, right. And there’s this infamous John Ehrlichman, quote, which we mentioned earlier in the episode today, where he flat out says that the whole impetus for the war on drugs was, quote, “getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily,” end quote, so that the Nixon administration and we can assume future administrations could, quote, “disrupt those communities” end quote, you know, by arrests and raids and breaking up their meetings, surveillance, and but he ends by saying this, and also to, quote, “vilify them on the evening news” end quote. So, Kassandra, in your work at Drug Policy Alliance, how are you addressing not only the horrific toll that policing and imprisonment has had on countless communities, but also this narrative piece, right? This narrative war that you just mentioned, the deeply negative associations that many people still have, not only about drugs, but how they are then associated and used to condemn movements for justice at large?

Kassandra Frederique: I think we’re still trying to figure that out. I mean, you mentioned it a little bit earlier, I think one of the things that we’ve realized is while we’ve moved policy change, the narrative work, while it’s had some remarkable conversations, it hasn’t moved that much, and/or if it’s moved, it’s very easy to move back, and I think with the incident with Biden and harm reduction and crack pipes, and pushing it into the Black community, and it being racial equity, you know, there’s still very much the conversation about how and why drugs were put in Black communities, and I think it goes back to this conversation about the reckoning, right? We don’t even want to tell the truth about the role that the US government played in getting drugs into this community, the role that they’ve used drugs in exchange for their foreign policy and there is a lot of mistrust, and rightfully so, and people can see the writing on the wall about how drugs are used to disrupt political movements, how drugs are used to disrupt our leaders, and you know, when the Ehrlichman quote came out, I don’t think anyone was surprised. I think people were like, yes, we knew this, right? Now you can stop saying that we’re experiencing these things because we inherently are bad people like these were intentional choices, and I think one of the things that has been why it’s easier to pass policy reform, as opposed to do the deep narrative work, is because the narrative work requires an acknowledgement of intentionality. Policy work is more like, ‘Okay, this is a problem, let’s fix it,’ and the narrative work is like, ‘Hey, we actively use talked like this for a long time, we put these images out, we told people to be scared of certain things, and now we’re wrong, and we’re going to say something different.’ Because people, you know, it’s the same where a lie goes around the world, you know, once in a certain time, but it takes the truth much longer, and that’s what we’re in right now, and it’s much deeper work, and it’s why people like even if the ONDCP decided to do shows now, people would be less likely to believe it.

Adam: Right. Yeah, that’s a good point because I think that changing policy in a kind of abstract way can make it seem like an accident, like, ‘Oh, we were kind of mistaken, we bumbled around, we did the same,’ whereas narrative work implies that the actual underlying logic was a lie or was based on kind of racist fear mongering, and that would require some accountability, because obviously, many of the same people who push that and still push that are very much still in power. So it has to be an acknowledgment that the approach over the last, you know, 50, 60 years was deliberately deceptive, rather than kind of bumbling or a mistake, because, and again, people have known this shit for a long time. I mean, you know, this is not, we’ve known that the way in which we categorized and penalized even things like cannabis, everybody knows that was, I mean, go back and read articles from the New York Times in the ’90s, in the late 1990s, and they’re saying, ‘Well, you know, some, you know, many scientists are saying that cannabis is actually better than alcohol and that’s legal.’ I mean, it was not a mystery. But it’s just there was so much invested in this regime. A lot of reasons for foreign policy reasons. Otherwise, you know, without a war on drugs, there’s no pretextual reason to fight leftists in South America and Latin America in general. So once you sort of accept that as something that should be decriminalized, it sort of, you lose so much power, and people don’t, obviously don’t want to sort of give up powers.

Kassandra Frederique: And for this, look at the example of the “opioid epidemic,” quote-unquote, right? Even that, look at all the different ways that people looked for a scapegoat as opposed to having a larger conversation as to why pharmaceutical companies were able to do what they could do, or you know, in the mid-2000 aughts, right, people were writing articles that Black people were protected from the overdose crisis because doctors were less likely to give them prescription drugs, right?

Nima: Medical racism was somehow saving lives.

Kassandra Frederique: Yeah. Was a protective factor. This was the conversation, and it’s just like, y’all did so much contorting that you’ve killed 104,000 people in one year. This shit is like, y’all did this on purpose, and like, y’all contorted yourselves in so many different ways that y’all got stuck and you started killing your own. That’s how fucked up this shit is, right? Y’all really went out of your way and created a narrative and look at the different, the cycles of narratives that we had to go through, and the cycles of narratives that we still go through on TV about overdose crisis, right? It’s very much the prescription companies are the evil people. Well, why did prescription companies have all that access?

Nima: But also it’s about you know, I mean, from shows like Bojack Horseman to Shameless that have had opioid plotlines, I mean, to name only two out of the many, you know, to your point Kassandra, even as written, even as scripted, those plotlines then are about systems. They’re not about individual moral failings in the way that plotlines previously, like in the ’80s and ’90s, were about, you know, oh this one pusher who gets to the, to the main character and does this thing. That now there are these kind of broader stories that bring in systems but still relegated to, I would argue, largely white characters in largely white spaces, and so you can kind of see how maybe there has been movement narratively in a certain way, but it still does, to your point reinforce so many of the previous tropes that hold so much power, because I think those previous stories still stay as kind of individual responsibility, moral failing stories, and are not allowed that same kind of systems perspective that I think the opioid crisis or the overdose crisis has since garnered.

Kassandra Frederique: Yeah, and I mean, there’s a whole opioid narrative that is happening about the things that they’re not saying, prohibition and drugs is a market, even making drugs illegal is a market and having legal drugs is a market, and one of the things that we learn with the opioid crisis, at DPA, we don’t say that it was a single actor, we don’t think it’s only because of the pharmaceutical companies, right? There were multiple factors there. But the pharmaceutical companies’ engagement was like supercharged capitalism, and the playbook that they used in marketing their drugs, if you read some of those things, are based on the racist tropes that the US government has pushed, and putting forward cops and things like that, right? So it’s like, so much of it is about what is said, and what is not said, even the idea of the accidental addict, right? Even the idea of them making the face of the overdose crisis grandma and the cheerleader and the football player. All these things were intentional choices that we’re about shielding, you know, larger actors from responsibility, but also reinforcing this idea that this was an accident, and the people that we have been used to identifying as people who use drugs, it was because those people inherently were bad and were morally inept, and one of the things that I will say about the ‘90s shows is that outside of the pusher that they used to put, you know, that the pusher character, the individuals, they made you, it just talked about how precarious and tenuous everything was, because they often did it with either a main character or a characters friend, right, that you were supposed to have built in empathy for, but very quickly, you would see in the show how people lost empathy for those people. So it also taught us how to deal with people who are navigating complicated human behavior, and I think, you know, going back to the point you said about what I’ve written before about the war on drugs, being a miscalculation of human behavior is, we give people way more chances, and we use more colors than black and white, and I think that as we’re having this conversation, you know, it’s really about us really expanding what it is that we’re seeing and trying to see, because often the conversation is just super flat.

Nima: Totally. So before we let you go, Kassandra, and thank you so much for spending this time with us, tell us a little bit more about what DPA is up to these days, what folks can look out for, what they can learn from you all, what they can maybe support on, tell our listeners what you have going on.

Kassandra Frederique: Yeah. So Drug Policy Alliance, we are a national organization working to end the punishment and stigma associated with drugs. So we are working with different groups around the country to pass laws, to do public education events that really remove law enforcement as the responder to drugs, we really want to figure out who are alternative responders, if someone is having a hard time with drugs, what is the infrastructure we need for our loved ones when they’re going through a hard time? And then what are the different kinds of conversations and education that we need to be talking to people, like how do people use drugs and not die, basic information that our government should actually be giving that they don’t because they’re so busy trying to scare us into submission. So you know, folks can follow us on TikTok, we’re Drug Policy Alliance on TikTok, #DrugPolicyOrg on Twitter, Drug Policy Alliance on Facebook, and people can join our list. We send out information, we do events around the country. This year, we’ll be in Phoenix, Arizona for our biannual conference. So if people want to meet other folks that think that the war on drugs is doing more harm than good, they should definitely come out to Phoenix, Arizona, in October 2023. The information is on our website, which is www.drugpolicy.org.

Nima: Well, that is a fantastic place to leave it, urge everyone to do that. Kassandra Frederique, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Kassandra Frederique: Thanks for having me.


Adam: For about 10, 15 years it has sort of unhip to say, oh, war on drugs is bad, you know, we need to sort of have a different approach. Of course, they’ll never say they want to legalize or decriminalize most drugs, there was a weed because it’s kind of the lowest hanging fruit. But the war on drugs is very much still with us, and many of the tropes are still with us. This kind of abstinence-only, fear-based, tough love tropes. Despite the fact that people may nominally know that it doesn’t work or it’s a bad idea because it’s become more popular over the years, the basic premises that were reinforced by pop culture, again, not exclusively from ER and Cosby and The Drew Carey Show and other TV shows in the ’90s, but they were part of a broader ecosystem of misinformation and fear that I think we, to this day, we still live in, and people still speak in these kinds of tough love tropes, and these kind of one and done tropes that are really harmful and damaging, and again, not only sort of prop up bad foreign policy, but also prop up mass incarceration, which goes hand in hand with what Clinton did with the 1994 Crime Bill, 100,000, more cops, all that kind of fun stuff that helped perpetuate mass incarceration, all that is part of a broader ecosystem of punishment and Puritan approach to drugs, and treating it like a crime problem, which we still do, by the way, people I think we don’t, but the war on drugs is very much in the present.

Nima: Yeah, and I think, you know, looking at that trajectory from heavy handed PSAs to these suddenly spun plotlines in popular shows, obviously, undisclosed that the networks and the shows themselves were being paid to do it, and then moving into as we have also discussed on the show Adam before, into the kind of reality series trope of addiction or tough love shows that also have had very, very deleterious and harmful effects, not only in the exploitation of people, but in the fact that those shows themselves, and the treatments that a lot of people receive through those shows are also very often ineffective and can be even more dangerous.

Adam: And there’s a reason why they chose pop culture TV shows, there’s a reason why they didn’t disclose it, because they know that especially kids of that generation, kids of our generation, at least my generation, I don’t know, Nima you’re older than me, but not very much.

Nima: Aww, so mean.

Adam: That they’re quite cynical about ads.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: And they’re quite cynical about things they view as being pitches or commercials. So if you can weave it into the show, it’s more effective. I think a lot about the court of Joseph II, he viewed himself as this kind of enlightened despot of the Holy Roman Empire in the mid to late 18th century, and they had free press, you could pretty much publish wherever you want but the one thing he censored was the opera because he was this sort of art of, you know, has a reputation now of being this kind of upper class thing, but back in the day, the masses went to the opera. The stage in particular, he viewed as being a place of morality, and they heavily censored operas. It’s why The Marriage of Figaro is so corny compared to its French predecessor, because he wanted to promote conservatism and morality on the stage, and I think that television today serves a similar function. It’s kind of the place where we ingest morality and political narratives most easily because our defenses are not up. It’s emotional rather than intellectual. It’s not an op-ed in the New York Times, it’s a fucking storyline is a dumb TV show, right? But in that way, it’s more effective, and I think those in power sort of know that, they know that if they can, in this particular instance, if they can get their message in a TV show, it’s worth 1,000x compared to some corny fucking ad.

Nima: Yeah, well, which is why it is so effective and also important when pop culture represents different ways of thinking about these things that have been so kind of hammered into us for so long, that when there are alternatives, when there are different kinds of narratives shared it is such a revelation, and yet it is still just a drop in the bucket. Incidentally, I should point out that Joseph II was the brother of Marie Antoinette. So in case you want a sense of what that family was like.

Adam: So yeah, and again, you know, who knows what goes on today? We have no idea. I know a lot of this through foundations. We only know this because of some intrepid reporter from Salon 23 years ago. My assumption is that if he didn’t write that report, we would just never know about it. But here we are.

Nima: That will do it for this episode of Citations Needed, the first of the year 2023. Welcome back, everyone. Happy New Year. We’re thrilled to be back. More episodes are coming your way along with many News Briefs so stay tuned. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we really are 100 percent listener funded. And as always a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again everyone. Happy New Year. We’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, January 25, 2023.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.