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The Dope Show



The fighting in Iraq may have been wrapped up in record time, but America's other war isn't going so well. The War on Drugs has been dragging on for decades now, due, I'm guessing, to a lack of Rumsfeld/Franks-quality leadership, an unwillingness on the part of politicians to commit the kind of funding needed, and the fact that lots of Americans really like taking them.

The federal government must be running low on antidrug ammo, because it keeps coming up with dumber and dumber strategies. First it was "Why do you think they call it dope?" Then Nancy Reagan masterminded the minimalist "Just say no" campaign. (I wonder if she really expected that to work.) In subsequent years, the powers that be realized victory wasn't going to come that cheap and started to ante up serious bucks. Enough, at least, to buy a seemingly endless supply of eggs to fry in TV commercials that carried the immortal tag, "This is your brain on drugs." Of course, these spots did have an impact: They gave millions of pot smokers the munchies.

The lamest campaign ever launched on this front, however, has to be the one the government is conducting right now. I call it the Nick & Norm Show. You've seen the spots: Two serious-looking dudes -- on the Web site they're "co-workers at a restaurant" -- are shown in close-up as they debate the hidden evils of illegal drug use.

Norm is the one who just can't get it through his thick head that this isn't a victimless crime. Nick is the smug know-it-all who has to explain things to him over and over again. "Look, let's say I buy some dope," Norm muses in one ad. "Now how much of my money actually makes it into the bad guy's hands? A couple bucks?"

"A few bucks," replies Nick, instantly contemptuous and wishing Norm would apply for a job at the new Olive Garden down the street.

"A few bucks," continues Norm, sensing victory. "That's it. Peanuts."

"So what you're saying is, it's OK to support terrorism... a little?" retorts Nick.

To which poor, deflated Norm can only muster, "Did I say that?"

That's right: terrorism. The government has been warning us about the hazards of drug use all these years, but waited until now to tell us that terrorism is one of them. Give me a break. These public messages -- the handiwork of the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) -- are milestones in logic-leaping, condescending disinformation. You'd have to be a total burnout to take them even halfway seriously. And, presumably, controlled-substance casualties aren't the target audience.

But on with the show: "This drugs and terror thing. I mean, it's a very complicated issue," Norm later remarks, apparently having given the matter deep thought. Naturally, Nick is ready for him.

"A complicated issue? No drug buyers, no drug money. No drug money, no drug dealers. No drug dealers, no drug murders, shootings, bribery, corruption."

"Not that complicated," concedes Norm, who's too busy not waiting on customers to notice that nothing his brainiac buddy just said even referenced terrorism, much less established a credible link to it.

"I've got it... the moral loophole," Norm announces in yet another exciting chapter, "I buy drugs, I might be supporting terror. Might is the moral loophole."

"So you might be helping drug dealers shoot little kids, and you might be helping drug cartels slaughter innocent families, and you might be helping terrorists do things so awful that we can't even conceive of them yet," replies Nick.

What do you think -- has Nick maybe watched one too many Chuck Norris movies? Again, he hasn't even addressed Norm's moral loophole proposition; he's just laid out a list of assorted atrocities. He might as well have added, "and you might be helping Bryant Gumbel get back onto morning television."

No viable link between terrorism and drug use is established in these spots. None is even attempted. I mean, really. Like Osama bin Laden is in a cave somewhere rubbing his hands together and nefariously thinking, "My evil plan to strike fear in the hearts of American devils is nearly ready to put into action. Now, if Suzie Obermeyer will just buy her first doobie, I'm in business!"

There's a pretty clear distinction between reprehensible criminal activity and terrorism. And let's not forget that plenty of drugs are grown, and manufactured, in the good old U.S.A. So who's the enemy?

Generally a TV series gets better the longer it's on the air. Not the Nick and Norm Show. The writing has gone straight downhill. Presumably the government could afford to hire the finest thinkers and writers alive, but look how low the series has sunk:

"This 'drug money funds terror' -- it's a ploy," asserts Norm. (Man, does that guy want to light up or what?) "I mean, why should I believe that?"

"Because... it's a fact?" answers Nick, wondering why they never talk about sports.

"So, you're saying that I should believe it because it's true." Norm ponders. "That's your argument?"

"It is true," concludes Nick with an authority that would be unassailable if not for the fact that he hasn't offered a single shred of evidence.

No matter which side of the issue you're on, you've got to admit these are some bucketheaded public-service ads, heavy on fearmongering and laughably light on fact. They're not only cretinous, though; they're offensive. I find it appalling that a government agency would exploit the horror of 9/11 simply to make a few TV spots more attention-grabbing.

The word "terrorism" has come to exert a profound psychological effect on Americans. How tasteless to reduce it to a selling point, to appropriate its power for a half-baked ad campaign. If the ONDCP couldn't produce a more coherent and documented connection between recreational drug use and terror, it had no right to use the word.

The agency started running these ads on Super Bowl Sunday in January. Since then, several things have happened: They have been widely criticized, refuted and even parodied in the media. Numerous journalists have observed that if the campaign has made a convincing case for anything, it's legalization. After all, Prohibition-era gangsters stopped shooting people pretty quickly once the U.S. government took over the distribution of alcohol. It seems only logical to assume that cartels would run out of thuggish stuff to do if drugs came under government control, too.

A couple other things have happened: The government hasn't just been lying to us in these spots; it's been spending our tax money on them -- $3.4 million of it. (Hey, even former drug czar Bill Bennett doesn't blow through cash that fast!) And the Nick & Norm Show has been canceled. As a result of the beating the ONDCP has taken over its campaign, the agency has announced it will stop running the ads next month. But not before getting off one last blast of boneheadedness, a Nick and Norm finale devoted to the perils of legalization:

"Okay, let's say drug money does support terrorism," begins Norm, thinking he's got Nick this time. "Change the law."

"I got you," Nick snaps. "Make 'em cheap. More available. Everywhere -- like soda or cheesy puffs."

"Exactly," says Norm, though I don't think he understands how federal regulation would work, exactly. Clearly, Nick doesn't, either:

"Cocaine on the playground. Crack stands at the laundromat. Heroin at the mini-mart, like that?"

Right, the same way state-licensed liquor outlets peddle Jack Daniels on school playgrounds.

I'm not advocating for anything here, except honesty. The ONDCP's campaign is one of the biggest, lamest packs of lies in the history of public service, and it has failed to serve the public in any way, shape or form. The White House got one thing right, though: It's time to pull the plug. High time.