- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 23, 2003

A decline in illegal drug use as reported by teens is largely due to the government’s antidrug media campaign, which deserves support from skeptical lawmakers, the nation’s drug czar said.

“This has had an effect on discouraging drug use,” John P. Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said of his agency’s media campaign that started in 1998 to reduce drug use among young people. “They’ve been skeptical … but now it’s declining.”

Some on Capitol Hill have said that the campaign was ineffective. A government-funded study last year found that the ads were not having the desired effect.

Partly as a result of that skepticism, funding for the ad campaign has declined, with Congress providing $145 million this year compared with $195 million in 1998.

But Mr. Walters said the media campaign was retooled to focus more on marijuana and is working. This could translate into more congressional support.

The ONDCP is being reauthorized by Congress this year, and the bill that passed the House proposes more than $1 billion for the media campaign during the next five years. The Senate has yet to consider the bill.

Mr. Walters pointed to the federal 2003 Monitoring the Future survey released last week showing that the number of teens who reported using illegal drugs declined 11 percent — or 400,000 teens — during the past two years. It polled eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders nationwide. Specifically, marijuana use among teens in all the three grades also declined 11 percent.

Mr. Walters and other researchers attributed the news of declining drug use to a concerted prevention and intervention effort by government agencies, parents and community leaders.

Lloyd D. Johnston, a research professor at University of Michigan who helped conduct the survey, said it’s “quite possible” that the campaign has “had its intended effect,” because all three grades polled showed a significant increase in the perceived risk of marijuana use.

But Bill Piper, associate director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, said the ONDCP mainly has been running the antimarijuana ads because more state and local ballot initiatives are proposing to legalize marijuana for medicinal use.

“It’s not a coincidence that federal officials are increasingly using taxpayer money to run antimarijuana ads as more states approve the use of marijuana for medical use,” Mr. Piper said. “The ads are a way for federal officials to use taxpayer money to campaign against medical-marijuana ballot measures without it being obvious.”

Mr. Walters disagreed.

“We’re focusing on marijuana because it’s the single most abused drug by young people,” he said.

A drug czar cannot use the ad campaign for partisan political purposes. The House reauthorization bill further clarifies that the director may not run ads for or against ballot initiatives.

The Senate bill does not contain the language, Mr. Piper said, and without it, the ONDCP could use ads to campaign against medical-marijuana ballot initiatives next year.

Mr. Walters dismissed that idea. “We think that’s inappropriate,” he said of running ads against such initiatives.

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