I swear, I’m not on it.

I’m also willing to bet the vast majority of this state is not on it either.

But that’s not the impression the state of South Dakota gave the world last month.

In late November, Gov. Kristi Noem helped roll out a new methamphetamine awareness campaign. In the press release announcing the initiative, it was pointed out that 2,242 meth-related arrests were made in the state in the first eight months of 2019 and that it is a growing issue across the state.

“South Dakota’s meth crisis is growing at an alarming rate,” Noem said in the release. “It impacts every community in our state and threatens the success of the next generation. It is filling our jails and prisons, clogging our court systems, and stretching our drug treatment capacity while destroying people and their families.”

Noem is absolutely right, and the release goes on to point out her FY2020 budget requested $1 million to support meth treatment services and $730,000 for school-based prevention programming aimed at a demographic that has been increasingly vulnerable.

These commendable actions have been paired with a $449,000 campaign that included building a website which, among other things, helps users find treatment options in their area. Again, this is a commendable step towards taking the state out of the incarceration-first mind set.

So, what creative way did the state find to undercut this valiant effort?

Advertising that includes people and a cut-out of the state with the slogan, “Meth. I’m/We’re On It” proudly splayed across them.

It certainly grabbed attention and got people talking. By Monday evening, the campaign had gone viral and was garnering ridicule from across the country.

In a Washington Post article on the ad campaign, Bill Pearce, assistant dean at the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, said what was going through the minds of many South Dakotans.

“I can’t imagine this is what they intended to do,” Pearce said. “Any good marketer would look at this and say, ‘Yeah, let’s not do that.’”

It’s even drawn comparisons on social media to Nebraska’s cringe-worthy, and unintentionally accurate, tourism slogan, “Nebraska: It’s not for everyone.”

And while — as with South Dakota’s last few viral marketing delights —this will fade into the background of memory, it’s distinct from all of them in that it takes the serious topic of drug abuse and trivializes it to the point where not only are we left unsure of the good that’s being done behind the scenes, but we’re also not having the necessary conversations about the origins of drug use and abuse that need to be addressed.

And this is where South Dakota’s campaign starts to sound a lot like other well-known anti-drug pushes in American history that didn’t achieve their stated goals.

America, to put it lightly, could probably do a better job with education, enforcement and treatment with regards to drugs.  

Perhaps the best known anti-drug campaign of all time is the “Just Say No” campaign. Coined by late First Lady Nancy Reagan in 1982, the campaign included a media blitz by the First Lady including appearances on popular TV shows. At one point, a music video called “Stop the Madness” was produced by campaign organizers which — alongside celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Mrs. Reagan herself — features an appearance by Yankton College alum Lyle Alzado.

And while it had a catchy slogan, in the years since, the program has been criticized for over-simplifying the issue.

Around the same time, another program emerged aimed almost exclusively at youths.

D.A.R.E — Drug Abuse Resistance Education — had its first curriculum created by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1983. It would eventually spread across the country and involve uniformed police officers coming into schools to warn students about the dangers of drug use while building a relationship between the police and the community. And while D.A.R.E. produced arguably the best looking anti-drug mascot in Daren the Lion, there was one thing that, for years, it had a problem producing — results. A 1994 Department of Justice (DOJ) report on the program concluded that “the original D.A.R.E. core curriculum had small short-term effects on 5th-and 6th-grade pupils’ drug use; only the effect on tobacco use was statistically significant,” and “D.A.R.E.’s short-term effects on drug use and other outcomes were less than those of programs emphasizing social and general competencies and using interactive teaching strategies.”

A 2009 DOJ report was even more critical.

“To date, there have been more than 30 evaluations of the program that have documented negligible long-term impacts on teen drug use,” the report said.

To the program’s credit, Scientific American reported in September 2014 that D.A.R.E. organizers had adopted a new curriculum that was formulated with help from experts in the field of drug use rather than relying solely on law enforcement. By 2013, the program had also adopted the more interactive approach that the 1994 DOJ report cited as having a greater return on investment.

I mention these two programs because it was against this backdrop that I and many of my peers received our anti-drug education. And while it’s evident there have been improvements in education, the “I’m On It” campaign shows that one of the most undermining elements of anti-drug messaging is still firmly in play — an emphasis on hyperbole and hysteria.

While this may not have been everyone’s education on drugs, it seemed that everything was presented in the absolute extremes.

For example, the users themselves were often portrayed as bad people whose only goal in life was to get high and get others high, and their only destiny was to end up in jail or dead. It left no room for nuance. There was not going to be any acknowledgment that some very successful people such as Steve Jobs and Dr. Carl Sagan were marijuana users. This is not to say that, if you pick up a blunt, you too are guaranteed to unlock the mysteries of the universe and marketing consumer electronics, but it is very jarring down the road when you start seeing just who’s using or used a substance and does not fit into that “bad person” category.

Effects of certain substances were also greatly exaggerated. If you really want a trip, I invite readers to check out Tiny Toon Adventures’ “One Beer” short. Intended as an anti-drinking PSA, the short features three of the young stars finding a lone beer in the fridge, splitting it between the three of them and engaging in drunken hijinks that culminate with them stealing a cop car and driving off a mountain to their deaths. And while the Press & Dakotan does not condone experimenting with this, that’s a little over the top for a single beer consumed between three people.

The problem is, this was a metaphor for a lot of drug education at the time — even with comparatively lighter substances like alcohol and marijuana. Marijuana was constantly portrayed as the end-all, be-all gateway drug that would inevitably lead to cocaine, meth and other more potent substances. And while the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Institute of Drug Abuse webpage on marijuana does say some studies have found marijuana use could lead to use of other substances, it concedes that “the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, ‘harder’ substances.” It further adds that “it is important to note that other factors besides biological mechanisms, such as a person’s social environment, are also critical in a person’s risk for drug use.” Factors like social environment were constantly overlooked.

The problem with directing hyperbole and hysteria at young people is it generally clouds the factual dangers of use and abuse. There’s absolutely a place — and even a need — for programs like D.A.R.E. which not only teach kids about the dangers of drug abuse but also bring them closer to their law enforcement community. But the messages are undermined when the hysteria is what we remember growing up.

My peers and I grew up in a time when information was becoming more readily available than ever. Couple that with their first experimentations with marijuana and other substances not reaching the “Reefer Madness” levels of insanity and learning how many “normal” people used/continue to use, it led to us being skeptical of what we’d learned. Skepticism is absolutely appropriate, but the fear mongering and exaggeration has led to many outright rejecting some — or even all — of what they learned through these programs and looking at those authority figures who conducted them as nothing but liars.

But the biggest failure of these programs throughout the years has been the unwillingness to address the root causes of drug use and addiction. They are meant to deal with the symptom of a number of greater societal afflictions — poverty, trauma, inconsistent access to quality health care, shortcomings in treatment options, systemic racism which sees minorities punished more harshly for drug crimes and other factors that deserve their own column space.

“Just Say No,” D.A.R.E. and “Meth. We’re On It” were all conceived with the same goal — to start a conversation about drugs. In that sense, they succeeded spectacularly. But they have all failed to steer that conversation in the direction it absolutely needs to go — what is driving people to use and abuse controlled substances and what can be done to fix those societal ills?

This will take a lot more work than slogans that catch people’s attention — in a positive or negative manner — and grandiose claims about the effects of smoking a single joint that muddies up our perception of drug education.

South Dakota’s anti-meth campaign is not beyond saving, but denial of its present ludicrous nature is not going to steer the conversation where it needs to be nor will it save it from being cast in the same light as its failed predecessors.

Follow @RobNielsenPandD on Twitter.

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