Back in the olden days (a.k.a. the ’70s–’00s), the best way to stop the youths from lighting up was to create a filmed public service announcement for TV. These PSAs made use of deceptive tactics such as ridiculously inaccurate exaggerations, fearmongering, and casting your favorite (washed-up) actors to get you to listen up.
Nowadays, we have medical evidence to help us understand the impact of harder drugs on the body and more research on cannabis’ positive uses. But looking back, these PSAs definitely reinforced the stigma for future generations. On a larger scale, they’re part of the reason many growers and cannabis-related businesses face legitimacy issues with local governments, banks, and community boards today. Let’s take a trip down memory lane and examine some of the most ridiculous and retroactively hilarious anti-drug PSAs. And remember: Just say no to shitty acting and writing.
The “Go for the Gore” Tactic
Have you ever imagined shredding your hand into ground meat thank to an electric saw in woodshop class? The indignant young star of this PSA has no fear when it comes to handling heavy machinery while talking into camera about his love for marijuana. That is, until a strategically placed sound effect has us all imagining the unthinkable.
Why it’s inaccurate: Operating heavy machinery while stoned (or on any sort of substance) is always ill-advised. But this PSA’s claims about marijuana causing a “lack of focus” are also totally off-base. As we’ve previously reported, choosing the right kind of cannabis can increase motivation and creativity in users and even boost productivity!
The “Pot Makes You Lazy” Tactic
This ’80s ad now comes off as kind of pro-marijuana, until a twist at the end. Spoiler alert: The main character lives at home with his mom and has become a do-nothing guy. See, marijuana prevents you from doing anything at all. Get it?
Why it’s inaccurate: The myth that pot makes you lazy and unsuccessful is a long-standing one. But what about the 11 U.S. Presidents, Olympic athletes, and countless famous writers and musicians who’ve used marijuana? They all completely destroy the “loser” stereotype so many old PSAs tried to present.
The “Learned Behavior” Tactic
“I learned it by watching YOU!” is a catchphrase we still smugly utter today. It comes from this hilariously bad PSA that preys on the fact that if kids see their parents smoking pot, they will become pot smokers as well. While we still struggle to believe that this dad wearing khakis hiked up that high is also a smoker, we won't judge (much).
Why it’s inaccurate: There have been no studies that point to marijuana use being genetic or inherited. But is it true that if you smoke up in front of your kids, they’ll want to smoke weed too? While it wouldn’t be a terrible thing if they did, a lot has been written about responsible use in a home with kids—there’s even a picture book on the subject. If the use is responsible and controlled, “watching you” can be a teachable moment about recreational or medical use and tolerance.
The “Wrath of Satan” Tactic
Take it from professional wrestler Captain Lou Albano, who also played Mario on The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!: Drugs can and will drag you down to hell. The funniest part of this is the little “please” he says under his breath, begging us to not try drugs, right after telling us that even trying drugs will deliver us directly into Satan’s arms.
Why it’s inaccurate: The PSA is factually correct: Drugs can kill. But grouping them all together, and promising eternal damnation for even trying any drug is incredibly manipulative. The commercial applies statistics and addiction advice about harder drugs than marijuana. As you well know, not all drugs are created equal.
The “No Questions” Tactic
This is arguably the most famous anti-drug PSA of all time, from the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. The campaign was launched in 1987, redone in 1997 starring Rachael Leigh Cook, and infuriated the American Egg Board because it associated drugs with eggs. If we were on the egg board, we’d be mad too, because eggs are freakin’ great—and so is marijuana.
Why it’s inaccurate: While harder drugs like cocaine and methamphetamines have been shown to kill brain cells, marijuana doesn’t. But the most infuriating part of this campaign is the end, where the egg cooker looks into camera and says, “Any questions?” right before the PSA cuts to black. The implication is that after seeing this breakfast metaphor, we should have absolutely no questions. However, opening up a dialogue with your kids about substance abuse and safe consumption of marijuana and alcohol is what parenting is all about.
Shouldn’t there be loads of questions? Well, the (renamed) Partnership for Drug-Free Kids actually agrees with us on this one. This year, the organization released a new PSA that reflected on the kinds of questions that adults are asked about drugs. While the video doesn’t answer any of the questions, the message is simple: Talk to your kids.
The “Youngest Common Denominator” Tactic
It’s only 30 seconds long, but this ’90s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles PSA makes us question if its writers have ever even smoked marijuana. Besides the weirdness of the dealer’s three perfectly rolled joints, the main criticism is the age demographic. Everyone in this PSA seems to be between the ages of 4 and 11. It’s highly unlikely that there were that many at-risk suburban middle schoolers back in the day.
Why it’s inaccurate: In addition to introducing kids to the concept of marijuana, it also introduces children to the idea that marijuana’s street name is “pot.” The dealer looks totally cool, and little Joey’s best comeback is to call him a “turkey.” But besides that idiocy, there’s also new research that proves that adults smoke more marijuana than their children—presumably because these PSAs failed and the kids they targeted grew up to be cannabis enthusiasts—and medical marijuana has actually been shown to help with childhood epilepsy.
The “Too High to Function” Tactic
This surgeon puts the “medical” in medical marijuana! He’s high on the job because...if you smoke pot, just imagine if other people did too! Of course, they’d do it at work, in front of their peers, before doing something extremely important. While I don’t doubt that some surgeons could perform a routine appendectomy while stoned, the likelihood of it happening is surely rare and frowned upon by the medical community. Lawsuits alone would be enough of a deterrant.
Why it’s inaccurate: One of the biggest fights in legalization is the continuation of employee drug testing in states with medical users. Many companies refuse to alter their policies on THC testing for fear that employees could get high at work. But there aren’t tests for alcohol abuse, which is arguably a more dangerous substance, especially at the workplace. One study showed that 8.8 percent of full-time employees in the U.S. are heavy drinkers.