#TBT on THC: "Drugs Are Like That"
The 1969 PSA stands out for attempting to both curb drug use and apparently stop people from doing literally anything at all.
Published on July 6, 2017

Anti-drug propaganda films often create at least a somewhat cohesive set of rules for how the world that they depict operates. Most fudge the facts, but within reason. The data stays broad at worst, its lack of specificity serving as a defense, but these PSAs attempt to tackle what exactly the fear of the moment seems to be stemming from. Drugs Are Like That, a 1969 anti-drug film, manages to achieve an impossible feat by creating the most absurd series of analogous events in an attempt to both curb drug use and I guess stop people from doing literally anything at all.

Narrated by American singer and noted bigot Anita Bryant, Drugs Are Like That follows two kids, handily named “the boy” and “the girl.” The two of them spend the film gradually assembling a Lego set, a handy reminder that the “toy of the century” largely got its title by being all things to both sexes. I literally spent more time thinking about how much I love Legos than I did contemplating all the things drugs are “like.” The opening shot is held within the pantry, as the two kids ramble around outside the door, their shadows intersecting with the streams of light coming through the blinds. They billow on and on about how there are “a lot of different ways to take drugs.” Eventually, the boy begins to complain (or maybe the girl — absolutely unclear considering everyone’s voice in 1969 had the manic vocal fry of a femme fatale, even a pair of 8-year-olds). The two begin to bicker about what they would do if they “had” to try drugs, but the girl doesn’t understand: why would she “have” to? “Because!” the boy replies. “Because what?” “Because drugs are like that.”

“Once you start some things you cannot stop,” a man croons over guitar, managing to capture my exact thought as I realize there is another 15 minutes left of the film. At times, the script seems to accidentally venture into some bizarre absurdism, as the kids ramble about literally nothing with the kind of rutter-less speech you’d find employed in, like, Beckett?

“A lady came to school today,” the boy says to the girl.
“What did she tell you?”
“The lady!”

This “lady” the kids mention, cryptically kept off screen, is again anti-gay icon Anita Bryant. Bryant once campaigned on behalf of workplace discrimination, so it’s super fun to see her here finding new things to conflate with death. Those things turn out to be pretty much anything and everything. A baby drops its pacifier and starts crying; Bryant quickly uses this as an analogy for withdrawal. A child climbs atop a kitchen counter and attempts to reach for a cookie jar, only to tumble backwards, which Bryant uses as a visual explanation of what happens when you covet illegal things. She thinks cookies are illegal! In the film’s most baffling moment, children are seen running along the sidewalk and trying not to step on any cracks, a game which Bryant qualifies as a “bad habit” on par with drugs. The comparison only becomes more clinically insane when a grown man is shown playing the same sidewalk game before running neck-first into a wooden beam that knocks his windpipe and I guess kills him?

Each of these examples ends with the film’s main refrain: “Drugs are like that.” Of course, few of these things are actually like drugs. Things are actually very rarely like other things, and Anita Bryant’s historically heinous track record really makes her an altogether horrific candidate to espouse on nobility. In fact, for the entirety of the film, Bryant is actively obsessed with killing anything fun. “This looks like a great lake to swim across. This looks like great water to dive in. This looks like a great rope to swing on,” she says. “This whole set-up looks great, but it can fool you,” she reminds right as we see a kid drowning in a lake for absolutely no reason. “Drugs are like that.”

In 1969, Richard Nixon issued a special message to Congress in an effort to confront what he viewed as the great moral failings of the country. In a moment of tremendous change across America, and widespread doubt across its people as an escalating war and increasingly corrupt administration came under fire, Nixon declared drug use a “serious national threat.” This speech came two years after the Summer of Love, which saw some 100,000 people migrating out west in the spirit of revolution and rejection. Over the course of those two years, America’s view of itself — its spirit, its values, and its standing halfway through the new century — collided head on with an increasingly paranoid and nostalgic administration, desperate to reframe the growing indulgences of the youth as a kind of toxic ulcer.

Drugs Are Like That feels like an embodiment of that kind of desperate recontextualization, putting more effort into threading non-existent connections than in providing information. The film doesn’t even make any attempts at delving deeper into their examples; there’s no metaphor to parcel through regarding swimming and making “bad choices.” It is, instead, some type of fear mongering that could keep kids off drugs, but will also keep them away from lakes? From cars? Unclear what the goal is here, and how the directors of this short managed to look at a final cut where an adult literally dies while playing “don’t step on the crack” and think to themselves, “yes definitely.” But in the face of a changing culture, anything resembling authority plays well. Sometimes good intentions leave you looking paranoid, foolish, desperate to make a statement but struggling to remember the point. Drugs are like that.

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Rod Bastanmehr
Rod Bastanmehr is an arts and culture writer and one-half of the GOOD FRIENDS podcast. His work has appeared in VICE, The Atlantic, Salon, Slate, and the LA Review of Books.
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