#TBT on THC: This Anti-Weed PSA Will Make You Lose Your Mind
There’s no cannabis strain that makes you kill your sister with a butcher knife, but this 1980s propaganda film doesn’t agree.
Published on May 25, 2017

“I loved him deep down inside because I was obligated. He was my brother, but I didn’t like him. I hated him.”

Never has an anti-weed PSA opened with a line more fit for a Victorian-era drama. In “Wasted: A True Story,” an early 1980s PSA on the broad implications of rampant drug use, we follow the plight of Tim, a kid with a vaguely bright future, who seems to be into sports, to get along with his parents, and have a relationship with his sister at least good enough to be worth mourning later. A majority of the TV spot is animated, told in withering voice over by Tim’s sister, who is seen in the opening scene sitting behind a large upright sketchpad, calmly painting her brother like one of her French girls. They share strangely knowing glances. It’s not totally clear if there is an incest subplot here, but I’m pulling a Sheryl Sandberg and leaning right into “yes.”

This potential retelling of Flowers In The Attic notwithstanding, the PSA is mostly told through first-hand “interviews” that double as narration over accompanying animated reenactments. As with many PSAs that incorporate elements of documentary over narrative, the suspicion of authenticity doesn’t vanish easily. My belief that these accounts of drug abuse are culled from real experiences is based entirely on good faith; the monotone of 80s voiceover doesn’t do much to quell my doubts that Tim and his sister might be actors seen next in a late night infomercial. These accounts are presumably lifted from real life — and if not exactly Tim’s, surely someone like him, someone you know, maybe even you if you don’t get straight...

As the sister narrates her brother’s journey, we enter the drawing she had been working on in the opening frames of the short, and they take us through increasingly dark instances of Tim’s drug use, with occasional jumps to talking head interviews in between. These interviews provide the framework for the film, which includes everything from Tim nearly hitting rock bottom to the baffling naivete that caused him to get loaded to begin with (“I thought it would make me better at soccer,” says Tim and literally nobody else).

“Wasted: A True Story”, which runs about 30 minutes, won the Silver Medal Newman Award in the New York Film and TV festival. The film was released in 1983 by the American Council of Drug Education, just one year before Nancy Reagan's “Just Say NO” campaign would launch, marking the initial stages of what would become the centerpiece and hallmark of Reagan administration's anti-drug campaign. The complicated socio-economic and racial optics of the War on Drugs would have yet to come into focus, but when Tim’s sister claims that she personally knows people that went to prison for “selling dope,” I can’t help but wonder what company she kept in the era of Nancy Reagan's America. Were her middle class white friends really the victims of three strikes law?

The variety of ways in which PSAs manage to convey a lack of chill is astounding. Some of the dialogue from this film will have you wondering whether anyone has ever even smoked weed before. “The first thing you start to lose is your mind,” says Tim in what is surely a line lifted from an old draft of Apocalypse Now. “We had to watch what we would say around him,” his sister recalls, “he was like a ticking time bomb.”

As the film progresses, Tim becomes unrecognizable to his family, who never make a point of really describing what he was like before he walked willfully into the dark green abyss. I for one definitely miss the old him who, judging from his general look, was probably routinely friendzoned by girls named Marcia. In a particularly memorable segment of what would be the worst animated series of all time, Tim blows up at his sister during a routine argument in which he is presumably high, and grabs a kitchen knife as he begins stomping around the house, chasing her.  

Like much of mid-century and onward statistical analysis regarding crime rates, the notion of Tim’s drug use becomes yet another fallacy of causation — an instance in which an anecdote or test case is mean to stand in for the ‘whole,’ when it almost exclusively explains a ‘part.’ Here, it becomes increasingly obviously that Tim suffers from unchecked rage more so than weed dependency. As someone who can hardly open his Notes app after smoking without immediately wondering what he was supposed to make a note of, I find it difficult to believe that Tim’s infant flirtation with weed would lead him to chase his sister around the goddamn hallway with a butcher knife, looking like cross between Michael Myers and a Partridge Family member. This PSA does a remarkable job of projecting Tim’s anger issues and emotional instability on a drug that is given little scientific or medical analysis throughout the whole film. His strange instabilities, his paranoia, his fiending, the pawning of multiple family items for drug money. What about this sounds like the effects of marijuana?

Wait, one peek at his teeth and it should be pretty obvious that young Tim is literally on meth. If it’s not obvious after a look at his chompers, it should be when he is lost, wandering the city streets at night, having fever dreams of other versions of himself lost out on the road. “I don’t even know who I am anymore,” he says.

“Weed Will Make You Lose Your Mind” is an interesting 1980s relic in the way that it foregoes any sort of cursory interest in medicine or science, instead leaning into something more akin to Montage Of Heck meets School House Rock. As the story progresses, it uses the forms of the after-school special to telegraph something about weed that isn’t proven true or untrue — it’s an outsider’s view of how drug dependency affects people in your life even more than yourself.

This is a very typical move of government PSAs. The anti-drug propaganda machine that would kick into hyperdrive less than two years after “Wasted” would prioritize the lives and experiences of the white middle class in an effort of save “civilized society” from the creeping presence of some urban force. Here, the War on Drugs frames rehabilitation as simultaneously a fairy tale ending and an afterthought. Empathy isn’t quite on full display here, but rather the svengali-like lure of drugs that makes people less human. The emphasis is not on the safety of the “addict,” but on the people around him. The two are of course linked — Tim’s sister is worried about his safety in the same breath as her own. But there is a shocking candor with which the narrative revolves around their taking him back into their arms, as if it’s an act of emotional charity. “I’ve had it with his lies, he’s becoming a monster,” the sister says. The cartoon aesthetics do well to remind you of what the looming threat was about — supposed urban decay creeping into suburbia; something innocent infected by something dark. You won’t recognize these people, the movie says. You won’t even love them anymore.

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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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