Jan 25, 2023
On a Very Special Episode of "Home Improvement," Tim and Jill lecture their son about the dangers of marijuana after he’s caught smoking a joint. On a powerful episode of ABC’s "Sports Night," written by Aaron Sorkin, sportscaster Dan Rydell delivers a four-minute monologue on how dope killed his younger brother. On a devastating episode of CBS's "Chicago Hope," a dozen teenagers are rushed to the emergency room after taking a new psychedelic drug at a rave.
We’ve all seen these "Very Special" drug episodes throughout our childhoods and adolescence. For some reason, our favorite shows, seemingly out of nowhere, decided to dedicate an entire episode to the perils of teenage drug use.
These episodes, mostly from the 1980s and '90s, have become a
cultural punchline, something amusing and mocked but ultimately,
one would think, harmless. But what most viewers don't know is that
many of these episodes were not just part of a teen-oriented
convention turned TV trope; a number of them were actually funded
by the federal government to the tune of hundreds of
thousands––sometimes millions–– of dollars to promote so-called
The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) in the late 1990s made a deal with multiple TV networks to include anti-drug messaging in show plots. In 1997, Congress approved a plan to buy $1 billion of anti-drug advertising over five years for its National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign.
From at least 1997 to 2000, the Feds paid TV networks to air what was ostensibly drug awareness public health information but was, in many key ways, propaganda to sustain and build support for the war on drugs. The White House drug office paid networks large sums of money to weave so-called "anti-drug" stories in their narratives, undisclosed to the viewer, often revising and approving scripts without the show writers knowledge.
Rather than being harmless––if corny––anti-drug messages we can all now laugh at, these narratives were also part of a broader scare strategy to frighten, misinform, and prop up the federal government's war on drugs both at home and abroad.
On this episode, we will review some of the major TV shows that ran these episodes, how much money they took in from the U.S. government, and how these tropes shaped and directly impacted public policy that promoted racism, imperial meddling in Latin America, and mass incarceration.
Our guest is Kassandra Frederique, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance.