When LBJ-wunderkind-turned-Jimmy Carter-darling Joseph Califano left government, few were surprised by his new mission: fighting substance abuse. After all, this was the man who had warned the country about cigarettes in the 1960s. The youngest domestic policy advisor in U.S. history had recruited people from all walks of life—from Nancy Reagan to Ursula Burns, the first black woman CEO of a major company—to create CASA, the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
Califano used his rolodex to raise more money than anyone in the history of drug-abuse prevention, helping to change the trajectory of Americans’ drug use. At the same time, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America began as a group of advertising agencies aiming to unsell Americans on addictive drugs. Drug users were, as a popular expression had it, “frying their brains.” The Partnership became an overnight phenomenon for its first commercial, showing a whole egg, then the egg frying in a skillet: “This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?”
Those who took it literally hated the commercial (my brain is not an egg!), but those who saw it symbolically understood it instantly. A simple image and a dozen words brilliantly conveyed a prevention message: Drugs hurt your brain; don’t “fry” it. Almost everyone over 35 remembers that commercial.
It made perfect sense that both the Partnership and CASA, responding to new threats and a changing world, merged in 2019 to help those battling addiction and to emphasize the need to stop drug use before it starts.
This background helps explain why many of us who supported the organizations are scratching our heads at their latest move: questioning the value of recovery and seemingly promoting “safe drug use.”
Throughout most of history, scientists had to wait until people died to see what drugs had done to their brains. But starting in the 1980s, new technology enabled them to see how drugs act in the brains of living users. Since then, the scientific consensus is that addiction occurs in the brain.
Supporters of harm reduction are often critical of the relationship between addiction and the brain, deeming it merely a “theory” because it doesn’t fit their mission: to legalize addictive drugs, stop arresting drug dealers, and provide a “safe” supply of drugs to so-called overdose-prevention centers, where Canadian volunteers with no medical training inject drugs into users’ veins at taxpayer expense.
When the two groups merged, the Partnership changed its mission and name to the Partnership to End Addiction. Yet today, it tweets in support of extreme harm-reduction policies (beyond sensible measures such as the use of Narcan), which confuses families. Using the sleight-of-hand we’ve come to expect from advertisers, the Partnership tweets in favor of harm-reduction measures that most people would agree with, such as fentanyl test strips and naloxone to reverse overdoses, while also expressing support for reducing the risks associated with addiction—and not necessarily in favor of recovery.
Will the Partnership next embrace ideas such as injection rooms and “safe use” programs like those underway in Canada and in some American cities?
Perhaps most unforgivable is the Partnership’s assurance on its website that it adheres to evidence-based practices. The numbers don’t lie. Since British Columbia replaced drug laws with harm reduction a few years ago, drugs are now the leading cause of death among children aged 10 to 18, while drug deaths among those aged 19 to 39 are four times higher than their age cohort’s second-leading cause of death.
Let’s hope that these jarring messages are not indicative of the Partnership’s new direction. Otherwise, it may need to change its name again to the Partnership to End Addiction—For Some. That would be a tragedy.