Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Winners Don't Use Drugs: A People's History

Robert Rath | 8 Aug 2013 12:00
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Arcade goers of the 1990s have many cultural symbols burned into their memories, but none looms higher than the pixelated majesty of the Federal Bureau of Investigations logo on a blue field, mounted above a quote from FBI Director William S. Sessions: "Winners Don't Use Drugs." Today, gamers see "Winners Don't Use Drugs" as a bizarre cultural artifact, but in the days of the late 1980s and early 1990s it was part of the battleground in America's multi-faceted War on Drugs. Indeed, the strange partnership between law enforcement and arcade distributors survived William Sessions' tenure as director, with his quote persisting on attract screens across the country even after he became the only FBI Director in history to be fired.

To understand the context for the "Winners Don't Use Drugs" campaign, you have to understand that the United States tries to fight the drug trade economically. Ever since Richard Nixon declared the "War on Drugs" in 1971, the U.S. government has followed a two front strategy, attacking the drug trade both on its supply side (those that make, traffic and distribute the drugs), as well as the demand side - cutting into the market of potential buyers.

The supply side deals with the more visible aspects of the war on drugs, particularly law enforcement crackdowns and foreign interventions. This external strategy began to ramp up in the 1980s. The Coast Guard started performing drug interdictions. Reagan created 29 new mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offences and stiffened the penalties for crack cocaine. President Bush invaded Panama in order to remove General Manuel Noriega from power so he could stand trial for drug trafficking, racketeering and money laundering (though Bush, as CIA Director, had turned a blind eye to Noriega's drug-running because he was a valuable in combating leftist guerrillas). The CIA, DEA and other government agencies offered both public and covert assistance for countries like Colombia to combat drug production or trafficking. The hope was to interdict enough narcotics to drive up the street price and limit the supply - but it was only one half of the economic attack.

The "demand-side" strategy, run concurrently with the supply-side, was an attempt to use public relations, advertising and educational campaigns to convince the American public they should avoid narcotics in the first place, thereby reducing the potential drug market. Nancy Reagan spearheaded the effort throughout the early-to-mid '80s, promoting her "Just Say No," campaign on the lecture and talk show circuit. In 1983, LAPD Chief Daryl Gates founded the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program to warn young people about drug addiction (after retirement, Gates would go on to work with Sierra on the Police Quest and SWAT franchises). Politicians encouraged entertainment media to get in on the action as well, attempting to sell a unified anti-drug message. Nancy Reagan appeared on Dynasty and Diff'rent Strokes promoting "Just Say No." La Toya Jackson took over as spokesperson for the campaign in 1987, turning the slogan into a painfully dated song.

Even Saturday morning cartoons joined the effort. For example, the Flintstone Kids did a "Just Say No" special featuring Michael Jackson - as "Michael Jackstone" - singing a rewritten version of "Beat It." However, the ultimate anti-drug special, if only for sheer mind-bending eccentricity, has to be Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue, wherein Michelangelo, ALF, Winnie the Pooh, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Slimer, Bugs Bunny, the Muppet Babies, Garfield and the Smurfs combine forces to help a young girl get her older brother off pot.

The special, introduced by George and Barbara Bush, was simulcast on all four networks in 1990. Though the strategy seems simplistic and outdated today, as well as a little bizarre - no one ever explains why Simon the Chipmunk readily recognizes marijuana - the government believed that bombarding kids with anti-drug messages through popular media would lead to a greater chance they'd internalize the messages about drugs and peer pressure because they came wrapped in something recognizable. It was in this environment that "Winners Don't Use Drugs" was born.

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