Among policy experts it is common knowledge that the war on drugs really means civil war in many places on this earth. In Mexico alone the drug war costs more than 10,000 people’s lives per year. Many policies such as the eradication of plants or violent engagement with criminal traffickers and organized crime have been suggested. Some of these proposals, while often suggested are rarely tried. An example is the legalization of softer drugs. In all these efforts, the place of action is the often poorer countries of origins and trafficking.
This is remarkable, since most of the consumption of expensive drugs still takes place in the richer countries. Although in recent years drugs are increasingly consumed in poor countries, the big money is still made in Europe and the US. And within these countries it is often very specific segments of the society that use (different types of) drugs. Cocaine, for instance, is still consumed very much by middle to upper class people. It is an expensive drug, for recreational use.
Price and effects of drugs are factors that segments the market for drug use, but another is images of drugs. Cocaine, for instance, still has a positive imagine of a party drug, even if it also has a connotation of a heavy, strong drug. This image of cocaine is quite persistent, and visible in many countries.
Public and private campaigns try to alter this image. There are, for instance, information campaigns about the detrimental consequences of drug abuse. The UN has an international day against drug abuse. But the arguments for these campaigns usually follow a paternalistic concern for citizens’ lives. They are purely domestic. The campaigns are supported and implemented by politicians and people working for the health sector, because these people care about the human and financial costs of drug abuse. And the campaigns, if carefully designed, are effective.
To the best of my knowledge, nobody has included the detrimental impact of drug abuse for people in the countries of origin. There is no reason why this should remain the case. In other areas drastic reimaging, usually quite literally in combination with strong and negative graphic images has shown at times tremendous success. Some countries have regulated that cigarette packs need to show pictures with the serious health risks of smoking. And again, if carefully designed, these campaigns seem to work.
An even better example is the campaign against wearing fur. Lynx was an activist group that made use of strong graphical images against the use of luxury furs. Here is a tv ad I saw probably 20 years ago, and i still remember it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lohEqT1_C_o. The idea has been often copied by similar NGOs like Greenpeace or PETA. The shocking, bloody images helped to reimage fur wearing from something of class to something more like a murderous affair. It made people associate a product with the circumstances of its production.
If it works for animals, why not for people? A re-imaging campaign against the use of party drugs such as cocaine would be relatively easy. The milieus can be identified, the channels of communication can be tailored. The re-imaging should make consumers aware that there is nothing fashionable about their drug use, but that this drug use costs some people’s lives. One could experiment with the use of graphical images or other information campaigns. It should generate the (unconscious) association of drug use with drug war. It is, of course, no magic bullet against the war on drugs. But it would be part of an overall strategy of awareness arousal and of making the problem sharing more transnational than it is as of now.