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Seamus McGrenery

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Can we do anything about the marketing of illegal drugs?

We know that the distribution and sale of illegal drugs is a multi-billion dollar industry. But it is an illegal industry, so how does it advertise? Maybe deliberate product placement in movies is one way.

Maybe many people assume that the illegal drug business does not need to advertise. Or maybe people think that the industry can rely on the occasional ‘free’ plug by pop stars.

Offhand, though, I can’t think of any other large scale consumer industry that does not put a lot of effort into persuading more people to try it’s products.

The illegal drugs industry is constantly losing customers, to arrest, to recovery and-like the tobacco industry-to early death. It would be naieve to think that it does not work hard to replace them.

Product placement is a well-known, and widely studied, market for placing normal commercial products in movies as a way of marketing them. The practice is as old as the cinema.

So how would that work for the illegal drugs industry? We could look at how the tobacco industry reacted to the banning of its advertisements from TV. One way was to pay for product placement in movies.

A study found one in five movies features illegal drugs, not so far off the number the feature cigarette smoking. The tobacco industry pays for the inclusion of smoking in many of the films that feature it. Why wouldn’t the illegal drugs industry do the same? After all they have the same need to keep recruiting new users.

Both Misha Glenny and Rodrigo Canales tell us that the illegal drug business often works like other multinational businesses.

Freakonomics author Steven Levit claims that the economics of the illegal drug industry works in a similar way to McDonald's. It is the McDonald's corporation, not your local restaurant that arranges for its products to feature in the movies. They do it to boost local sales, and their own profits.

So, if illegal drugs are being deliberately marketed through movies, is there anything we can do about it?


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    Apr 15 2014: In my opinion, the simple solution would be to decriminalize the use of illegal drugs, while controlling the sale of less addicting and dangerous drugs such as marijuana through dispensaries and cafes that cater to such consumers. With the tax-dollars saved from not incarcerating non-violent drug offenders, and the tax-dollars earned from legal marijuana sales, the government could provide free rehabilitation programs for users of more dangerous controlled substances such as heroin and cocaine. These rehabilitation programs could focus not only on drug addiction, but on how to integrate drug addicts back into society, effectively removing the negative social stigma and misdemeanor/felony drug charges.

    I'm not sure how Ireland has addressed the issue of illegal drug use and sales, but in the United States it appears that our problem is that we fail to address the socioeconomic issues that oftentimes lead to drug abuse. With the famed "War on Drugs" being a monumental failure and money-sink, instead of reforming our drug prohibition, intervention, and rehabilitation programs, we have continued to incarcerate non-violent drug offenders at an alarming rate. According to Reason, non-violent drug offenders account for approximately 25% of the federal prison population of 1.5 million (source: http://reason.com/archives/2011/06/08/prison-math). The fact of the matter is that if these non-violent drug offender's lives were quite horrible before prison, their lives are not going to get much better after parole, mainly because they now have a criminal record and are not likely to be readily employable (plus a drug offense limits one's eligibility for attaining federal student loans, which greatly restricts one's ability to afford college or trade school).

    As for the sale of illegal drugs, the very fact that a drug is illegal makes it a more viable product to be sold. Scarcity and risk allows for the illegal drug to be quite profitable.
    • Apr 16 2014: Michael,

      The water-sink doesn't make the water disappear it just channels it into a particular channel … Getting rid of the livelihood stemming from incarcerating non-violent drug offenders isn't high on the agenda of those living from that… also as you mentioned the laws make it a more viable product to be profitably sold! In fact if you look at the whole scheme of things the system feeds itself . What do you think those with a criminal record will likely end up doing when they get out? Given the limited legal option they now have...
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        Apr 17 2014: Agreed. This is why I believe that socioeconomic factors play a significant role in drug use and sales. If an individual does not qualify for a job that pays much more than minimum wage, it quite simply is more profitable to sell drugs, where they could make anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to over a thousand dollars in a single day. If one compares that to working 40 hours a week while making around minimum wage, regardless of the risk, it makes more economic sense to sell drugs. For individuals with criminal records and less than stellar employment histories, it's a relative no-brainer to sell drugs.

        Now I'm not advocating that anyone should quit their job and start selling drugs, but when there is such an absurd amount of profit to be made (mainly because of these drugs being illegal), it shouldn't be a shock as to why some individuals choose to sell drugs. This is particularly the case if they are supporting their own drug habit by selling drugs.

        As for the "marketing" of illegal drugs though indirect "advertising" through movies and television, I honestly think that correlation does not necessitate causation. Drugs sell themselves because they work, and individuals become "addicted" because self-medication is oftentimes a more convenient and cost-effective way of escaping whatever ails them. For instance, I would love to be able to have the time and money to go on an extravagant vacation in order to recharge from the daily grind, but due to my socioeconomic conditions, it's much more practical, convenient, and cost-effective for me to purchase a case of beer, a pack of cigarettes, and a Netflix subscription. Please keep in mind that my life isn't "bad" enough for me to self-medicate any further than this, but it doesn't surprise me that some individuals turn to more "hardcore" drugs, and it's not because they watched it on television or in a movie, but because these drugs actually work.
    • Apr 17 2014: Michael,

      The notion that --it quite simply is more profitable to do it this way-- plays a role into many many situations going on!
      BTW the fact one thinks that exposure to something does not cause one to be affected by it hardly changes the facts that one is affected by it. I agree with you that some resort to convenient and cost-effective ways of escapisms and I would add ways that end up costing them much much more than they bargained for. The thing is that under the circumstances the alternatives are a bit more complicated and challenging to incorporate, especially under direct influence of certain stuff. To use the metaphor of the boiling frog with a bit of a twist… the frog knows the water is getting hotter and hotter thing is jumping out of it will lead to jumping into the flaming forest and just maybe staying in the pond for a little bit longer will enable it to survive and then thrive.

      In my response to what we can do about the marketing of certain ideas I pointed out that we can let the marketeers know how they missed out on a huge profit because of what they chose to do and what they better do to actually capitalize on making real gains. Easier said than done especially given the present rewards structures involved. Actual survival depends on present and future persistence; it's not one or the other it's one and the other. What many businesses still have to realize is that its more profitable to endure than to make a quick buck. The roller coaster is just a ride at an amusement park and there are much better rides to be had…would you get into hotel california where You can check out any time you like, But you can never leave!' ? Are 'we are all just prisoners here, of our own device'? The ticked in is rather accessible, for it's the ticket out that will cost each one a fortune. Then again we may have checked in to fix up the place.

      - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boiling_frog
      - http://www.lyrics007.com/Eagles%20Lyrics/Hotel%20California%20Lyrics.html

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