Wasted Money: The Story of “Partnership for a Drug Free America”

When the NJ Heroin and Opiate Task Force held hearings around the state in 2012, we heard testimony from medical professionals, treatment providers, law enforcement, politicians, bureaucrats, representatives of 12-step organizations, people in recovery, the parents of dead kids, policy experts, and advocacy groups. Everyone told a story, some provided data, and most offered up a few suggestions. There was a representative from Partnership for a Drug Free NJ that testified. He told us we were doing a good job and, as far as I remember, did not offer up any specific suggestions (though I’m pretty sure he said he’d like to help us).

Last week, I testified before the NJ State Senate Health Committee about the opiate epidemic (I talked about a number of failed bills I liked, made a bunch of suggestions, and levied criticism at a number of industries, politicians and programs). Partnership for Drug Free NJ sent the same representative again, and he told the Senate they were doing a good job and offered no suggestions. Everyone else that testified that day had something substantive to say, regardless of whether I agreed with it or not. The testimony was empty. It irritated me. After careful thought, I realized that they show up to events just to put in an appearance, but they clearly do not like to stake out positions. This is almost certainly because they do not want to upset their donors.

The Partnership for a Drug Free America was founded in 1985 in New York City. It is a private non-profit that enjoys 501c status. They created well known ads such as This Is Your Brain On Drugs and I Learned It From Watching You. None of their ads addressed alcohol or tobacco use. This was probably because some of the major donors during the first 12 years of their existence were Phillip Morris, Anheuser-Busch and RJ Reynolds. After the donations from the tobacco and alcohol industries became public, PDFA stopped taking their money in 1997.

PDFA never criticized the Just Say No campaign. It never expressed a concern about the draconian sentences and mass incarceration of petty drug users. It would not mention the dangers of prescription drugs until the 2000s, and it was careful to never criticize the pharmaceutical industry. This is clearly because three of the top seven donors in 2013 were Jazz Pharmaceuticals, Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals and Purdue Pharma. Mallinckrodt makes Exalgo (hydromorphone) and generic forms of Hydrocodone, Oxycodone and Dextroamphetamine (DXM). Purdue Pharma released Oxycontin in 1996 and is the company that most aggressively oversold the benefits of prescription opioids and understated the negative side effects. Purdue Pharma also produces other drugs made from fentanyl, codeine, and hydrocodone. To see a complete list of the PDFA’s 2013 donors, click here.

In 2014, those three pharmaceuticals were again among the top nine donors. Joining them was the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufactures of America, a trade organization that represents the pharmaceutical industry. To see a complete list of the 2014 donors, click here.

Near the end of 2013, PDFA issued a news release about the increase of Adderall abuse by high school students. The only stance that PDFA took was that this was a concern. It did not address the aggressive marketing of Adderall, the misdiagnosing of ADHD, nor the overprescribing of many of the ADHD medications (like Ritalin, Vyvanse, Concerta). Their position on those topics is that they had no position. To be clear, there was no criticism of the pharmaceutical industry or doctors.

Earlier that fall, Mike Males wrote a stinging critique of PDFA. He discussed how PDFA had started to label prescription drug abuse as “the nation’s worst crisis” but only focused on teens. In 2013, Mr. Males wrote that “the middle aged epidemic” was far worse (in November of 2015, the New York Times reported that middle aged whites were dying at huge and ever-increasing rates due to prescription drug overdoses). In 2014, PDFA changed their name to Partnership for a Drug Free Kids (PDFK) and said they would focus exclusively on people under the age of 18 and their parents.

In September of 2015, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it had approved Oxycodone for use by teens between the ages of 11 and 16. I was outraged and wrote an article comparing this to how Paxil was once considered safe for teens, until it was discovered it wasn’t 14 years later. PDFK posted an article on their site about the approval of Oxycodone. It included statements from the FDA about why this was necessary. This appeared to be a perfect opportunity for PFDK to protect its primary group by admonishing the FDA and Purdue Pharma. The only criticism offered was by Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), who said, “This recent decision by the FDA to prescribe OxyContin to children as young as 11 years old is a horrifying example of the disconnect between the FDA approval process and the realities the deadly epidemic of prescription drug abuse are having on our communities.”

Another top donor to PDFK over the years has been the FDA. That might explain why they have apparently never criticized the FDA.

On their website, PDFK states that they support Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PMP or PDMP). Their position is that they should be in all 50 states (only Missouri does not have one) and that they should be interconnected (I completely agree). This is not noteworthy, as almost every politician and policy expert supports  PMPs. The only controversy is whether they should be mandated or not (I am very much in favor of mandating them). PDFK does not have a published stance on whether or not PMPs should be mandated. Their site also states that they support Good Samaritan Laws, the use of Naloxone and Medication Assisted Therapies. If they have actively contributed through messaging or funding to the passage of those laws and programs in any state, I have not been able to find it.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the PFDA released a number of strong anti-marijuana ads. An infamous ad in 1987 said that marijuana “flattens brain waves.” The Schaffer Library of Drug Policy wrote a powerful rebuke of the ad:

In the commercial, a normal human brain wave was compared to what was supposedly the (much flatter) brain wave of a 14-year-old high on marijuana. It was actually the brain wave of a coma patient. PDFA lied about the data, and had to pull the commercial off of the air when researchers complained to the television networks.

A number of experts have argued that the exaggerated claims about the dangers of marijuana created a mistrust of anti-drug messaging (much like the movie Reefer Madness did in 1937). PDFA’s 1987 ad was not only contained manufactured data, but it may have made it harder for prevention messages to be effective. This is the opposite of what their supposed mission is. In 2016, PDFK has a very different message about marijuana. On the FAQ section on their site, they provide their stance on marijuana legalization:

As the country debates new policies on marijuana – medicalization, decriminalization and legalization – none address our sole concern: the health and well-being of young people. We recognize that the status quo is changing. We do not believe that any drug use, including alcohol, should be treated as primarily a law enforcement issue, but rather a health issue. Further, we acknowledge the discriminatory way in which marijuana prohibition has been implemented in the United States. The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids supports what is in the best interest of families and their kids’ health, and the use of marijuana or any substance in adolescence is an unhealthy behavior for kids.

Their only clear opinion is that they don’t want kids smoking marijuana. That is uncontroversial. They make no statements about legalization, decriminalization, or criminalization. They do write that more research should be done to see if there are any benefits to medical marijuana. In short, all their statements are bland and add nothing to our national conversation on drug prevention, treatment or policy. The Partnership for Drug Free Kids spends almost $100 million* a year and they have almost** nothing substantive to show for it. It’s time for them to go away.


*In 2013, the PDFA reported expenses of $85.7 million. In 2014, the PDFK reported expenses of $96.7 million. To read about their financials, click here. This is their 2013 tax return and 2014 tax return.

** PDFK helped spread messaging about securing medicine cabinets in the 2000s.

4/5/2016: An earlier version of this piece claimed the executive that testified at the 2012 and 2016 hearings was from PFDA rather than Partnership for Drug Free NJ. I have corrected that. It was that testimony that caused me to look closely at PFDA (now PFDK). I also have written up a follow-up piece after speaking with the President of PFDK and a volunteer. It can be read here.

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