Suspect and Report: Anti-drug Propaganda for ’Sixties Families

In 1963, Los Angeles County distributed through the public school system 200,000 copies of a stylishly designed, wide-format brochure printed on heavy paper. It featured illustrations by a Walt Disney artist and a dire message: Your kid might be on drugs.

Targeted at parents of teen-agers, “Darkness on Your Doorstep” used thick margins, modern typefaces, and crisp copywriting to present key information about illegal drugs. Illustrations and photographic compositions mostly depicted a young male desperately trying to cope with or escape from drug addiction. While exonerating the youthful drug user on one hand, the text urged parents to suspect and report him on the other. “Taking dope is different from other bad behavior,” it read. “Once a person becomes an addict, he can’t control his habit. His habit controls him.”

According to the brochure, the underworld of illegal drugs was precariously near and almost impossible to escape. Things could snowball really fast:

The boy or girl who takes drugs needs money, for drugs are expensive. Though he may seek and find a job, he usually has a hard time holding it. … Then he may try stealing. He commonly begins by taking things from home. Often he rifles his mother’s purse. A boy may turn to theft and burglary. A girl may try shoplifting. She may be headed toward prostitution.

Photographic compositions depicted a son’s descent into crime and despair in 1963’s “Darkness on Your Doorstep.”

The brochure emphasized the easy availability of drugs, both in medicine cabinets at home and from friends and dealers: “Maybe you are thinking that a peddler is an evil-looking person that anyone could recognize. But many peddlers are very young themselves and can easily hang around recreation centers and teen-age spots without being noticed.”

Like communists in government, drug users were an enemy within. And Southern California was utterly steeped in anti-communism by the early 1960s. The rhetorical style of “Darkness on Your Doorstep” certainly draws from this current. Shadowy menace? Check. Might be too late already? Check. Hand him over to the authorities for the greater good of your community? … Check.

Disney art director and illustrator Paul Hartley drew pictures for the educational brochure.

The solution of reporting a drug user to authorities is presented late in the narrative, following healthy doses of fear and paranoia (and, as usual, dubious claims about the effects of marijuana). At first, this imperative is presented as a plan between parents and children to report anyone who tries to give them drugs: “You need to work out with your boy or girl what he should do … . The person who offers drugs or narcotics to another is committing a crime. He must be reported.”

But then, suppose darkness arrives on your own doorstep. Take your son to a doctor immediately to “confirm or dispel your suspicions,” the text suggests. When drug users are identified in the “early stages—before they have become addicts—they benefit from treatment more readily.” The Juvenile Court is equipped to deal with young users and will arrange a recovery program. “The Court always tries to return the youth to the home of his parents whenever the parent is willing to cooperate.” Anyone 18 or older can even be committed to the newly founded California Rehabilitation Center, so any parent whose barely-legal kid has a problem should contact the district attorney right away.

Six months is the minimum stay, though. After that, “the former user may be returned home. … He has to learn to face problems without taking drugs. He needs to feel that his folks have faith in him and that others do too. He still needs controls from outside of himself and is, therefore, placed under the supervision of a specially-trained parole agent and required to undergo regular anti-narcotics testing” … for five years minimum.

Newspapers printed the text of “Darkness on Your Doorstep” as public-service advertising. (Save the image or open it in a new tab to read.)

Seems a little crazy now, but these were hardly fringe ideas. California was at this time considered to be on the cutting edge of drug control, with long sentences for drug offenders and a large state-run rehabilitation program. The most popular regional anti-drug figures were signed on to the brochure project. Some newspapers in Southern California printed all the text as editorial content in a multi-part series; others ran it as a full-page public service announcement. Its popularity led to later editions, and at least one county official expressed concern over guarding the copyright. An educational film by the same title was made and shown to parent groups.

“Darkness on Your Doorstep” was only one of many anti-drug initiatives undertaken at the same suburban coffee klatches that brought law-and-order conservatism into the mainstream. This grassroots sensibility was emphasized in the brochure. A strong call to action wrapped it up, with readers urged to “join other parents” in local anti-narcotics groups, to set standards for kids’ behavior in the neighborhood, and to use community services for counseling, employment, and “moral, ethical, and spiritual development.”

But one point was emphasized the most: reporting users to the authorities. “Your police department faces many problems in enforcing drug laws. A peddler’s victims almost never complain. Somebody has to report on this lawless society.” Finally, “You can help. When you know a youngster is getting drugs, report this to the police—even if you don’t know who the peddler is. Always act to protect a boy or girl.”

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