Winners Don’t Use Drugs: A People’s History

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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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The arcade campaign was the brainchild of FBI Director William S. Sessions. Sessions was a Reagan appointee, a former district judge in Texas, and had previously served as chief of the Government Operations Section in the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division. He served as Director through the turmoil of both the Ruby Ridge standoff and the Branch Davidian siege, fostered the FBI’s fledgling DNA evidence program, and automated the national fingerprint process. Though a conservative Republican appointee, his largest support was among liberal congressional Democrats who approved of his efforts to open the FBI to more women and minorities. Critics cast him as dull and procedural, but he did have one irregular streak – he was willing to reach out to youth through unconventional advertising.

Strangely, he actually had a background for connecting with teens. Sessions, and his family, had a history of working with young people through the Boy Scouts of America. Sessions himself was an Eagle Scout and his father had written the Scouts’ first God and Country handbook. Little wonder, then, that Sessions understood how easy it is to speak to youth through fun activities. In 1989 he contacted Robert Fay of the American Amusement Machine Association and opened negotiations to put PSA messages on arcade machines. By the time Sessions was done, 17 of the 20 major arcade manufacturers had signed up to use “Winners Don’t Use Drugs,” on their attract screens. However, the real coup was in the foreign games – all imports had to carry the message by law.

In concept, the idea was innovative – even brilliant. At a time when most government officials were at antagonistic toward games and their effect on children, the head of the nation’s premier law enforcement agency chose to coopt the medium in order to deliver a message. Putting “Winners Don’t Use Drugs” on arcade screens not only created a positive association with the message – there’s a reason we all remember it fondly – but it transported the catchphrase directly into a major gathering spot for young people. Remember, this was the 1980s and ’90s, when the arcade was a place children and teens could gather with minimal parental supervision. In fact, there were some in the establishment that looked on arcades as places that might expose kids to drugs. Video arcades featured prominently in anti-drug PSAs, including Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue, which not only featured kids sparking up a joint behind the machines, but preparing to smoke crack (yes, you read that right – crack, inside a video arcade). “Winners Don’t Use Drugs” not only offered a catchy phrase, it reminded kids that though they might be away from their parents, the hand of authority could still reach them.

The graphic itself is a masterpiece. Its stern simplicity gets your attention and holds it – a simple FBI logo on a blue or black background. The text itself seems designed specifically with game players in mind. “Winners Don’t Do Drugs,” was so powerful because it was written on a machine that you approached with the intention to win. Winning the game was the reason players were there, the word describes the ultimate state of success in the arcade world. Sessions’ message didn’t try and scare its target audience like most PSAs, instead it suggested that drugs could hold them back from achieving what they wanted. It was a much more realistic message than “Just Say No,” or other campaigns that threatened the target audience with homelessness or death if they smoked something illicit. By incorporating the word “Winners” into the message, Sessions showed a savvy about game culture most politicians still don’t possess. The campaign was so innovative that the EPA stole it a few years later for their “Recycle It, Don’t Trash It!” campaign, which never gained the same cultural momentum.

winners dont use drugs

Ironically, Sessions’ anti-drug PSAs would outlive his tenure as Director. Five years into his ten-year term, reports surfaced accusing Director Sessions with multiple ethical violations, mostly having to do with the misallocation of government resources. According to the Justice Department’s report, Sessions claimed a tax exemption for his transportation to and from work that was meant only for armed law enforcement officers – through he kept an unloaded gun in his car to meet the definition, he never finished the training needed to carry the weapon legally. Then there were the rides he gave to non-DOJ personnel in his private limousine. Then there were the “business trips” he took in the Director’s private jet, nominally to attend meetings but in actuality to visit his relatives. A slew of accusations involved his wife – Mrs. Sessions was said to have carried an ID badge that gave her improper access to FBI HQ. She was known to kick security personnel out of their first-class airline seats so she could sit by her husband while the agent took her place in coach. One particularly bizarre accusation claimed that Mrs. Sessions took exception to the unattractive wrought iron security fence the Bureau wanted to build to protect her home, and nagged everyone involved in the project until they installed a more aesthetically pleasing wooden fence – one that worsened the building’s security and was built on the taxpayer’s dime.

Both Sessions and his wife claimed that the accusations were politically motivated, however, it’s more likely that the Sessions’ tendency to misuse security staff and government transportation simply came from them being new to national government and not fully understanding the scrutiny they were under. When Sessions refused to resign, stating that the Director of the FBI is supposed to be independent of the Executive Branch, President Clinton fired him.

Strangely, Sessions would live on as FBI Director on the glowing screens of the video arcade. Even after his dismissal, manufacturers continued to release games with his famous quote. Later on, the quote stayed but was simply attributed to “FBI Director,” and eventually, the splash screens just carried the seal and slogan – at least until 2000, when the program went dark.

“Winners Don’t Use Drugs,” isn’t just a cultural artifact of the 1990s, it’s a testament that government and games need not be at loggerheads. Before games-for-good debates broke the public consciousness and most people didn’t consider games anything but toys, the most powerful law enforcement official in the U.S. saw the potential to use games as a way to communicate with youth. The slogan probably didn’t prevent teens from experimenting with drugs, but I hope it’s not the last time games experiment with public policy.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher currently based in Hong Kong. You can follow his exploits at or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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