Drugs

How Corporate Media and Journalists Perpetuate Lies and Misinformation About Drugs

Drug panics have real and damaging consequences.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/ Stokkete

The following article first appeared on Substance.com.

Journalists are no less likely to take drugs than anyone else—indeed, in my admittedly anecdotal experience, they’re more likely to use. You’d think that this would make us especially skeptical both about federal policies that failed to prevent our own drug-taking and about extreme claims about drug users.

But the press may actually be one of the biggest obstacles to reform. Instead of asking tough questions, reporters tend to simply parrot conventional wisdom—and reinforce the idea that the drug war is the only way, even when drug warriors’ claims contradict the evidence of the writers’ own lives.

In the last month alone, we’ve seen several particularly egregious examples of mindless reporting—including one that is explicit in propping up longtime racist stereotypes about drug users. If we want better care—and, especially, less incarceration—for addicted people, we can’t just sit by while the media stirs up frequent drug panics. If we don’t challenge the stale formula that “crackdowns” are the best response to drug-related harm and that “typical drug addicts” are black, reform will remain marginal, at best.

Let’s examine the problem in some recent stories. Here’s NBC, in part of a network-wide series on heroin. In a lead-in to a video report headlined “Will the Rise of Heroin Mean the Fall of Pot?” (see the video below) the website says:

In the 1960s, the wide acceptance of marijuana paved the way for a heroin problem in America and the War on Drugs. Today, with two states legalizing marijuana, could this happen again?

Reread that first sentence: “The wide acceptance of marijuana paved the way for a heroin epidemic” is a claim that is stated as fact. But is it true? The report provides no sources or statistics—and while it’s obviously an argument that some anti-drug conservatives have long made, the claim is not backed by strong scientific or historical evidence. And it’s certainly not widely accepted enough to be stated in a way that implies causality and “objective” truth. Whether the intent is to bolster the long-debunked “gateway” theory that marijuana puts users on the road to heroin hell or to claim that relaxing laws on one type of drug use inevitably produces increases in them all, it’s simply not an accurate statement of fact.

Just because A follows B, it doesn’t mean that A caused B—and there were many other things besides a liberalization of attitudes toward marijuana going on in the 1960s and 1970s. In the video, however, the narrator says:

American drug culture is always in flux. A decade ago, even two years ago, marijuana was banned and heroin was an out-of-sight small problem. Now marijuana is sold like beer and heroin is ravaging a whiter, younger, more suburban crowd. But hold on a minute, haven’t we seen this episode before? In the late 1960s, reformers launched a massive push for the acceptance of marijuana. We ended up with a heroin plague….As marijuana acceptance spread, heroin pushed out of the ghetto and into white suburbia and the armed forces.

Note the sly mention of “the armed forces.” Do you notice anything missing? If you are of a certain age or just even have a rudimentary knowledge of history, you might recall that there was a little war in Southeastern Asia going on during these same decades, one that was opposed by some of the same people who wanted marijuana reform. And while this could, of course, be sheer coincidence, that conflict took place in an area of the world quite relevant to the supply of heroin. It seems that NBC, however, didn’t think Vietnam was worth mentioning—perhaps because including it would make viewers question its entire thesis connecting marijuana to heroin.

The narration continues, describing how President Richard Nixon made political hay by declaring war on drugs:

[This] allowed President Nixon to treat numerous middle-class concerns—crime, race riots, braless women, dirty-haired kids—as one addressable issue: drug abuse.

As the word “crime” is spoken, a clip of a black man appears, followed by one of black rioters. While earlier in the piece, the narrator noted that “more than 80% of the new mainliners, just like today, were white,” it apparently never doubted that viewers would share its own assumption that most heroin addicts are black. If heroin “pushed out of the ghetto” on the wings of marijuana in the 1970s, are we to conclude that the war on drugs worked, and did so by cracking down on pot? What, then, would account for the “heroin chic” epidemic of Nirvana’s 1990s, which occurred before marijuana legalizers gained any victories and which wasn’t black, either?

There’s another critical element missing from this story, perhaps even more important. That is, the big increase in prescription painkiller misuse since the introduction of Oxycontin in 1995 and the crackdown on prescribing in recent years. Several studies showdirect links between moves to make pain drugs harder to get or more difficult to misuse and increases in heroin use and overdose rates. And yet NBC blames heroin on marijuana.

Ok, I’m not going to pick on this pathetic excuse for “journalism” any further. You could argue that it’s just one misstep, and not representative.

Unfortunately, the release of a study last week purporting to show that casual marijuana use causes brain damage shows that this is not an isolated incident. Here are just some of the headlines, as gathered by one of the few skeptical articles, written by John Gever forMedPage Today:

“Marijuana News: Casual Pot Use Impacts Brains of Young Adults, Researchers Find” (The Oregonian)

“Study Finds Brain Changes in Young Marijuana Users” (Boston Globe)

“Casual Marijuana Use Linked to Brain Changes” (USA Today)

“Even Casually Smoking Marijuana Can Change Your Brain, Study Says” (Washington Post)

“Study Finds Changes in Pot Smokers’ Brains” (Denver Post)

“Recreational Pot Use Harmful to Young People’s Brains” (Time)

So, what’s the problem here? Although the press release that accompanied the study implied otherwise, the research itself is completely mischaracterized in these stories.

For one, it doesn’t really include “casual” marijuana smokers—the average marijuana smoker smokes once a month, while the 20 who participated in the study typically smoked 11 joints a week. Second, it doesn’t show that marijuana “changes” the brain—the methods used by the authors can’t determine whether marijuana caused the brain differences it found between users and nonusers or whether those brain differences cause people to like to smoke cannabis.

Finally, as I pointed out in the Daily Beast, the study doesn’t show that even this level of use is “harmful.” The participants were only included in the research if they were not experiencing signs of addiction, psychiatric disorders or any other detectable drug-related problem. In other words, they were normal—so it’s not even clear whether the brain changes that were detected are at all meaningful. As Carl Hart, a Columbia University associate professor of psychology and psychiatry, told me, there are detectable brain scan differences between men and women, but we don’t call women “impaired” as a result.

negro-cocaine-fiend-1

The New York Times saw “Negro Cocaine ‘Fiends’” fit to print. Photo via

While the media does seem to be improving in some ways—now, in our heroin panics, we do get coverage of overdose prevention and calls for evidence-based treatment like maintenance—these examples show that journalists still have a long way to go.

Of course, sensationalist coverage of drugs has been with us perhaps as long as we’ve had journalists—it has certainly accompanied every single drug policy debacle, from the initial criminalization of narcotics to the “Reefer Madness” that led to the crackdown on pot in the 1930s to the mandatory minimum insanity of the 1980s cocaine era. But drug panics don’t just sell newspapers or get ratings or clicks—they are clearly linked repeatedly to both racism and bad policy decisions.

As a reminder, here’s a New York Times headline from 1914, the year federal drug prohibition was enacted: “Negro Cocaine Fiends Are a New Southern Menace.”

Perhaps 100 years later, we can finally learn our lesson and not repeat history again. Perhaps in 2014, reporters and editors can show a bit more skepticism—so that the headlines and articles they write will not be as ignorant and inflammatory as the Times’. Then, for perhaps the first time ever, we might actually get intelligent drug policy. 

Maia Szalavitz is a columnist at Substance.com. She also blogs for Healthland.com, and has contributed to Time, the New York Times, Scientific American Mind, the Washington Post and other publications. She has published three books, including "Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids" (Riverhead, 2006).