The Truth About Drug Hysteria

Until a prison record, a dental procedure and a death were exposed as fiction, millions of readers ate up James Frey's firsthand account of the horrors of drug and alcohol abuse in "A Million Little Pieces." In the weeks following the expose and mama-Oprah's defense-turned-shaming, much has been made in the literary world of the lines between fact, fiction and memoir.

With drugs, journalism, even science, has taken a "say anything (shocking)" approach. The Frey fiasco is not the first time accounts, descriptions or research about drugs have been sensationalized or fabricated and proven false. Fiction, in fact, has provided the cornerstone for much of our national drug policy.

Nearly 70 years ago, during the "Reefer Madness" frenzy that followed the end of Prohibition, Harry Anslinger, then America's commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, ranted that "[marijuana is] as dangerous as a coiled rattlesnake … how many murders, suicides … and deeds of maniacal insanity it causes each year, especially among the young, can be only conjectured."

That year our misinformed marijuana laws passed easily, and despite subsequent government commissions refuting the notion of the "killer weed," we continue to live with another Prohibition that's just as pointless as the first.

Over the years, sensational stories about drugs continued to fill the pages of newspapers, some even winning prestigious awards. In 1980, for example, Washington Post journalist Janet Cooke wrote a disturbing account of an 8-year-old addict who had been injecting heroin since he was 5. The next year she won the coveted Pulitzer Prize in feature writing. The story, it was later revealed, was a fabrication.

Even "scientific" research has been sensationalized. According to sociologists Craig Reinarman and Harry Levine, in terms of sheer numbers and consequence, no media claims have been more alarming than those about crack in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The "crack baby" phenomenon was perhaps most frightening, with predictions of upwards of 375,000 impaired infants who would eventually reach school age and turn our educational system upside down. These claims were later refuted by researchers who published a comprehensive review of the research in the Journal of the American Medical Association: "[T]here is no convincing evidence that prenatal cocaine exposure is associated with any developmental toxicity difference in severity, scope or kind from … many other risk factors."

Meanwhile, thousands of babies were placed in foster care, and many more mothers and children were saddled with a stigmatizing label more often used to justify various forms of punishment and discrimination than to improve access to health care and treatment. Hype and alarm about the mythological crack baby was also used to justify new, even stiffer laws for adults who possessed even tiny quantities of cocaine, resulting in the costly mass imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of nonviolent offenders.

By the late 1990s, the drug scare of choice was ecstasy (MDMA). As director of the first federally funded sociological study of MDMA, I was shocked by the sheer number of sensational claims appearing in seemingly reputable publications. Perhaps most disturbing was an article published in the esteemed journal Science. Researchers claimed that even a low dose of ecstasy could cause irreversible brain damage leading to Parkinson's disease. After the media had pounced on the story and the federal government followed with a $54 million anti-ecstasy campaign, the research was found to be fatally flawed (the drug administered to the primates was not, in fact, MDMA at all) and the story was retracted.

There's a pattern here, observed as far back as 1967, when the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice cautioned, "In reviewing the claims made about the undesirable outcomes of amphetamine use (and of marijuana and opiate use as well) … one is struck by the lack of support for the claims advanced by reputable and well-intentioned persons, including government officials, to the effect that these drugs cause crime and accidents … [suggesting] that scientific and official reporting about drug effects may itself be subject to strong bias and may reflect preconceived ideas rather than an adequate appraisal of the evidence."

Oprah was not the first to be duped by sensationalistic stories about drugs. Indeed, Americans have a history of eagerness to believe the worst. The more interesting question is more fundamental and less about Frey's lies than about us. Why are we so willing to believe the worst and so uncritical when it comes to drugs and the consequences of using them? Why do we keep believing the hype?

Drug abuse is a bad thing, to be sure, and real-life drug problems are a nightmare for all involved. But until we become critical of sensational accounts, we'll continue to allow our fears, rather than our intellect, to guide not only our choice of reading material but, more importantly, our policies.

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