Won't Somebody Think of the Children? 5 Reasons Why Drug Panics Are Counterproductive

Recent reports of a “battle” between manufacturers of synthetic drugs and police would have us believe young people are using these products in droves. But although we have seen a rapid emergence of new, synthetic drugs over the past few years, there is no good evidence to support their ubiquity of use.

Young people are continuing to use traditional drugs such as alcohol, tobacco and cannabis, and the harms they experience from these remain a problem.

Media reports about synthetic drugs are a good example of moral panic. Hyperbolic descriptions of the dangers of new drugs can be counterproductive. Rather than containing their spread, the media can act as advertisers for emerging substances.

Overreactions can also lead to ad-hoc and ineffective legislative changes.

Moral panics in the news

My paper – which I will present today at at the Australasian Professional Society on Alcohol and Other Drugs Conference in Perth – explores the way the media report on drugs, and the dominant frameworks in which they are discussed.

Drug-related moral panics are not new. King Charles II tried to ban coffee in the late 17th century out of concern people were talking about politics while drinking it. Unlike political conversations under the influence of alcohol, coffee drinkers were more likely to remember their conversations.

What has changed in modern times is the increased frequency of drug-related moral panics. This is likely in part due to the globalization of media. And let’s face it: nothing sells news like a good moral panic.

To be fair, there’s a limited number of ways the media can frame stories on drugs.

And while most journalists are good critical thinkers, when it comes to drug-related news stories, they tend to revert quickly to these dominant themes. These frame drugs as dangerous pathogens, creating the idea that people who use them are irresponsible, sick or deviants.

Here are five ways in which media reports on drugs promote moral panics and lead to counterproductive effects.

1. Synthetic?

Panic is exacerbated through framing new, synthetic drugs as “synthetic”. This elicits the cognitive error that natural products are somehow safer and better for us than synthetic products. Clearly this is untrue given that arsenic and asbestos are both natural.

Calling them “synthetic” also leads to strange descriptions, such as “synthetic LSD” or “synthetic amphetamines”. This makes no sense since both LSD and amphetamines are synthetic. How can there be a synthetic synthetic drug?

2. Drug advertising

Research conducted by my colleagues and I showed that instead of dissuading people from using new drugs, media reporting can essentially work as an advertisement for them.

Most people who used synthetic cannabis when it first emerged in the media as a drug of concern did so out of “curiosity”. One man in a Queensland newspaper reportedly saw it “on the news and thought … holy smoke, I’m going to order this”.

Further, our research found the number of people searching Google for synthetic cannabis strongly connected with the volume of news stories on the drug.

3. Normalization

Moral panics can cause people to overestimate certain drugs' prevalence. Thinking more people are using them than the reality could lead some to normalize the products. 

People’s perception of the harm of the drug is also reduced. If news stories are reporting on the horrific effects of a drug and these don’t correspond with a person’s own experience, then the information is no longer credible.

Worse, it could lead people to disregard all the education on drugs they have been provided with.

4. Stigma

Moral panics tend to stigmatize people who use drugs. They may, for instance, frame these people as being deviants or weak willed.

Such stigmatization has been shown to prevent people from engaging in treatment.

5. Shifting focus

Finally, panicking about a drug’s impact on society can shift the focus away from real issues.

For instance, 5,554 Australians die each year from alcohol. Yet there is a disproportionate focus in the media on synthetic cannabis, reported recently to have contributed to three deaths in Victoria over several months.

This shifting focus can result in legislative reactions that are not evidence-based and which may have unintentional consequences.

In 2013, the Queensland government changed the law to make a substance considered illegal based not only on its effect, but also its chemical structure. This was a reaction to increasing media concern about synthetic cannabis being sold to “school leavers” heading to the Gold Coast.

However, banning chemical structures effectively also banned a number of innocuous chemicals in the state, including those found in cheese and avocados.

It is unlikely such local legislative changes will have a significant impact on the supply of substances on the illicit market. And because other countries have not passed similar laws, new drugs will continue to emerge.

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