Maia Szalavitz, a journalist herself, points out the distortions, omissions, and outright lies promulgated throughout the media concerning marijuana, heroin, opiates, and addiction.
Drug panics have consequences. A century after The New York Times ran headlines about “Negro Cocaine Fiends,” journalists have learned far less than you’d think.
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
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?”
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
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.
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, bra-less women, dirty-haired kids—as one addressable issue: drug abuse.
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. (See MRIs of Pot Smokers’ Brains Cause Bad Science Reporting )
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.
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
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 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.