According to Common Sense for Drug Policy (CSDP), a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group, “The Public Is Saying, ‘No More Drug War!'” CSDP placed full-page ads in a number of influential political magazines – left, right, and libertarian – this winter, including National Review, The Weekly Standard, The Nation, Reason, and The Progressive. The ads point out that a recent Ridder/Braden opinion poll in the state of Colorado” showed that “seventy-three percent of voters believe we should decrease criminal penalties for possession of small quantities of drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor and spend the money saved on prisons to increase drug treatment and prevention.”
This is, undeniably, good news. However, voters in Colorado seem to be somewhat more advanced in their thinking than most Americans. As the CSDP ads also point out, a significantly smaller proportion, “sixty-one percent of the American public,” according to a Zogby Poll conducted in November, 2001, “opposes arresting and jailing nonviolent marijuana smokers.”. This too is good news. But, lest we get carried away with our celebrations of the long-awaited turnaround in public attitudes on this issue, let us consider: This also means that one American in three still believes that nonviolent pot smokers (which is to say, virtually all of them) should be incarcerated for their “crimes.” Moreover, according to the Ridder/Braden poll cited in the CSDP ads, not only do nearly one in three of the seemingly more enlightened Colorado voters cling to their belief that possession of any amount of drugs should remain a felony, but these voters also believe taxpayers should be forced to put up the money for “increase[d] drug treatment and prevention.” Most important of all, virtually all Colorado voters (and virtually all voters in the United States, for that matter) cling stubbornly to their belief that those who possess more than “small quantities” of drugs – and even smaller quantities of drugs like cocaine, heroin, and LSD – should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. The question is why.
Why do most Americans still support the government’s War on Drugs? It isn’t as though libertarians (and a great many others) hadn’t worked hard over the past 30 years or so to show how utterly pointless and destructive that”war” actually is. So why do so many people still support it?
Because they believe the use of drugs like heroin, cocaine, and marijuana is so harmful, not only to users, but to society as a whole, that government action is needed to reduce the harm. And why do they believe this? Because the news media have been telling them so – dinning it into their ears on a daily basis -for nearly a century, and go on telling them so day after day after day after interminable day.
It is generally acknowledged by historians of the government’s mindless crusade against certain psychoactive substances that the news media have played an important part in building public support for anti-drug legislation. Consider, as a case in point, the very first national law against intoxicants ever adopted in this country, the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914. In the years leading up to the adoption of this pernicious legislation, numerous articles appeared in major publications detailing the supposed horrors of cocaine and heroin use. On June 21, 1903, for example, the New York Tribune reported with a straight face that “many of the horrible crimes committed in the Southern States by the colored people can be traced directly to the cocaine habit.” Five years later, on Aug. 2, 1908, under the headline “The Growing Menace of the Use of Cocaine” the New York Times announced that”the dull white crystals” we know as cocaine “contain the most insidious effects of any known drug” and that “there is nothing that we can do for the confirmed user of the drug, the best thing for the cocaine fiend is to let him die.”
As congressional consideration of the Harrison Act approached, the drumbeating in the press became more shrill and insistent. The Literary Digest, a major magazine of the era, soberly announced on March 28, 1914, that “most of the attacks upon white women of the South are the direct
Virtually all voters cling stubbornly to their belief that those who possess more than “small quantities” of drugs should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. The question is why.
result of a cocaine-crazed Negro brain.” The redoubtable New York Times for Feb. 8, 1914, ran the headline “Negro Cocaine ‘Fiends’ Are a New Southern Menace.” B~neath that headline, readers found the following assertions:
Stories of cocaine orgies, followed by wholesale murders, seem like lurid journalism of the yellowest variety. But in point of fact there was nothing “yellow” about . . . these reports. Nine men killed in Mississippi on one occasion by crazed cocaine takers, five in North Carolina, three in Tennessee – these are facts that need no imaginative coloring.
According to the Times report:
The drug produces several other conditions that make the “fiend” a peculiarly dangerous criminal. One of these conditions is a temporary immunity to shock – a resistance to the “knockdown” effects of fatal wounds. Bullets fired into vital parts, that would drop a sane man in his tracks, fail to check the “fiend” – fail to stop his rush or weaken his attack. A recent experience of Chief of Police Lyerly of Asheville, N.C. illustrates this particular phase of cocainism. The Chief was informed that a hitherto inoffensive negro was “running amuck” in a cocaine frenzy…. Knowing that he must kill the man or be killed himself, the Chief drew his revolver, placed the muzzle over the negro’s heart and fired – “intending to kill him right quick” – but the shot did not even stagger the man. And a second shot that pierced the arm and entered the chest had just as little effect in stopping the negro or checking his attack.
Needless to say, when the Harrison Act was passed in 1914, it had widespread public support; after all, who wants to run the risk of being attacked by cocaine-crazed Negroes who cannot be stopped even by bullets? But only three years after the adoption of the Harrison Act came U.S. entry into World War I, and only two years after that, in 1919, came nationwide prohibition of alcoholic beverages – so both official and journalistic eyes were elsewhere for a while. There were more exciting things to focus on than cocaine-crazed Southernblacks.
But when Prohibition ended in 1933, an important employment problem arose. The assistant prohibition commissioner, Harry J. Anslinger, was out of a job. And since prohibition was the only line of work he knew, he badly needed something else to prohibit. He wangled a promotion of sorts and became commissioner of narcotics in the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, and almost immediately began his campaign to expand his agency’s mandate. Anslinger’s idea was to expand drug prohibition to include marijuana. He began work on a draft of a new piece of legislation, called the Marihuana Tax Act, and on a series of articles which he hoped to place in national magazines to build public support for prohibition of his new drug menace. Over the next four years, he placed 21 such articles in important national magazines. Perhaps the most representative of them all was “Marihuana: Assassin of Youth” which he wrote with Courtney Ryley Cooper and which ran in the American Magazine in July 1937.
“An entire family was murdered,” Anslinger wrote,
by a youthful addict in Florida. When officers arrived at the home they found the youth staggering about in a human slaughterhouse. With an axe he had killed his father, mother, two brothers, and a sister. He seemed to be in a daze…. He had no recollection of having committed the multiple crime. The officers knew him ordinarily as a sane, rather quiet young man; now he was pitifully crazed. They sought the reason. The boy said he had been in the habit of smoking something which youthful friends called “muggles,” a childish name for marihuana.
In the wake of such a vigorous and fraudulent public relations campaign, Congress enacted the Marihuana Tax
For nearly a century, the news media have been telling Americans that drugs are so harmful, not only to users, but to society as a whole, that government action is needed to reduce the harm.
Act, the first national law against the leaves and flowering tops of the common hemp plant.
Four years later, of course, another war broke out. So, again, the minds of politicians and journalists were elsewhere for another few years. But no sooner had the war ended than Anslinger was back to his old tricks. The ever- vigilant and ever-opportunistic commissioner of narcotics came up with a new method of scaring the public, and horror stories of “heroin overdose deaths” filled the media.
Then came the notorious 1960s and the advent of LSD. This drug, which had first been synthesized in the 1940s and which had been legally available and widely used by physicians and psychologists and their patients for more than 15 years, suddenly became”dangerous” in the mid-’60s, thanks to the ever-vigilant and ever-ignorant news media. In a typical story, the New York Times for April 12, 1966, reported on a man who had murdered his mother-in-law and who said he’d been “flying” on LSD and could remember nothing about the homicide. Many later reports of LSD users flying Qut of windows like stockbrokers in 1929 helped to build public support for new laws against this newest drug menace.
Since then, through the media-pushed drug scares of the ’70s (angel dust – which, like the cocaine available in North Carolina in 1914, conferred “temporary immunity to shock – a resistance to the ‘knockdown’ effects of fatal wounds” on its users), the ’80s (crack cocaine), and the ’90s (ecstasy), the barrage of ignorance and misrepresentation has continued. In the pages that follow, I’d like to focus attention on three perennial themes of the media ignoramuses. Then I’d like to add a few observations on why things are as they are.
The first of the themes is “addiction.” The government must take action against illegal drugs because they are “addictive.” On June 18, 1986, at the height of the crack cocaine hysteria, Tom Morganthau wrote in Newsweek, consistently one of the most ignorant and hysterical publications in the United States when it comes to the drug issue, that “when smoked, cocaine … can produce powerful chemical dependency within two weeks.” More recently, journalist Bruce Ramsey intoned in the August 2001 issue of Liberty that “heroin is addictive.”
What is the truth of the matter? Back in 1972, in Licit and Illicit Drugs: The Consumers Union Report on Narcotics, Stimulants, Depressants, Inhalants, Hallucinogens, and Marijuana- Including Caffeine, Nicotine, and Alcohol,
In 1908, the New York Times announced that “there is nothing that we can do for the confirmed user of the drug, the best thing for the cocaine fiend is to let him die.”
Edward M. Brecher pointed out that there were three major theories of “addiction.” First there were “Psychological theories. Theories in this group are in general the heirs to the old ‘weakness of will’ approach” – the notion “that any addict could stop taking an addicting drug if he wanted to and if he tried hard enough” (67). Then there were the “Sociological views. These views hold in general that society creates addicts and causes ex-addicts to relapse into addiction again…. An addict relapses … because he returns to the same neighborhood where he became addicted and associates with addicts once more” (67). Finally, there were the libiochemical theories,” which asserted that drugs caused biochemical changes in the body of the user, which produced Ii addiction.” Brecher concluded, after an exhaustive survey of the literature, that “the vast bulk of the evidence to date … favors the psychological and sociological theories” (68).
Since then, the debate has continued. In 2000, psychologist Jeffrey A. Schaler, whose practice is built on the”treatment” of “drug addiction,” summarized the literature on the controversy in his book Addiction Is a Choice and concluded that “physical addiction” – what Brecher had called the “biochemical theory” of addiction – is a “far-fetched, scientifically worthless fantasy” (xvii).
What about the second theme of the media ignoramuses – the notion that “drugs cost the economy”? In the mid- 1980s, I worked at one of the largest newspapers in the United States, the Orange County Register, forK.E. Grubbs Jr., who saw mandatory drug testing, then a trendy development in business and industry, as a I i market response” to what he regarded as the self-evident “menace” of Ii drug abuse.” Fifteen years later, these attitudes are still with us. Consider, for example, the following assertion from the aforementioned Bruce Ramsey: “As a practical matter, if we legalized certain drugs, I think civil society would have to campaign against them, and would have to approve of employers and landlords’discriminating’ against users.” Do
“When officers arrived at the home they found the youth staggering about in a human slaughterhouse. … The boy said he had been in the habit of smoking marihuana. “
people who argue in this fashion have even the shadow of a leg to stand on?
Sorrowfully not. As long ago as Jan. 23, 1995, Jonathan Marshall reported in the San Francisco Chronicle that:
Much research into the effect of drug use on wages and productivity comes up with the puzzling result that young workers who report using drugs seem to enjoy higher pay, rather than ending up strung out and impoverished. One 1991 study even found that drug users earned twenty percent more than nonusers in the 1980s.
Now a new study sheds further light on this mystery by looking at men of two different age groups (18 to 29 and 30 to 45) and at two different levels of drug use, moderate and abusive, as defined by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.
Thomas Buchmueller, an economist at the University of California at Irvine, and Samuel Zuvekas at the University of Wisconsin analyzed a survey by the National Institute of Mental Health of 18,571 adults in New Haven, Connecticut; S1. Louis; Baltimore; Durham, North Carolina; and Los Angeles. (B5)
Buchmueller and Zuvekas found that “for young men, neither moderate drug use nor abuse seem to make any substantial difference. For workers aged 30 to 45 … moderate drug use … makes no statistically significant difference ….”
that “in September, the American Civil Liberties Union issued a report based on studies by the National Science Foundation and the AMA [American Medical Association] showing that testing has been ineffective in reducing drug use and has no noticeable impact on reducing either absenteeism or productivity.”
In effect, drug testing, Grubbs’ idea of a “market response” to the” menace” of “drug abuse,” has been a waste
Reports of LSD users flying out of windows like stockbrokers in 1929 helped to build public support for new laws against this newest drug menace.
of the participating companies’ money. “The National Academy of Sciences recently found,” McManis wrote in 1999 that:
… illegal drugs contribute little to workplace accidents and that off-duty drug use has about the same small effect on worker accidents as off-duty drinking.
And, in January’s Working USA magazine, two researchers with the LeMoyne College Institute of Industrial Relations surveyed 63 Silicon Valley companies and found that productivity was 29 percent lower in firms with pre-employment and random testing.
This last finding may seem counterintuitive, but in fact, as McManis reports:
Eric Shepard, the co-author of the LeMoyne study of drug testing in Silicon Valley, said his researchers combined each company’s drug-testing data with its public-financial information.
“We found that productivity was 16 percent lower in companies with pre-employment testing than those that didn’t test, and it was 29 percent (lower) in companies with both pre-employment and random testing,” he said.
“Shepard said his survey didn’t delve into the reasons productivity declined,” McManis writes, “but he has a theory.”
“If drug tests contribute a negative view toward the company, as other surveys have found, then workers may not contribute as much in return, or they may seek employment elsewhere,” Shepard said. “You may lose your best workers to companies that don’t test.”
Dan Abrahamson, a San. Francisco attorney for the Lindesmith Center, a national drug policy institute that opposes drug testing, said he receives at least one e-mail a
week from high-tech workers who smoke marijuana away from the job and are concerned about drug testing at work.
“There are a lot of smart, creative people who work in Silicon Valley in programming and they feel it helps them intellectually to use marijuana,” Abrahamson said. “So testing might actually hurt their work.”
Then again, it isn’t only drug users who shy away from companies that subject their employees to drug testing. McManis quotes “Ed, a twenty-seven-year-old financial analyst at Charles Schwab in San Francisco who declined to give his last name” as saying that:
. . . he would have thought twice about accepting an offer from the company six months ago if that company required pre-employment drug tests.
“I don’t use drugs,” he said, “but I would look at that company as not as trusting [and] more rules oriented, as opposed to a place that values its employees and entrusts them to do a good job.” (B3)
Other workers who don’t use drugs consider it none of any company’s business what its employees choose to do on their own time. These workers are likely to avoid employers who don’t mind their own business. Still others would tend to avoid drug-testing companies out of fear of the unreliability of the tests. And their fear is well-founded. The British news service Reuters reported on Christmas Day last year on the gist of a new study presented in detail in the Dec. 26, 2001 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. That study, conducted by Dr. Lindsey R. Baden of Harvard Medical School, showed that “the use of certain antibiotics may cause an unsuspecting person to test positive for heroin .
The evidence that a junkie has died as a result of “heroin overdose” is usually based on nothing more than an officer’s finding a junkie dead with a needle sticking out of his or her arm.
even though they’ve never touched the drug…. Baden told Reuters Health that … other types of chemicals could cause a similar reaction.”
Finally, let’s take a look at the third theme of the media ignoramuses – the notion that drug abuse kills. My.own favorite example in this category is the “heroin overdose death.” As Brecher observed in 1972:
Prior to 1943, there were relatively few deaths among addicts from overdosage. By the 1950s, however, nearly half of all deaths among New York City addicts were being attrib~ uted to “acute reaction to dosage or overdosage.” In 1969 about 70 percent of all New York addict deaths were assigned the”overdose” label – and in 1970 the proportion was about 80 percent. (101-102)
What accounts for this sudden increase? Were junkies suddenly shooting up enormously larger doses of heroin? Or was this “epidemic” of “heroin overdose deaths” entirely’ a product of Harry J. Anslinger’s propaganda? As Brecher noted 30 years ago:
It takes seven or eight milligrams of heroin per kilogram of body weight, injected directly into a vein, to kill unaddicted monkeys. On this basis, it would take 500 milligrams or more (50 New York City bags full, administered in a single injec- tion) to kill an unaddicted human adult. (104)
Moreover, as Brecher pointed out:
. . . virtually all of the victims whose deaths are falsely labeled as due to heroin overdose . . . are addicts. who have already developed a tolerance for opiates – and even enormous amounts of morphine or heroin do not kill addicts. . . . In one Philadelphia experiment, 1,800 milligrams of morphine were injected into an addict over a two-and-a-half-hour period. This vast dose [nearly fifty times the usual New York daily dose of the time] didn’t even make him sick. (104)
Note that Brecher writes “the victims whose deaths are falsely labeled as due to heroin overdose.” In his discussion, he reviews the evidence available up to the time of his writing (1972) and notes also: (1) that autopsies are performed in only about ten percent of all deaths (a figure which is still valid today), and that autopsies are almost never performed for junkies; and (2) that the evidence for the claim that junkies have died as a result of “heroin overdose” is usually based on nothing more than a police report, in which an officer describes finding a junkie dead with a needle sticking out of his or her arm. Brecher speculates that it is not an “overdose” of heroin that has killed the junkies in question, but rather a lethal combination of heroin and barbiturates or heroin and alcohol.
But could it be that these junkies are actually unwittingly shooting themselves up with a much more powerful dose than they are used to, and that therefore their deaths are properly describable as “heroin overdose deaths”? On May 13, 1994, journalist Jack Shafer, then editor of the weekly City Paper in Washington, D.C., now deputy editor of Slate, addressed this question. “Washington police,” he noted,
It is not an “overdose” of heroin that has killed the junkies in question, but rather a lethal combination of heroin and barbiturates or heroin and alcohol.
“routinely blame heroin deaths on ‘especially pure strains’ or ‘unusually potent’ or ‘hot shots’ of the drug.” But this claim, he noted was difficult to reconcile with the findings back in
1989 in a detailed scientific study of Washington’s heroin-related deaths published by the Journal of Forensic Sciences. The researchers focused on heroin overdoses in D.C. during 1985 and, thanks to cooperation from the police and the medical examiner, succeeded in measuring the purity of the heroin on the street, as well as the levels of heroin and other drugs present in the body fluids of the dead users.
They found no relationship between heroin purity and death-by-overdose or nonfatal overdose.
“The primary risk factors cited in this study and an earlier one of Washington heroin use (Science, 10/4/84),” Shafer wrote, “include . . . the alcohol/heroin combination” something that would come as no surprise to Edward Brecher (Washington City Paper, p. 12).
drugs are “addictive,” that drug use costs the American economy, and that drugs kill their users – do they ever bother to check any of this before rushing into print with it? Do they do any research at a11- even a simple Nexis search? Do they bother to keep up with the publications in the areas – like drugs – which they write about? Apparently not. Apparently they just go with what”everyone knows.” After all “everyone knows” drugs are addictive, they render you unable to do your job, and they kill you. But as Milton Friedman has been quoted as saying, “If everyone knows it, it’s probably wrong.”
And if anyone should be aware of this truism, it is journalists. Aren’t they always patting themselves on the back for their crusading lust for truth and their skepticism toward
A detailed scientific study found no relationship between heroin purity and death-by- overdose or nonfatal overdose.
official versions of reality? They have been since at least the mid-1960s. As journalist Neal Gabler put it on Jan. 24, 1993, in the San Francisco Chronicle:
Before Vietnam, it was uncommon for a person to doubt that what his government said, what he read in the newspapers, was fact. The official version of events was the accepted version – indeed, there was no other. It was only as the war disastrously proceeded and correspondents’ dispatches from Vietnam didn’t jibe with’ glowing administration reports that one began to suspect for the first time a deliberate conspiracy to lie, a conspiracy to keep the truth from being known.
The distance between what we were told was happening in Vietnam and what we learned was actually happening soon became known as the “credibility gap.” It is difficult now, when everyone distrusts government pronouncements and even distrusts the press, to imagine what a shock the gap was to our system. But it is one of Johnson’s most enduring legacies. And the disillusion Johnson set in motion with Vietnam, Richard M. Nixon accelerated with the Watergate cover-up, where the distance between lies and truth was more a canyon than a gap.
The credibility gap of Johnson and Nixon changed our attitude toward government and revised the practice of journalism by transforming journalists into truth hunters. Far more important, the gaps created a general skepticism toward any received wisdom. (This World, p. 3)
Except, of course, for the received wisdom on drugs.
I used to hear this kind of thing starting around 1966 in the various newsrooms in which I was employed back then – that it was a reporter’s duty to question government news releases, look behind the statements of politicians and bureaucrats and see if the truth differed from their claims. To do otherwise, it was said, was “repeating, not reporting.”
Apparently journalists just go with what “everyone knows” about drugs.
Yet, 20 years after this had become the “received wisdom” in newsrooms, when the Columbia Journalism Review ran a major article in its MarchiApril 1985 issue called “When the Government Tells Lies,” author Anthony Marro, then the managing editor of Newsday, was unable to find even a single example of government lies from the world of drug prohibition. As Jacob Sullumput it in the Jan. 24, 1993 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle’s This World magazine, “a problem that stands in the way of a productive debate about U.S. drug policy” is the fact that “[w]hen it comes to drugs, usually responsible journalists and publications throw caution and skepticism to the wind, rarely bothering to question assertions about negative effects” (14).
Why are journalists so credulous when it comes to this issue? One reason is that so many of the absurdities about drugs that journalists uncritically pass along are provided to them by police officers. And it is a rare reporter indeed whoever met a cop he didn’t like. As the Columbia Journalism Review noted in its September/October 1991 issue, “[c]overing police misconduct has always posed a problem for reporters, who sometimes form a symbiotic relationship with the cops. Television reporters, with their need for images and on-camera interviews, have had a particularly tough time covering the subject” (15). After all, as Jon Katz pointed out in the January/February issue of the same magazine, the traditional “urban police reporter” came “most likely, from a working class background” and “identified with and protected the men he covered, becoming their ideological com- rade-in-arms rather than watchdog or chronicler” (25).
Another reason so many journalists are so eager to believe government lies about drugs may be that those lies are profitable. In the mid-’80s, at the height of the crack hysteria, the editors of Insight magazine noted that “CBS’s ’48 Hours on Crack Street’ reached 15 million viewers and became one of the highest-rated documentaries of all time,” and that Newsweek’s “‘Kids and Cocaine’ issue sold about 15 percent more than the average issue at the newsstand and … other cocaine covers have sold as much as 35 percent more than normal” (Oct. 27, 1986, pp. 8, 10).
A final reason for the amazing credulity of journalists is the fact that the average journalist, like the average practitioner of any other trade or profession, is, shall we say, not that well-educated. In the 1960s, when I entered the field, it was still common for the typical journalist to have no more than a high-school education. The techniques of the trade itself were typically learned on the job. Since the mid-1970s, it has become increasingly common for the typical journalist to be a college graduate, usually with a degree in … journalism.
The problem with this will be evident to anyone who has any knowledge of what goes on in “J-School,” as journalism graduates so fetchingly call it. What goes on there is not education at all, as that term is ordinarily understood, but vocational training. There are classes in how to write articles for newspapers and magazines, and in how to write news stories for broadcast. There are classes in proofreading. There are classes in news photography. There are classes in how to conduct interviews. But there are far too few classes in subjects like history, which, by acquainting student journalists with the context in which current events occur, would enable them to judge those events for what they.are, rather than being the dupes of any smooth talker that holds the reins of power. A solid grounding in history is absolutely essential to any journalist. Journalism and history are, after all, intimately related – journalism being merely a·sort of rough -draft of history.
As one of America’s greatest journalists, H.L. Mencken, put it half a century ago, “journalism, to be intellectually respectable, requires a kind of equipment in its practitioner that is necessarily rare in the world, and especially rare in a country given over to the superficial. He should have the widest conceivable range of knowledge, and he should be the sort of man who is not easily·deluded by the specious and the fraudulent. Obviously, there are not enough such men to go round. The best newspaper, if it is lucky, may be able to muster half a dozen at a given moment, but the average newspaper seldom has even one. Thus American· journalism (like the journalism of any other country) is predominantly paltry and worthless. Its pretensions are enormous, but its achievements are insignificant” (Minority Report, p. 74).