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Maia Szalavitz Headshot

Is the Media Finally Getting it On Drug Policy?

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I have been following drug policy for -- eek -- more than twenty years. While there have always been a few brave, high-profile journalists and pundits who dared to question the drug war, for the most part, the American press has been as gung-ho in cheering it on as our politicians.

Now -- with the Mexican drug war completely out of control, with Afghanistan supplying 90% of the world's opium and with an economy in collapse, the media has finally begun to seriously question our approach. In just the last week, Time, the LA Times, the NY Daily News, Denver Post, Orange County Register, Miami Herald and San Francisco Chronicle have all called for a drug policy re-think -- or for outright marijuana legalization.

Day-in, day-out, for years, we've seen stories about arrests, about drug seizures, about addicts and treatment. But virtually all coverage just reinforces conventional wisdom: treatment stories tend to boost a particular method without looking at the data or lack of data supporting it, cops and dealer stories tend to hype the amount of drugs seized and rarely look into the long term impact of such busts.

"Science" stories tend to conflate correlation and cause -- and fail to note contrary evidence. [In the instance of the linked story, if marijuana causes psychosis, why hasn't psychosis increased with the worldwide rise in marijuana use since the 60's?]

And of course, every so often we get a big wave of stories about a dangerous, new drug that's more addictive than anything that preceded it which menaces our youth and calls for a crackdown.

Those "drug menace" stories used to sell papers--but on the internet, it is trivially easy to search and find that while this year, methamphetamine is the most addictive and dangerous drug, last year, it was Oxycontin and ten years ago, the same was said of crack. Meanwhile, the last drug didn't addict all youth or collapse our society (bankers managed that all by themselves), so why should this one?

For years, virtually every internet discussion of drug policy has been dominated by drug policy reformers and outright legalization advocates--but this growing sentiment amongst the most educated and connected went unreported.

Maybe the MSM is finally waking up--they can no longer simply create and re-enforce conventional wisdom. When the facts about drugs are only a few clicks away, the propaganda loses its luster.

Given that the vast majority of journalists have smoked pot and at least a third of those in their 40's or up have probably taken cocaine without significant problems, does it really make sense for them to go on carrying water for the drug warriors, worrying about "the children" and infantilizing their audiences by repeating myths that many must know themselves to be untrue?

Will we finally dump the tired "gateway drug" nonsense about marijuana and the ridiculous "not your father's marijuana" idea that in the 60's and 70's marijuana wasn't dangerous and now it is?

This is not at all to imply that marijuana has no risks or that addiction can't do terrible harm -- but it's time to put risks in context and look at whether the solutions cause more harm than the problem they're intended to solve.

The media does still have significant power to shape policy and public opinion -- it simply can no longer sustain myths. If it starts to turn on the drug war and raise questions about other policies that have been seen as untouchable despite utter failure, maybe people will start to trust it again, too.

[hat tip to Tony Newman of DPA for the round-up of the current coverage].