Drug Legalization and the News Media

The Eighth International Conference on Drug Policy Reform, Washington, D.C. (1994)


Last December, when I heard that the surgeon general had said something favorable about drug legalization, I was pretty excited. Here was a prominent official of the federal government saying publicly that it was time to think seriously about alternatives to the war on drugs. Perhaps her statement was a harbinger of what we could expect from the Clinton Administration.

But when I actually saw Joycelyn Elders's National Press Club speech on C- SPAN, I was disappointed. Her remarks about legalization came in response to a question at the end of the speech, and they seemed to be unplanned. In fact, Elders's comments, which included several non sequiturs and at least one major inaccuracy, were barely coherent. Although she suggested that drug legalization would reduce crime and said the issue should be studied, she hardly made a compelling case for these points.

So I was all the more surprised to see the sort of press coverage that Elders received. For the most part, it was fair- minded and respectful, acknowledging the surgeon general's courage and treating legalization as a legitimate policy option. A few weeks after the speech, TheNew York Times ran a glowing profile of Elders under the headline, "The Surgeon General Has People Thinking."

The major newspapers stated Elders's position carefully. The New York Times, in a story headlined "Surgeon General Suggests Study of Legalizing Drugs," noted that Elders had "stopped short of endorsing such a radical reversal of the nation's drug policy." And the Los Angeles Times noted that California Governor Pete Wilson, who called for Elders's dismissal, had "exaggerated her position on the issue, suggesting that she advocated legalization when she actually limited her remarks to urging further study of the controversial matter."

The L.A. Times added that two members of Pete Wilson's Council of Economic Advisers, Milton Friedman and George Shultz, are critics of drug prohibition. And it quoted California Assemblyman John Vasconcellos, who said of the governor's position: "I'm sick and tired of that kind of pandering politics. It's stupid not to talk about it, and it's stupid to decry those who do want to talk about it."

On This Week with David Brinkley, George Will, who supports drug prohibition, seemed to agree. "I think this is a discussable issue," he said. "I don't think we ought to raise such a ruckus that people won't expand the range of the discussable in this country. . . . What worries me is someone says something slightly off. . . six degrees from the conventional wisdom in this town, and people go ballistic."

The response to Elders's remarks indicates that the news media have begun to take criticism of the war on drugs seriously. That fact has a lot to do with people like Shultz and Friedman, both of whom Will mentioned on the Brinkley show. These are serious, respectable, thoughtful individuals; they stake out reasoned positions and back them up with evidence. Given the prominence of the critics and the cogency of their arguments, reform proposals can no longer be ignored or casually dismissed. Drug warriors may still try to bluster their way through challenges, but journalists are less inclined to let them get away with it.

So a lot has been accomplished in the last few years. Legalization is discussable. Still, the insights of the critics generally do not shape press coverage of the war on drugs. That's largely because news hinges on drama, and the prohibitionists are telling a better story. It's a story about good guys versus bad guys, about insidious substances that turn people into monsters.

When cops swoop down on a bunch of drug dealers and cart away bags of white powder, that's news, no matter how many policy papers conclude that such seizures have no real impact on the drug market. A recent front- page story in TheNew York Times described the arrest of "the biggest drug dealer in upper Manhattan, and one of the biggest in New York City." The arrest was "the culmination of a 16- month undercover operation." The article noted in passing: "Law enforcement officials proclaimed a victory in the war on drugs but could not say that it would affect the price or availability of drugs on the street." Well, as long as we're winning.

When the DEA says that a new evil chemical is menacing the youth of America, that's news, no matter how many times the government's lies about drugs are exposed. The same reporters who laugh at the ridiculous claims that Harry Anslinger used to make about marijuana are prepared to believe much the same thing about other, less familiar drugs. During the U.S. operation in Somalia, for example, the news media repeatedly attributed violence and disorder in that country to the effects of khat, a mild stimulant.

Abstract arguments about the effects of prohibition cannot compete with stories about undercover operations and drugs that cause murder and mayhem. But opponents of the war on drugs do have some compelling stories to tell. They are stories about injustice suffered by identifiable individuals. Consider a few familiar examples, each of which has attracted considerable press coverage.

Medical marijuana. Most reporters-—indeed, most Americans-—cannot understand why seriously ill people should be denied access to a safe medicine that could help relieve their suffering, preserve their sight, or extend their lives. On the face of it, this is a cruel, arbitrary policy, and the victims are obvious. Drug warriors are bound to look bad when they arrest sick people or their caregivers for trying to get around the ban on medical marijuana. It's hard to imagine how stories about Brownie Mary or Kenny and Barbara Jencks could have been anything but sympathetic to the defendants. Although Medical Marijuana Day did not seem to make much of a splash in the press this week, the publicity surrounding it will probably lead to a number of similar stories down the road.

Mandatory minimums. As much as reporters buy into myths about LSD, they tend to have qualms about putting a 19- year- old who sells acid at a Grateful Dead concert in prison for five or 10 years, especially when violent criminals routinely get shorter sentences. Furthermore, the aburdity of federal sentencing, with its sharp cliffs, bizarre weighing procedures, and arbitrary distinctions, is glaring. The manifest unfairness of this system has attracted considerable press attention in recent years, much of it focusing on specific defendants.

Asset forfeiture. Again, the injustice is obvious, whether because the punishment is so disproportionate or because innocent people lose their property after police decide it's tainted by criminal activity. The Pittsburgh Press's 1991 series on forfeiture, "Presumed Guilty: The Law's Victims in the War on Drugs," was full of stories about people who had been screwed over because they or their property happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Civil forfeiture is especially scary because it can hurt people who have done nothing illegal and because the concept has been extended beyond drug crime to a wide range of offenses.

As compelling as these stories are, they have limited ramifications. Each problem can be addressed by measures far short of ending the war on drugs. Criminal convictions can be required prior to asset forfeiture. Sentencing practices can be changed so that minor drug dealers are not put away for so long. The federal government can allow patients to get medical marijuana under a renewed IND program or by prescription. All of these changes would certainly be welcome, but they would leave drug prohibition essentially intact.

These stories of injustice indict the excesses of the war on drugs, not the war itself. Indeed, they may even imply that the excesses are the only problem. The stories ask whether innocent owners deserve to lose their property, not whether guilty owners do. They ask whether a small- time LSD dealer should stay behind bars for five years or just a year, not whether he should be imprisoned at all. They ask whether sick people should be allowed to use marijuana, not whether the government has any business telling adults what plants they may grow or ingest.

Opponents of prohibition need an overarching story to compete with the official version of the war on drugs. So far we don't have one.