© Xtra!, July '97
Why Are Media Enlisting
in the Government's Crusade Against Marijuana?
By Mike Males
As America's officially ignored death toll from overdoses of heroin,
cocaine, prescription drugs and alcohol mixed with dope took another huge
jump in 1995 (taking 10,000 lives, up 65 percent since 1992), America's
media raged with the threat to the republic posed by . . . sick people
smoking marijuana to relieve pain. And ABC News teamed up in March with the
private Partnership for a Drug-Free America to push a month-long "March
Against Drugs," including hourly ads, numerous specials, and "Straight Talk
About Drugs" appended to its evening news with a heavy focus on teenage
Newsweek (11/25/96) obediently branded medical-marijuana laws "a new drug
problem" after a two-day law enforcement summit in Washing-ton so decreed.
Time and Newsweek followed with lengthy cover stories on weed. But with many
respectable, articulate and clearly suffering older folks speaking for the
medical-marijuana movement, it was hard for the media to maintain their
usual melodrama pitting noble anti-drug knights against evil young stoners.
While intimating that the California and Arizona pot campaigns were
deceptive, Newsweek (2/3/97) flatly endorsed their "bottom line": "Marijuana
may prove an effective alternative to more commonly prescribed drugs for
some diseases." Time's cover story, "Kids and Pot" (12/9/96), indulged a few
pieties but presented unusual complexity: The harshest swipes were at the
"time-warping" dishonesty of drug-user-turned-moralist baby boomers,
including President Clinton.
Yet these and other mainstream outlets failed to ask the obvious questions:
Why the government and press furor over cannabis as medicine? Why raise a
hullabaloo that (in the law's words) "seriously ill Californians have the
right to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes" when "recommended by
a physician"? And do the 8 percent of the nation's teens who smoke marijuana
represent such a national calamity that it should lead ABC (3/1/97) to
launch "an unprecedented public service campaign"?
The most recent statistics continue to show that marijuana and
hallucinogenic drugs like LSD, peyote, mescaline and mushrooms put together
account for fewer than five deaths per year. Hospital emergency room reports
show a total of 6,500 teens nationwide were treated for any kind of
marijuana or hashish effects in 1995--less than 0.1 percent of the 10
million teenage ER visits, and only one-fourth the number of teens treated
for adverse affects from aspirin or Tylenol (Drug Abuse Warning Network,
Annual Emergency Department Data, 1994). Further, four-fifths of these 6,500
"marijuana" treatments involved youths who had also ingested more dangerous
drugs, such as alcohol. Only 1,300 teen emergency cases involved marijuana
alone, the same number attributed to the allergy medication Benadryl.
Teens and pot are tiny contributors to the nation's drug woes, now or in the
future. Long-term studies consistently show that only one in five youthful
pot smokers will ever try harder drugs such as cocaine, heroin, or
methamphetamine, and fewer than one in 25 will use hard drugs regularly. The
upshot is not that marijuana leads the masses to hard stuff, but that the
few who use stronger drugs will not say no to weaker ones. (For the latest
summary of research demolishing "reefer madness 1997," see Rolling Stone,
Free of Some Drugs
The Partnership for a Drug-Free America's Bulletin (2/97) announced that its
campaign with ABC would promote adult "communication" with and control over
teens regarding drugs. But what is really needed is a fundamental exercise
of the media's adversary role, including arm's-length reporting on the
Partnership and how its self-interests tie into the monumental failures of
the "war on drugs."
For example: If, by the Partnership's estimate, today's teens and adults
have been bombarded with $2 billion in anti-drug advertising over the past
decade, why do we now see (by the Partnership's admission) rapidly rising
drug use among teens and (by a consensus of federal reports) drug abuse
deaths and injuries among adults soaring to record levels? Could one reason
be that the Partnership is not a genuine anti-drug effort, but a corporate/
media back-patting consortium designed to scapegoat unpopular groups for
illegal drug use while protecting the interests of legal-drug industries
(who also purchase billions of dollars in media promotions)?
For a group fighting drug abuse, the Partnership has taken cash from some
odd parties--including American Brands (Jim Beam whisky), Philip Morris
(Marlboro and Virginia Slims cigarettes, Miller beer), Anheuser Busch
(Budweiser, Michelob, Busch beer), R.J. Reynolds (Camel, Salem, Winston
cigarettes), as well as pharmaceutical firms Bristol Meyers-Squibb, Merck &
Company and Proctor & Gamble (Marin Institute Backgrounder, 2/97).
The Partnership recently announced it will quit its alcohol and tobacco
habit but will continue to mainline pharmaceutical checks (Village Voice,
3/12/97). And its silence continues on America's deadliest drug problems:
tobacco (400,000 annual deaths), alcohol (100,000, including 20,000 from
drunken driving), and pharmaceuticals (6,000 to 9,000).
The most ominous, but seldom mentioned, finding of the 1995 National
Household Survey on Drug Abuse: Abusive "binge drinking" among adults ages
26 and older rose sharply since 1992, adding four million potential alcohol
abusers to the age group parenting the young. Recent studies have found that
hundreds of children and youths die every year from fires and cancers caused
by their parents' smoking (Pediatrics, 4/96), and thousands from homicides,
accidents and neglect related to parents' alcoholism--many times more than
perish from youthful drug abuse.
Silence Is Acceptance
But adult drinking and smoking are often taboo topics. In an interview by
University of Massachu-setts professor David Buchanan (Backgrounder, 2/97),
Partnership president Tom Hedrick denounced those who include legal drugs
like alcohol in the drug problem as "prohibitionists." (Those who
questioned the dangers of marijuana, on the other hand, were dismissed as
Problem is, adult drug use vs. youthful drug use, and legal vs. illegal
drugs, neatly segregated in drug-war dogma, are thoroughly intermixed in
real life. The federal Drug Abuse Warning Network reports that of the
560,000 people brought to hospital emergency rooms for abusing illegal drugs
in 1995, the companion drug most often mixed with heroin, cocaine, pot or
speed was . . . alcohol. A quarter-million ER cases involved
pharmaceuticals, also often washed down with liquor (Preliminary Estimates
from DAWN, 5/96).
Interestingly, the concomitant $300 million anti-drug advertising campaign
announced by drug czar McCaffrey will include ads against use of alcohol or
tobacco--but only by teenagers (Los Angeles Times, 2/26/97). Aside from
ignoring the facts that 90 percent of America's drunken driving toll
involves adult drivers 21 and over, and that youths' drinking, smoking, and
drug habits are firmly linked to those of their parents and nearby grownups,
this "for adults only" campaign supports subtle themes industries use to
promote their products.
University of California professor and industry document analyst Stanton
Glantz points to tobacco moguls' strategy to promote cigarettes as a mature,
sophisticated, "adult" habit. Since "kids want to be like adults," Glantz
warned, promoting smoking as "for adults only" simply "reinforces tobacco
advertising" (American Journal of Public Health, 2/96).
Hedrick also told Buchanan the Partnership maintains that "reducing poverty,
improving schools, strengthening families, and providing programs to enhance
students' social and academic skills" are "infeasible and misguided" ways to
fight drugs. Drug abuse, Hedrick said, is "solely the result of individual
choice," and the only messages the Partnership advances are "stay in school"
and "stay off drugs." Such an image of pure choice would be difficult to
sustain if mass media openly confronted such issues as the skyrocketing toll
of heroin abuse among today's middle-aged men related to Vietnam War
service, or the tens of thousands of deaths from mis-prescribed medical
drugs over the last 40 years.
McCaffrey and the Partnership don't talk about those drug problems. As drug
historian David J. Musto pointed out in Scientific American (7/91),
government-fomented anti-drug crusades thrive on "linkage between a drug and
a feared or rejected group within society": Latinos and marijuana. Blacks
and heroin or crack. Native Americans and hallucinogens. And today,
teenagers and all the above.
Thus the drug war's implicit message: Don't be a loser "child" who smokes
pot. Be a mature grownup and puff Marlboros, chase Jim Beam with a Bud, and
mellow with Valium. Any questions?
Seek and Ye Shall Find
Clinton administration officials regularly manipulate the media with
misleading statistics and inferences, but rarely do they brazenly announce
their intent. Yet White House drug policy chief Barry McCaffrey--enraged
that California and Arizona voters went against his vehement opposition and
approved ballot measures allowing use of marijuana for medical purposes and
reducing penalties for drug possession--told the press he intends to
discover "increased drug abuse in every category" to blame on the new laws
(Los Angeles Times, 11/16/96). General McCaffrey made it clear that he
expects the media to fall in behind his campaign so that "the rest of the
country sees clearly what happened in those two states."
McCaffrey's statement made no pretense of objectivity. The feds will comb
California and Arizona stats "looking for increases in drug-related
accidents, teenage pregnancy, work absences, and hospital emergency cases"
to discredit the new laws, he declared.
The general's smugness is fully warranted. To date, despite abundant,
readily available statistics from the government's own drug surveys, the
press has seldom reported that by the same yardsticks McCaffrey would apply
to California and Arizona's laws, the War on Drugs he heads is an utter
Mike Males is a social ecology graduate student at the University of
California, Irvine, and author of The Scapegoat Generation: America's War on
Adolescents (Common Courage Press).
Copyright Xtra!, July 1997
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