Journalists fail war on drugs — then and now

In 1979, the Nevada Legislature made medical use of marijuana legal in the state. Although little remembered today, this law was on the books until 1987. It was repealed after nationwide hysteria over drugs generated by President Ronald Reagan, other poorly informed politicians, and irresponsible media. Bad journalism is basic to bad policies.

During the years the Nevada law was on the books, Newsweek magazine reported in 1982 that the increasing crackdown on drugs was working, reported in 1983 that drugs had become “a crisis for American business,” reported in 1984 that the U.S. “is losing its industrial leadership to Japan” because “America’s workforce is so stoned,” and in 1987 reported a quote from the Reagan administration claiming that smoking marijuana causes homosexuality.

None of these things was true, but only in the last case did Newsweek do anything like the requisite homework and research to provide responsible coverage.

The cascade of lies by drug warriors took its toll on medical marijuana programs back then. Half the states had approved such programs, and they started repealing them. Thanks to the weight of false information and bad journalism, patients would go years without the ability to use marijuana for everything from cholera to grand mal seizures.

Most news coverage of the drug war was inadequate, of course. Reporters were stenographers, taking down what any poorly informed drug “expert” told them and putting it on the air or in print, while editors and producers were milking public alarm for all it was worth.

But even by the poor standards of drug war coverage, Newsweek stood out. It was in the 1980s what the Hearst press had been in the 1930s and ’40s, the more or less official organ of drug prohibitionists and an adjunct of the U.S. government.

The most famous of the magazine’s mistakes came in 1986, a year before Nevada’s repeal. In its March 10, 1986, edition (dated March 17 — its cover dates are no more accurate than its content), Newsweek carried a quote from a character named Arnold Washton: “There is no such thing as recreational use of crack. It is almost instantaneous addiction.”

Newsweek did not bother checking the accuracy of the incendiary claim before publishing it. The statement (which was false) was incredibly contagious. It ripped through newsrooms across the nation. I still remember when I heard it — an anchor at the CBS affiliate in Reno repeated it to me.

“Instant addiction” drove lurid news coverage at both local and national media outlets. It also drove lawmaking, and nothing is worse than law based on false information. Newsweek waited until 1990 to run a correction.

It is the job of journalists to scrutinize the claims of those it covers. In the drug war, Newsweek surrendered to the federal government. It ran story after story lionizing the Drug Enforcement Administration, helping the government whip up hysteria and then exploiting that hysteria for circulation, excluding elements of the story that didn’t fit the frenzied template (such as declining drug use).

The reason I am writing about all this years later is that last week I spotted a Newsweek book titled “Weed Nation” on the newsstand. It makes it apparent that nothing much has changed. Oh, the winds of public opinion have changed and Newsweek is now responding to that sensibility, but it strains against the leash.

It’s still bewitched by enforcement, still treats police as drug experts, devotes four entire pages to Cheech and Chong to reinforce stereotypes, devotes two pages to potency that never mention tokers smoke less when the weed is more potent, and it never goes deeply into the case against drug prohibition. (Newsweek reports a “ballot measure for legalization” in Nevada next year, which is true.)

The war on drugs is one of the great failures of journalism history, then and now. The public finally began taking control of the dialogue away from politician and journalists, juries refusing to convict, voters making medical marijuana legal. But there have been periods of relative sanity before, such as during the Ford and Carter administrations, only to see later political and journalistic demagogues undo all the gains.

If we are going to get back to reason on drugs, we need better drug reporting, and a good place to start is for past offenders to admit their mistakes. Newsweek’s “Weed Nation” has two pages devoted to color reproductions of the covers of books and other materials that whipped up past fakelore about drugs — “The Marijuana Mob,” “Reefer Boy,” “Devil’s Harvest,” “Marijuana Girl.”

Why is there no old Newsweek cover?

Dennis Myers is a veteran Nevada journalist.

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