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March 2006
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Jack Shafer takes on drug scare reporting again

In Slate: How Not to Report About Meth:

Start your article with an anecdote, preferably one about a user who testifies about how methamphetamine destroyed his life. Toss out some statistics to indicate that meth use is growing, even if the squishy numbers don’t prove anything. Avoid statistics that cut against your case. Use and reuse the words “problem” and “epidemic” without defining them. Quote law enforcement officers extensively, whether they know what they’re talking about or not. Avoid drug history except to make inflammatory comparisons between meth and other drugs. Gather grave comments from public-health authorities but never talk to critics of the drug war who might add an unwanted layer of complexity to your story.
Finally, attach a sensationalistic headline, such as “The Next Crack Cocaine? As Meth Use Grows, Officials Fear Region Is Unprepared to Deal With It.” That’s what the Washington Post did on March 19 in a piece that landed on the front page of the Metro section.

Jack does a great job once again at taking down the irresponsible reporting that has so often, over the years, fueled the excesses of the drug war. The result of such reporting is extremely destructive to society (see Len Bias, or crack cocaine), and it’s done strictly for ratings.
Update: Since I mentioned Len Bias above, it occurred to me that not all my readers may be familiar with the Len Bias story. Here’s a good recap of the situation and the result from CounterPunch.

On June 19, 1986, Maryland University basketball star Len Bias died from an overdose of cocaine. As Dan Baum put it in his excellent Smoke and Mirrors, The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure, “In life, Len Bias was a terrific basketball player. In death he became the Archduke Ferdinand of the Total War on Drugs.” It was falsely reported that Bias had smoked crack cocaine the night before his death. In fact he had used powder cocaine and there was no link between this use and the failure of his heart, according to the coroner. Bias had signed with the Boston Celtics and amid Boston’s rage and grief Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, a Boston rep, rushed into action. In early July he convened a meeting of the Democratic Party leadership: “Write me some goddamn legislation,” he ordered. “All anybody in Boston is talking about is Len Bias. They want blood. If we move fast enough we can get out in front of the White House.” In fact the White House was moving pretty fast. Among other things the DEA had been instructed to allow ABC News to accompany it on raids against crackhouses. “Crack is the hottest combat-reporting story to come along since the end of the Vietnam war,” the head of the New York office of the DEA exulted.
All this fed into congressional frenzy to write tougher laws. House Majority Leader Jim Wright called drug abuse “a menace draining away our economy of some $230 billion this year, slowly rotting away the fabric of our society and seducing and killing our young.” Not to be outdone, South Carolina Republican Thomas Arnett proclaimed that “drugs are a threat worse than nuclear warfare or any chemical warfare waged on any battlefield.” The 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act was duly passed. It contained 29 new minimum mandatory sentences. Up until that time in the history of the Republic there had been only 56 mandatory minimum sentences. The new law had a death penalty provision for drug “king pins” and prohibited parole for even minor possession offenses. But the chief focus of the bill was crack cocaine. Congress established a 100-to-1 sentencing ratio between possession of crack and powder cocaine. Under this provision possession of five grams of crack carries a minimum five-year federal prison sentence. The same mandatory minimum is not reached for any amount of powder cocaine under 500 grams. This sentencing disproportion was based on faulty testimony that crack was 50 times as addictive as powdered coke. Congress then doubled this ratio as a so-called “violence penalty.”

And we’ve been living with the horrific results of those laws ever since.

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