To those of a certain age, the image of eggs sizzling in a frying pan instantly evokes the Partnership For a Drug-Free America’s 1987 “this is your brain on drugs” ad. But any group that wanted to draw attention to drug use in the 1980s and ’90s didn’t really need to buy ad space; media coverage was already saturated with sensationalized reporting on crack cocaine and other drugs (Extra!, 9/92).
This plentiful drug coverage served to support U.S. government policy, encouraging public embrace of a heavy-handed crack-down that began under President Richard Nixon and was expanded by Ronald Reagan. Government and media together were able to brand drugs as “public enemy No. 1,” as Nixon described them.
In recent years, the hysteria that surrounded the drug war has diminished and public opinion on drugs has liberalized—as signified by the historic victories for marijuana legalization in referenda in Colorado and Washington State in November 2012. Gallup (10/17/11) reported last year that a record 50 percent of Americans favored legalizing, not simply decriminalizing, marijuana, while right-leaning Rasmussen (5/17/12) more recently found 56 percent in favor of legalization. During the 2008 election cycle, 60 percent of the public opposed some harsh drug war policies, like “mandatory minimum” sentencing laws (Christian Science Monitor, 9/25/08).
So the New York Times may run the occasional op-ed on decriminalization by someone like Bill Maher (8/3/12), but that’s where the conversation typically stays —on the opinion pages, limited to one popular drug. Rather than reckoning with the human cost of the drug war hysteria they helped fuel, corporate media have generally ignored the war’s costs and served to shield politicians from debate on the issue.
This is not to say that the media haven’t come a long way from the fear-mongering of the ’80s, or even ’90s (Extra! 7–8/97), but when British billionaire Richard Branson is one of the more righteous voices on the failures of the drug war (HuffPo, 9/4/12), it’s clear more voices need to be included in the debate.
Some of those missing voices would include those affected by the larger U.S.-led global war on drugs, whose governments have been militarized and whose economies have been criminalized by international prohibition, often with lethal results (CBS, 5/17/12). But still taking their cue from the U.S. government, which generally dismisses international critics of the drug war (BBC, 4/14/12), corporate media don’t discuss such criticism in depth with the American people.
In June 2011, when the Global Commission on Drug Policy, an international panel that assessed the social consequences of the drug war, emphatically declared that the “global war on drugs has failed,” a single network television report mentioned the panel’s findings (CBS, 6/17/11). That report, however, brought on former Bush Sr. drug czar William Bennett to reassure viewers that the drug war was in fact working just fine.
The drug war came up again later that month, in a segment on ABC’s Nightline (6/28/11), where reporters embedded them-selves with DEA agents battling Mexican drug cartels, in a story that seemed designed to remind viewers that only a war-like approach could keep violence at bay.
In April 2012, the Summit of the Americas, a meeting of regional heads of state, came to the same conclusions as the GCDP: The drug war hasn’t worked (Salon, 4/13/12). Among those that called for some form of decriminalization were Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos, the right-wing president of America’s closest regional ally (and drug war collaborator), and even Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala, School of the Americas graduate and former hardline general.
All but one of 18 network TV reports on the summit, however, were limited to a Secret Service prostitution scandal in Colombia; the outlier was NBC (4/16/12), reporting on photos of a beer-drinking Hillary Clinton that were setting “Twitter on fire.”
Despite representing only 5 percent of the world’s people, America holds 25 percent of the global prison population. Since the 1980s, incarceration rates have increased “almost tenfold,” with the majority of federal inmates imprisoned on drug convictions (GritTV, 7/30/11; Time, 4/2/12). And the self-serving, for-profit bureaucracy that is the Prison Industrial Complex continues to thrive on “having as many [prisoners] as possible” while “being paid by the state” (New Yorker, 1/30/12). Even Pat Robertson—yes, that Pat Robertson—decried the policy’s human costs (New York Times, 3/8/12): “It’s completely out of control…. Prisons are being overcrowded.”
But even as criticism increases and public opinion shifts, U.S. politicians are rarely called on to address the harmful human impacts of drug policy.
Some of the few times that President Barack Obama has had to answer questions on the issue have been during online town hall discussions, where regular citizens—not journalists—vote on submitted questions. In one such town hall in March 2009, a freshly elected Obama laughed off a question on legalizing drugs, a submitted question which he admitted “ranked fairly high” in popularity (U.S. News, 3/26/09). Obama found no need to even acknowledge drug policy questions during two subsequent online forums, despite their being voted most popular in both (Raw Story, 1/30/12, 7/6/11).
Unlike previous Republican and Democratic administrations, in which presidents doubled down on stout anti-drug legislation, Obama came into office with drug policy reform activists hopeful that he would fulfill promises to steer policy towards decriminalization (Rolling Stone, 2/16/12). In 2004, then-Senator Obama spoke as someone who wanted to rethink the “utter failure” that was the drug war (Reuters, 4/16/12).
What drug war critics got instead was the Obama administration cracking down on pot, including issuing threats to state employees where the plant might be legalized (HuffPo, 4/2/12). To be sure, when re-election time rolled around, he did allude to a renewed interest in reexamining drug policy…after he was re-elected (CBS, 7/2/12). Top Obama advisor David Axelrod “wasn’t familiar” with any plans for a second-term position change (HuffPo, 9/6/12), but MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell certainly made the case for Obama to turn around policy (Last Word, 4/16/12):
Although president Obama thinks it’s entirely legitimate to have a conversation about whether our drug laws are doing more harm than good, he has absolutely no intention of having that discussion in the United States until after he is re-elected to a second term…. With exactly 204 days remaining until the election, makes possibly ending the war on drugs the 204th reason to vote for President Obama on November 6.
In other words, don’t ask… just vote.
O’Donnell, to his credit, has at least discussed the drug war’s societal costs, including having Michelle Alexander, author of 2010’s The New Jim Crow, on his show (MSNBC, 6/17/11), to make the point that “this drug war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color” and to give concreteness to the term “human costs”:
Once swept into the criminal justice system, even for crimes as minor as possessing a small amount of marijuana, you are branded a criminal and stamped with a felony record or criminal record that will follow you for the rest of your life.
You may be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits. So many of the old forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind in the Jim Crow era are suddenly legal again once you have been branded a felon.
But even as an array of cable and print media have partly opened up to marijuana advocacy, very little critical journalism was to be found as presidential elections approached. Unless, of course, the story told was one of Mexican cartels rather than U.S. policy, as in NBC Nightly News’ drug war series, “The War Next Door” (e.g., 10/11/12).
Though CBS (10/7/12) did manage to have on Eugene Jarecki, director of the drug war documentary The House I Live In, to talk briefly about the flaws and costs of a decades-old drug policy, host Norah O’Donnell indirectly pointed out the media’s shortcomings: “What about in this election season? It seems like there has been no discussion about this all. Has there?”
Drug policy seems most likely to come up when traditional media are circumvented, as when comedian Jimmy Kimmel put Obama on the spot with a joke about it at the White House Correspondents Dinner (CBS, 4/28/12).
Even at debates, intended to air a range of matters of concern to the electorate, journalists look away. A search of the Commission on Presidential Debates website reveals that the issue hasn’t been broached since 1996, when Bill Clinton and Bob Dole (10/7/96) argued over who would be tougher on drugs.
Meanwhile, third-party candidates—including Jill Stein of the Greens and Libertarian Gary Johnson, who have garnered popularity as they have made decriminalization/legalization of marijuana a priority in their platforms—are excluded by design from the two-party-run CPD’s debates (Counterspin, 9/13/12). The New York Times sees these candidates’ discussion of the drug war as a “sideshow stereotype” (10/24/12). Other campaign coverage treats the challengers more like improbable novelties—not unlike the framing of marijuana legalization itself—or “spoilers” than as people with substantive policy ideas. The title of a recent Atlantic piece (10/12) on Johnson: “Pipe Dreamer.”
The inclusion of pro-legalization views doesn’t necessarily mean an examination of the devastating human impacts of misdirected efforts. Fiscal conservatives and libertarians who seek to reform drug policy often see the matter as an economic or constitutional issue (about states’ rights, for example). In 2010, when California was seriously close to legalizing pot through ballot measure Proposition 19, media were also fixated on how much money could be saved and taxed through legalization.
Certainly ignoring the lives lost and ruined by decades of policy now widely viewed as disastrous make it a lot easier to make the whole conversation a joke. This list could be endless: An ABC report on Prop 19 included a clip from Fast Times at Ridgemont High before discussing the estimated “cash cow” that marijuana taxes could turn into (ABC News, 10/18/10). Good Morning America (10/25/10) played a clip of a Cheech and Chong movie a week after anchor Robin Roberts (10/18/10) quipped: “And I can’t imagine starting a new week talking about the Rolling Stones and the possible legalization of marijuana. It’s like the ’60s, man.”
Skip ahead to this year and we find CNN’s Erin Burnett (10/4/12) noting that “some of you have some truly high expectations. Mile high ones,” along with headlines like “Joint Venture” (Business-West, 9/25/12) and “Ballots Going to Pot” (USA Today, 10/23/12).
As the federal drug policy continues to shuttle Americans into prisons, and as opposition to the policy garners support from the left and right, one has to wonder how much longer major media and major presidential campaigns can continue to laugh off calls for the drug war’s end.
Josmar Trujillo, a former FAIR intern, is a student, community activist and freelance writer.