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 marijuana use.
Newsweek (11/25/96) obediently branded medical-marijuana laws "a new drug problem" after a two-day law enforcement summit in Washington 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, 2/20/97.)
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 whiskey), 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 4 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 Massachusetts 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 "legalizers.")
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.
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).