Sep 1 2001

The New Crack

Which will it be--pot or Ecstasy?

In two remarkably similar front-page pieces earlier this year, both USA Today and the New York Times went in search of the new crack. In a May 19 article headlined “Violent Crimes Undercut Marijuana’s Mellow Image,” the Times nominated marijuana to be the next drug to be associated in the public mind with scary street crime; USA Today’s May 16 lead story, on the other hand, was “Ecstasy Drug Trade Turns Violent: The Rave Culture’s ‘Peace and Love’ Pill Bloodies the Suburbs as Dealers Battle for Turf and Profits.”

Both stories started by linking the crack trade to their new drug-scare of choice, whose previously benign associations were presented as ironic. “Police officials in New York City, who spent years battling a crack scourge that sent the murder rate soaring, say they are now seeing increasing violence among dealers of marijuana, a drug they say no longer fits its laid-back image,” wrote the Times‘ Kevin Flynn. USA Today’s Donna Leinwand led with “Ecstasy, the ‘peace and love’ drug of the rave party culture, is igniting violent turf wars among drug dealers that authorities say resemble the battles over crack cocaine that devastated urban areas in the 1980s.”

Both stories sooner or later backed off from a direct equation between crack and the new drug menace, and noted that there are no statistics available to show that there’s been any rise in violence associated with either pot (“New York City does not keep statistics on marijuana-related violence”) or Ecstasy (“Few law-enforcement agencies keep statistics on Ecstasy-related violence”).

But relying heavily on law enforcement quotes and anecdotes, they still managed to paint dire if somewhat vague pictures. USA Today’s article, the more sensational of the two, reported that “America’s suburbs are being hit with Ecstasy-related drive-by shootings, executions and assaults as violent international crime groups stake claims to the Ecstasy market.” To back up this alarming assertion, the story referred to exactly three killings that had happened across the country in the previous six months–not exactly a crime wave.

The New York Times mentioned four murders, three of which occurred in a single incident, the killing of a pot dealer and two of her acquaintances in a robbery above a famous New York delicatessen. “People who view marijuana peddling as victimless have not seen the carnage left in the apartment above the Carnegie Deli,” read a quote from New York police commissioner Bernard Kerik–a bit like announcing that jewelry sales are not “victimless” after a jeweler and her customers were killed in a robbery.

No more Nietzsche

Of course, many readers of the New York Times are familiar with marijuana, and are unlikely to become overly alarmed about it, despite the paper’s best efforts to explain that it’s a whole new drug scene. (“Times have changed,” it quoted one police official. “None of the dealers in the Bronx are smoking joints and discussing Nietzsche.”) In what might be read as an attempt to cover its bets, the paper’s July 21 front page featured another warning about rising drug violence–but this time pointing to Ecstasy.

Like the other stories in its genre, Fox Butterfield’s “Violence Rises as Club Drug Spreads Out Into the Streets” had frightening quotes from law enforcement officers (one DEA agent likened raves to “violent crack houses set to music”), but no statistics to document any “rise.” And the anecdotes it relied on were essentially the same ones that USA Today used the month before: Three of the four murders mentioned in Butterfield’s piece were also described in the USA Today article; the killing that got the most attention from Butterfield was also highlighted by USA Today.

Nonetheless, the New York Times credited “police records,” not USA Today, for the information on the murders. Is the Times ashamed to admit that it’s borrowing from a paper better known for its pie charts than for its investigative reporting? Or are there really so few Ecstasy-related murders in the country that any two journalists working independently will come up with the same handful of incidents? Either way, it doesn’t look good for the Times.