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The Media Is MIA on Drug Policy

Stop the press! Journalists aren't exactly doing muckraking work when it comes to the government's controversial approach to drugs.

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Whatever happened to the Fourth Estate? photo via

By Maia Szalavitz

04/27/12

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Recently, I attended (via phone) a press briefing on prescription drug abuse convened by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, better known as the drug czar’s office. As that agency is literally chartered to support no drug policy other than complete prohibition—and, to be fair, because all government agencies put the best face on their efforts—I did not expect a presentation free of spin and hyperbole.

But what surprised me was the ignorance revealed by the questions asked by my fellow reporters. Let me preface my criticism by saying that, as a journalist, I myself often ask questions to which I already know the answer in order to generate quotes. But that didn’t appear to be what was going on in the examples I will discuss below.

After officials from the DEA, CDC and FDA discussed their agency’s strategies to fight the prescription drug problem, the first inquiry—from a major publication—seemed to come out of left field. I will not reveal the reporter’s name, but the gist was to ask whether the prescription drug epidemic was caused by a lack of severe criminal penalties or by some hindrance to prosecutions related to the use and distribution of legal drugs, in contrast to those for illegal drugs.

Let me first recall for you the case of one Florida patient who—confined to a wheelchair with three documented severe chronic pain conditions—was put under surveillance, never found to be selling his medications and nonetheless sentenced to a 25-year prison term for possession of his own pills due to the large quantity he required to treat his pain. He had to be pardoned by the governor after the state’s highest court decided that while the law was unjust, the sentence was valid. Though this case is especially egregious, Florida regularly sends plenty of nonviolent prescription drug offenders to prison.

I’ll also note that Florida—the “pill mill” state—has no shortage of prescription drug misuse. Indeed, it is known as the epicenter of the nation's prescription drug problem.

Crack cocaine should have left New York alone if tough laws were successful deterrents to drug use.

DEA administrator Michele Leonhart responded to this bizarre question by mentioning just one recent case of a doctor who was sentenced to multiple life terms for drug distribution resulting in four patient deaths—but this is far from the only physician prosecution that has resulted in a longer sentence than people typically receive for deliberate murder. In most of these cases, the overdoses occur among addicts who are not taking the drugs as prescribed—so the responsibility of the doctor is far from as clear as it would be if, for example, he administered the drugs himself as in the Michael Jackson case. Oddly, the doctors who have addicted patients who overdose are treated more harshly than those who kill patients directly. There is no shortage of punitive American spirit.)

I’ll also highlight the fact that New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws—which mandated sentence of 15 years to life for possession of more than four, or sale of more than two, ounces of cocaine or heroin—were in place in the 1970s, before New York became the epicenter of the US crack epidemic. Crack should have left New York alone if tough laws were successful deterrents.

In other words, we’ve known for decades that harsh sentencing for the nonviolent crimes of dealing or using does nothing more than fill prisons, overwhelmingly with African Americans and Latinos, despite higher rates of use and sales by whites. Why would prescription drugs be any different?

America has the world’s highest incarceration rate, some of the world’s most draconian drug sentencing laws (the only tougher countries have the death penalty) and the world’s highest rate of nonmedical drug use. How could a reporter have asked with a straight face whether lax drug laws or fettered prosecutors are behind the prescription drug problem in 2012? I can’t tell you because I couldn’t see his face through the phone, but I can say that mine was plastered firmly to my desk when I hear it.

If I’d thought that that was the dumbest question I was likely to encounter, however, I was mistaken. Soon, another reporter was asking what it was about prescription opioids that could “make” someone rob a pharmacy and murder four people in the process, as happened last year in Long Island.

If the drugs made him do it, honey, we’ve got a bigger problem than you can imagine, given that they are taken by millions of Americans every day, most of whom have probably never even considered becoming drug-store cowboys. Blaming addiction, rather than simple use, for this extreme violence doesn’t make much more sense, either: millions of Americans suffer from addiction, but the vast majority are dangers only to themselves and the emotional health of the people who love them.

Even the DEA responded that these types of crimes are more often driven by greed than by anything about prescription painkillers in particular: the pharmacology of opioids tends to be calming, not stimulating, and opioid withdrawal tends to produce more anxiety and avoidance of other people than it does gunslinging.

If prescription opioids “made” people stone cold killers, we’d have pharmacy mass murders on a daily basis.

Although there certainly are people who commit violence during active addiction, research shows that most of them were already involved in violent crimes before they got hooked. With relatively rare exceptions, addiction generally tends to exacerbate problems, not instigate them. If every opioid addict were a stone cold killer, we’d have pharmacy mass murders on a daily basis.

Of course, it’s still possible that my colleagues were asking deliberately dumb questions in order to expose the flaws in the drug war via the answers, but sadly, their actual coverage of the meeting suggests otherwise. It’s filled with lots of charged language quoting Leonhart calling the problem “one of the greatest threats we’ve ever faced” and unsubstantiated claims about increasing violence and criminal gang activity. A quick Google search, of course, will reveal that every drug problem ever reported has been seen as the worst threat ever—and violent crime is falling. Robbery—the crime that encompasses drug-store stick-ups—fell 10% between 2009 and 2010 alone.

Is it any surprise that there’s little trust in the media when the people who are supposed to shed light on public policy do little more than amp up ancient anti-drug talking points? It’s true that reporters who cover drugs generally don’t specialize in the area and therefore aren’t likely to be up to speed on the nuances of the issue. But surely, they should be expected to know after all this time that tough sentences are demonstrably ineffective and drugs can’t “make” anyone do anything? 

The verdict is in on tough drug laws—and has been for decades. No one who has seriously examined the data believes that locking up users and low-level dealers for decades effectively fights drug problems, no matter what their political orientation. While decriminalization and legalization remain controversial, there is near-universal agreement that mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenders has been a dismal and harmful failure.

Experts also overwhelmingly agree that the relationship between drugs and violence is complex and that knowing that someone has taken a drug (or even knowing that he is addicted) does not reliably predict behavior. In fact, simply being male is one of the strongest predictors of violence—but no one seriously believes that you can predict violent behavior simply by knowing that a person is male. The same is true for knowing whether someone has taken or is addicted to drugs.

If there is any value at all in journalism over and above that which can be gleaned from summarizing government press conferences, it is in placing the facts in context and in educating the reader about the history and research literature on the matter in question. On drugs, the media is failing as badly as our policy is.

Maia Szalavitz is a columnist at The Fix. She is also a health reporter at Time magazine online, and co-author, with Bruce Perry, of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential—and Endangered (Morrow, 2010), and author of Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids (Riverhead, 2006).  

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