Note: The following article was
published in Heads Magazine in May, 2001.
References to current achievements and statistics are dated. Please see
for more current information.
|DrugSense and The Media Awareness Project (MAP),
The History of an Internet Activist Prototype
by Tom O'Connell M.D.
Editorial input provided by Mark Greer, Matt Elrod, Richard Lake, and Jo-D Dunbar
DrugSense and its largest endeavor the
Media Awareness Project (MAP) could be
considered a prototypical Internet activist IT (Information Technology)
organization in the sense that it was planned, created, and put in operation
at a time (late 1996), when that acronym would have drawn blank stares from most.
It was formed by principals in widely scattered geographical locations who, with
but a single exception, were known to each other only through email. The
two Mark Greer and
who had met only once before organization's founding, met briefly for a second
time in November 1996, right after MAP had been incorporated by Greer as a
501(c)3 corporation (October 17) and was applying for its first funding; but it
wasn't until a year later -- at the first board of directors' meeting at
Lindesmith Center West in San Francisco on October 18, 1997 that the
organization's principals all found themselves in the same room at the same time.
The "dot com" crash, which can now be seen as the classic "bubble" produced when
financial markets uncritically embraced the promise of a new technology, has
engendered a degree of disenchantment with the Internet itself. However the
crash didn't do away with the Internet; it simply marked the demise of some
commercial elements that had expanded at a rate faster than could be sustained
by their profits. Still in its infancy, the Internet has a potential that can
only be guessed at and will certainly grow in size and influence for years to come.
A somewhat different arena where the Internet still plays a major -- but yet
incompletely defined -- role is where it interacts with traditional news media,
the institutions we previously relied on to gather and disseminate news and,
importantly, the opinions generated by that news -- opinions which, in a
democracy -- ultimately become public policy. How rapidly computers and the
Internet have shouldered their way into this arena can be inferred from how
rapidly the acronym IT has come to define the process; at least in the eyes of
some. Another measure of the importance of the Internet to traditional media
is the nearly universal Internet presence of media websites with which they
attempt to retain old subscribers and recruit new ones. These sites make much,
in some cases all, their sponsors' content available under a variety of commercial
and non-commercial arrangements and are still evolving and looking for direction.
A reasonable place to begin MAP's story is the Ninth Drug Policy Foundation
(DPF) Convention in Santa Monica in October, 1995.
Cliff Schaffer, creator of the original on-line drug library,
Jim Rosenfield, creator of a similar library,
and Dave Borden, founder of DRCNet, the
original Internet drug policy reform organization, called an informal evening
meeting for anyone with Internet access and an interest in on-line activism.
Two of those attending were Greer from Porterville, CA and O'Connell from
San Mateo. Very much "newbies" to both reform and the Internet, they were
intrigued by the possibilities being touted by the reform veterans so they
signed up for DRCTalk, Borden's email discussion group as soon as they
returned home. The months that followed were to be a heady time for the reform,
which had been receiving little press recognition because the policy they opposed
was so thoroughly taken for granted by the media. That changed abruptly in
February 1996 when The New Republic published a seminal editorial by Wm. F. Buckley Jr.
calling the drug war a failure and urging that our policy be radically overhauled.
This provocative message from a staunch conservative produced a surge of media
interest; many influential dailies cautiously endorsed Buckley's criticism to
the extent that they agreed the previously sacrosanct policy should at least
In almost direct response to both Buckley's editorial and also to a signal that
Republicans would claim in the '96 Presidential Campaign that he was "soft" on
drugs, Bill Clinton wasted little time. He persuaded the nearly invisible Lee
Brown to step aside as drug czar in favor of the more charismatic Barry McCaffrey;
thus guaranteeing that drug policy wouldn't lack media attention for the next
five years. So rapidly did Clinton respond that McCaffrey, resplendent in full
uniform and seated next to Hillary in the gallery, was introduced as the nominee
for drug czar during the State of the Union address later the same month.
At roughly the same time, Mark Greer began pushing a novel idea on DRCTalk: the
coordinated writing of letters to newspaper editors, traditionally a mainstay
of cash-starved grassroots groups, had been endowed with more clout and precision
because the web enabled accurate information to be collected and shared with
unprecedented speed and precision. By adding volunteer labor to the equation,
those benefits could be realized at an historically low cost. At a time when
on-line editions were just starting to appear; participants in those early
DRCTalk discussions were already sharing scanned news items and editorials
from local papers which were then OCRed (scanned) and posted to the discussion
group for the purpose of generating the widest possible response. In the first
such efforts, right after Buckley's editorial, some items had even been
laboriously typed into email by people lacking scanners and OCR software.
Those primitive efforts foreshadowed what is now MAP's greatest asset, the
Drug News Archive, a searchable
database of uniformly formatted news and opinion pieces related to drug policy
containing over 63,000 items, and now growing at 500 or more items a week.
Updated several times a day and made freely available to all under Fair Use
doctrine the archive is prized by journalists and scholars as an indispensable
resource for anyone with a serious interest in drug policy.
The next event to galvanize the on-line reform community was California Attorney
General Dan Lungren's mid-Summer raid on Denis Peron's Cannabis Buyers' club in
San Francisco. Proposition 215, seeking to legitimize medical use of marijuana
in California had received enough signatures to be placed on the '96 ballot,
but the campaign for it was simply being ignored by the state's newspapers and
was dying for lack of publicity. By generating headlines around the world,
Lungren's weekend raid changed everything and for their part, the letter writers
on DRCTalk did their best to keep the resulting interest alive. In a very real
sense, the spontaneous response to Lungren's raid was the prototype of what were
to become the "Focus Alerts" which
have been used to rally MAP letter writers since shortly after its founding in
early 1997. Today DrugSense and MAP volunteers have been instrumental in
generating tens of thousands of letters to the editor
(LTEs) and more than
published LTEs valued at more than $6.7 million in equivalent advertising value.
By the time passage of Propositions 215 in California and 200 in Arizona had
shocked the drug warriors in November 1996, Mark Greer, who had urged letter
writers to send him faxes of their published work, already had a vision of the
organization he hoped to create. He attended the Tenth DPF conference in
Washington DC, with a xeroxed "book" of letters already published by DRCTalk
authors with which he hoped to secure start up funding for his project. An
important concept in Greer's promotion was that published letters to editors
(LTEs) could be assigned a commercial value at least equivalent to (and probably
greater than) the cost of a similarly sized ad in the same newspaper. An
important collateral idea was that even unpublished letters are read by a
newspaper's editorial staff; if well written and coherent, they could also
be influential. Largely as a result of his one-man effort, Greer secured a
small DPF grant. He also attracted the attention of career reformer
Kevin Zeese, former
President of NORML,
and one of the original founders of DPF.
Two other events, which would influence MAP's genesis took place in the summer
and fall of 1996: the first was the protracted failure of Calyx, DRCNet's ISP,
at a time when interest in focused letter was intensifying. This shook many of
the troops and although a "Bcc list" proved a workable stop-gap for a few weeks,
the ISP failure convinced many that a more reliable server was needed. One
skeptic was Matt Elrod, a transplanted
American and long time resident of Vancouver BC. Elrod, who would soon become
a key player in the formation of MAP, had already been sold on Greer's idea
and had formed his own drug policy discussion group
( "MattTalk," ) on IslandNet, his
local Canadian ISP. While Greer was busy trying to convince his American
colleagues to back his project, Elrod's Canadian version (CMAP) was already
archiving news items which Elrod also posted to DRCTalk. A trained librarian,
Elrod was also the first to recognize the importance of uniformly formatting
archived material. When Greer, et al eventually took Elrod up on an invitation
to start the MAP venture in Canada, those standards would be applied to the
Drug News Archive from the very beginning.
The second event to shape MAP was Greer's separation from the reform
establishment at DRCNet. It began with a controversy generated by charges in
an early article on reform by NYT reporter Christopher Wren that Greer had
urged activists to flood the 800 number of a prohibitionist call-in campaign
in order to tie it up. The eventual fall out included a "flame war" within
DRCTalk over permissible tactics, with battle lines clearly separating
newbies and old-timers. In another context, a similar email squabble might
have died down without consequence, but when combined with the technical
uncertainties of the host ISP, the availability of Elrod's site, and the
frustrations of a complex turf battle, it convinced MAP's embattled founder
to take his creation to Canada and enlist Elrod, by then working with the
Baremetal ISP, as his webmaster. Another activist, Atlantan Ashley Clements,
played a critical behind the scenes role as facilitator. Begun as a
serendipitous marriage of convenience, the arrangement has proven mutually
beneficial and enduring.
Fortunately, reform veteran Kevin Zeese also retained his keen interest in the
project; he convinced Greer to accept a board of directors originally Zeese,
Kendra Wright and
O'Connell and schooled him on being more diplomatic with the reform establishment
without dampening his own enthusiasm, which Zeese saw as an essential element
in creating an effective volunteer organization. Zeese was later instrumental
in securing a measure of financial stability from
Robert Field who became
MAP's first important funder. He also saw the synergy possible between MAP
and other fledgling organizations
like November Coalition and the
Drug Policy Forum of Texas, so he recruited
Nora Callahan Founder to the November Coalition and
Jerry Epstein to the
Another critical addition at this time was
Richard Lake, a cannabis activist
with credentials extending back to being the Solano County coordinator and
editor of the newspaper of the 1972 California Marijuana Initiative, Prop. 19.
Lake's interest in medical use of cannabis was kindled by the cancer of a close
relative. He became incensed at disinformation campaign the new drug czar
launched against 215, so he joined DRCTalk in late 1996. A veteran of Fidonet
and UseNet then living in Toledo, he was soon attracted to the news gathering
and editing functions of the new MAP project. When the first volunteer editor
graduated from college and had to be replaced, Lake was the ideal person to
take over the rapidly expanding archive. Working closely with Matt Elrod,
Richard, who now lives in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, helped develop and
implement the professional standards governing the archive. He also recruited
and trained the large corps of volunteer "Newshawks" and editors so essential
to its smooth function. The final critical element in the news archive's ability
to be expanded without missing a beat has been the use of robot editor programs
developed by Matt Elrod to minimize the time involved in human handling.
Nevertheless, some human handling is required; the seventy plus articles posted
in an average day require a dozen or so volunteer editors. New items accepted
for inclusion are checked, formatted and posted to the archive with an average
delay of only seven hours; an amazing achievement, especially for
volunteers. The archive's
expansion has been smooth, steady, and impressive: from 5,000 items at the
end of 1997, it has grown to over 63,000 today. Its importance can't be
overstated; as Joe McNamara is fond of saying, "the drug war can't
stand scrutiny." MAP exists not only to provide that scrutiny, but also to
ensure that it's as accurate as possible. To help with the scrutiny, a
newsletter was started in July 1997 with
Tom Hawkins as one of the original editors. As the archive expanded, so has the
scope and readership of the Newsletter. A review the weekly news has been its
main purpose since it was taken over by O'Connell in early 1998; Tom has recently
been assisted by Jo-D Dunbar
(San Luis Obispo, CA) former NORML web master. Jo-D was brought on as the
DrugSense Membership Development Coordinator and as an additional web page
development specialist in June of 1999.
Prior to working on the newsletter, activist Young, who had authored and
coordinated Focus Alerts for MAP, could well have been the prototypical
MAP volunteer. He writes,
" I discovered MAP in the summer of 1997…I'd been
trying to collect information to write a book about the drug war.. (and)
subscribed to a number of on-line news clipping services, but when I
inadvertently surfed into the MAP site, I realized it was much better than
anything else I had seen, and I was jealous that I hadn't thought of it first…
I started hawking stories from Chicago newspapers and sending out letters.
I quickly received personal encouragement from Richard Lake and Mark Greer on
both projects.. Seeing a couple of my letters in print hooked me completely."
Steve eventually finished his book,
"Maximizing Harm," which was
originally published on-line and has since made it into print.
Like any new organization enjoying early success, MAP's single biggest
problem is to continue doing its present job well while growing in tandem
with a burgeoning reform movement. To that end, it has arranged to
the Internet presence of a growing list of reform organizations by providing
as-needed technical assistance, email list management, and
news feeds. "Powered by MAP" is being seen on a growing number of reform websites.
By any measure, MAP has become the dominant reform presence on the web, and far
surpasses all government drug related websites as demonstrated in a
generated by DrugSense last Spring. Numerous other studies and news articles
have confirmed both the popularity of DrugSense and MAP objectives and the
impact its methods are having on the media.
"Illicit Drugs: The Media on Drug
Policy in Canada" and
the Hype: Media, Drugs, and Public Opinion" are two clear examples. The
most recent example of this dominance was supplied by an article in the
New England Journal of Medicine at press time.
Some prior news coverage has also begun to recognized the efforts of MAP,
its staff, and its volunteers such as those archived at
but the media is really just beginning to realize its value and impact.
That this dominance has been achieved on a comparatively minuscule budget is a
source of both pride and frustration. In terms of impact on drug policy, the MAP
effort clearly shows that dedicated volunteers can provide hundreds, if not
thousands of times the "bang" for the buck
as well paid government functionaries; however the sad reality is that the
government has almost limitless tax revenues at its disposal and activists
must depend on donations.
In that setting, prudent expansion will always be a major challenge.