Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do

Part V: WHAT TO DO?

A CALL TO MY MEDIA BRETHREN


Hastiness and superficiality
are the psychic diseases
of the twentieth century,
and more than anywhere else
this disease
is reflected in the press.
ALEXANDER SOLZHENITSYN
AND NOW I TURN MY criticism to my own profession, journalism. I consider myself a journalist who happens to write chapters more often than articles. Alas, I am afraid that my media colleagues have been guilty of reporting the party line on consensual crimes rather than investigating and revealing the facts. Nowhere is this more evident than in covering the war on drugs.
To win the war for personal freedoms, however, we must hold the media to its task: to discover and report the facts accurately. To these ends, I have occasionally dropped a line to my fellow scribblers—with no perceivable results whatsoever. Nonetheless, I press on.
Here, for example, is a letter I spent moments slaving over which the Los Angeles Times failed to acknowledge, much less print. It pretty much sums up what I think the media must do to free itself from the inaccuracies perpetrated by the drug war propaganda machine.

November 15, 1993

Dear Editor:

Your headline of 11–13–93, "PHOENIX: Drugs Killed Actor, 23," was as misleading as, say, a report of James Dean's death headlined: "DEAN: Porsche Killed Actor, 24." Both brilliant actors died in unfortunate accidents.
But River Phoenix was killed not by drugs, but by the fact that drugs are illegal. When the government gets on its moral high horse and declares something completely prohibited, the government turns all control over to unregulated manufacturers, possibly disreputable distributors, and organized crime. The purity and strength of the banned substance cannot be monitored. The consumer has no protection. Prohibition returns us to the law of the jungle.

The most important service
rendered by the press
and the magazines
is that of educating people
to approach printed matter
with distrust.
SAMUEL BUTLER
According to the DEA, the white powder sold on the streets as "heroin" can be anywhere from 32% to 90% pure heroin. The other famous white powder, cocaine, has a similar potency range. That's quite a range, a deadly range, the range which caused the deaths of River Phoenix, John Belushi, and more than 50,000 other Americans since the war on drugs was declared in 1982. If heroin and cocaine were legal, their potency would be clearly labeled, and most of these people would still be alive.
Let's face it: the war on drugs is over. This year, the federal government admitted that the war has achieved nothing. In the past eleven years, after spending more than three hundred billion dollars; diverting unknown trillions of dollars into international organized crime; arresting more than ten million Americans; overburdening police, courts, and prisons; alienating minorities; creating a rise in crime and a disrespect for the law unseen since Prohibition; the availability, street price, and use of prohibited drugs remains virtually unchanged.
More than fifty federal judges refuse to hear drug cases. There are more people in federal prisons today for drug charges than the total federal prison population in 1982. The Drug Czar, Attorney General Reno, and knowledgeable observers in and out of government state frankly that what we're doing isn't working.
It will be a long time before the war on drugs—like its parallel atrocity, the Vietnam War—will be officially declared over. (We Americans so dislike admitting defeat, and bureaucracies absolutely abhor being dismantled.) The least we can do as journalists, however, is put an end to the wartime rhetoric. In war, the first casualty is truth. Truth, accuracy, balance, fairness, and all the other qualities we worship in our "freedom of the press" were abandoned by the mainstream media as soon as the war began.
The rising power of the United States in world affairs . . . requires, not a more compliant press, but a relentless barrage of facts and criticism . . . . Our job in this age, as I see it, is not to serve as cheerleaders for our side . . . but to help the largest possible number of people to see the realities.
JAMES RESTON
The Artillery of the Press
Here are my suggestions for eliminating the now-obsolete wartime propaganda from our nation's media:
1. Stop using phrases such as "drugs kill." To paraphrase the NRA: Drugs don't kill people; people kill themselves with drugs. To perpetuate the myth that "people are powerless over drugs" only adds to the level of personal irresponsibility that has already grown to fatal proportions in this country.
2. Stop pretending that illegal drugs do more harm than legal ones. More than 500,000 Americans die prematurely each year due to cigarette smoking and more than 200,000 from alcohol abuse. Meanwhile, all the illegal drugs combined cause approximately 6,000 deaths (mostly accidental overdoes due to the unknown strength and purity of prohibited substances). Growing marijuana—which in 10,000 years of recorded human use has never caused one death—can get you a life sentence without possibility of parole. Growing tobacco can get you a government subsidy.
3. Stop calling recreational drugs "dangerous." There are no "bad" drugs; there are only bad relationships with drugs. It is the relationship the human being forms with a drug that makes the drug harmful, harmless, or beneficial. The same drug can be good for one person and bad for another, based on the relationship each has established with that drug. Yes, some drugs (generally the ones that are physically addictive) are easier to form bad relationships with than others. Reporting this is both legitimate and necessary. By these standards, the most "dangerous" (physically addictive) recreational drugs are morphine (often consumed as heroin) and cigarettes.

You cannot hope
to bribe or twist
(thank God!) the
British journalist.
But, seeing what
the man will do
unbribed, there's
no occasion to.
HUMBERT WOLFE
4. Stop referring to recreational drugs as "poison." That's only true about always-lethal substances, which, for the most part, are perfectly legal. For example, no one uses Drano recreationally (although a few desperate people do use Lysol, heaven help them). Drano is so consistently deadly that the only law controlling its sale says it must be labeled "poison." There are no reports of a "Drano problem." Drano smuggling is, I would wager (if wagering weren't illegal), not rampant. Airports have no Drano-sniffing dogs. An Omnibus Drano Bill was never proposed to Congress. "DEA" does not stand for "Drano Enforcement Agency."
5. Stop perpetuating the myth that "the only way to use drugs safely is not to use them at all." Instead, give the rules for using the drugs with maximum safety. For example, your 11-3-93 article implicating GHB in the death of River Phoenix ("Designer Drug Enters Hollywood's Fast Lane") never told the simple rules for using GHB safely (or as safely as one can use any drug—legal or illegal). The primary rule: never take GHB with any other drug. When people take more than a proper dose of GHB, they fall asleep. If GHB is consumed in higher levels, the person vomits. As long as GHB is not interacting with another drug, not taken with a drug that suppresses nausea, and used in moderation, GHB is relatively harmless. In fact, your article on 11-13-93 stated that the coroner's final report listed an overdose of morphine (probably ingested as heroin) and cocaine as the cause of Phoenix's death. Although you are careful to point out, "No alcohol was detected," you fail to mention that no GHB was detected, either. Why not correct your earlier indictment of GHB—and apologize for any inaccurate or exaggerated reporting? If drugs had lawyers and PR agencies, the nation's press would be heavy with retractions and lawsuits.

Report me and my cause aright.
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE
Hamlet
All of this comes down to the simple idea: tell us the truth about drugs. Almost anything can be harmful if abused. Tell us what causes abuse and how to avoid it. Educate us as to the possible negative reactions when using a drug, what percentage of users experience these reactions, and what to do if one happens. Children are taught early the potential dangers of and safe use of knives, matches, and yes, even Drano. Please show your readers at least as much respect and have as much confidence in us as parents show their children.

Sincerely,

Peter McWilliams
Los Angeles, CA

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