Illegal drugs issue loses media buzz

The media and public have grown weary of the illegal drugs story, but groups continue pushing messages about drugs' dangers - or the need for legal reform

The media and public have grown weary of the illegal drugs story, but groups continue pushing messages about drugs' dangers - or the need for legal reform

Although it has been a hot button issue during the past four decades, there are signs of public and media fatigue regarding the government war on illegal drugs.

"There was a time when a lot of major national daily papers had dedicated drug beat reporters, but that's no longer the case," says Steve Dnistrian, EVP and PR director for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. "That really tracks with where the issue ranks in terms of the domestic policy agenda. In the late '80s and early '90s, it was near the top, but in recent years major papers and especially elected officials are not talking about it as much."

Some of the lack of urgency around illegal drug use has to do with the ebbing of the crack-cocaine epidemic. But Ryan King, a research associate who does media outreach for The Sentencing Project, also notes that, "Over the past 10 years, the conversation has switched, and it's been more about the role of treatment, alternatives to incarceration, and how many people are in the nation's jails for drug convictions."

King adds that he often deals with criminal-justice reporters looking for national numbers to augment what in many situations are local tragedies. "There are a half-million people incarcerated for drug offenses and billions of dollars that are spent on the war on drugs," he says. "A lot of these numbers are too large for people to [grasp], but the media is very active in putting a human face on the figures."

Renewing public concern

Dnistrian is using real-world examples to drive home his group's points about the dangers of drug abuse, especially to parents. "We're really framing stories around health issues and reaching out to family beat reporters," he says, "If you really want to break through to parents, you must talk about the health implications of drug use by teenagers."

"Just Say No" and other antidrug messages of the past two decades are credited with reducing recreational drug use among young people from its peak in the late 1970s to early '80s.

But Dnistrian is still pitching that drug abuse is a major problem, occasionally to a skeptical media. "Reporter education is an ongoing difficult challenge, but an absolute necessity," he explains. "For example, a reporter who's done Ecstasy once and thinks he or she is an expert in terms of the risks and benefits - with those you've got to get them to consider the scientific and medical literature so that they don't let their own personal experience cloud their reporting."

The marijuana issue

When it comes to illegal drugs, the public often draws a line between marijuana and harder substances. "While sometimes the topic is marijuana as a gateway to other drugs, most of the time it stands alone, even when you're talking about media coverage," says Paul Armentano, senior policy analyst for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

Armentano says NORML does up to 10 interviews or media appearances weekly, with much of the recent interest centering on the medical marijuana debate. "The thing I take issue with is the lack of institutional memory among the media," he says. "I can't tell you how many times I've seen articles that contradicted what that outlet wrote about a few years ago. A state may consider liberalizing the penalties for recreational use, and reporters will think that's revolutionary, and you'll have to point out that 12 states have already done that."

Despite its illegality, even the government concedes that marijuana is used recreationally by tens of millions of Americans annually, making grass smokers a viable cultural and consumer force. The magazine High Times has long been considered the voice of that culture, and in ways it operates like other consumer magazines, offering service-oriented hard and soft news, entertainment reviews, and interviews.

"We're like a lot of other magazines when it comes to celebrities in that we shoot for the top, and we're very selective," says Steve Bloom, one of three High Times editors. "But it's more difficult because, if a celebrity is on the cover, they pretty well have to smoke a joint first, and that's going to eliminate some artists whose publicists get concerned."

Despite the subject matter, Bloom says he still receives a lot of pitches, mostly dealing with music- or entertainment-themed stories. "The first thing we ask is why they're contacting us, and many times they don't even pitch us properly or even know what High Times is," he says. "We're not going to review every movie, we're going to do Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle and things that target our audience. It's a really fine line, but we really know what we want."

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Pitching... the illegal drug beat

  • The numbers dealing with substance abuse, government anti-drug spending, or even incarcerated drug users can't begin to tell the story, so be sure to line up sources so reporters can put a human face on the story

  • Whether it's Rush Limbaugh and prescription painkillers, a celebrity entering rehab, or the upcoming Supreme Court decision on medical marijuana, look to leverage breaking news to pitch bigger trend stories on substance abuse use in the US

  • Journalists might think they know about illegal drug use, but work hard to provide studies and experts to put their own experiences in perspective

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