The ground has never been more fertile for a change to our nation’s failed drug policies. We are seeing a broader questioning of America’s drug policy that fills our prisons and empties our coffers, that severely punishes the use of certain drugs but tolerates, regulates, taxes and even subsidizes others.
In the late 1980s, media hysteria about drugs played a large part in the passage of draconian laws that turned the U.S. into the world’s leading jailer. In 1989, the proportion of Americans polled who saw drug abuse as the nation's "number one problem" reached a remarkable 64 percent – one of the most intense fixations by the American public on any issue in polling history. Within less than a year, however, the figure plummeted to less than 10 percent, as the media lost interest. The draconian policies enacted 25 years ago remain, however, and continue to result in catastrophic levels of arrests and incarceration.
Media coverage of drugs and drug policy has grown much more sophisticated in the past quarter-century. Yet many journalists – even some of the most well-meaning ones – still often use inaccurate, offensive, or just plain absurd language that would be considered unthinkable when covering any other issue.
Last year, the Associated Press made waves when it announced that it would no longer use the term “illegal immigrant”. This fits with the AP’s and other outlets’ efforts to cast aside labeling terms that define people by a single behavior or condition – and to instead use terms that humanize the people they are writing about.
In that spirit, here are five ideas for how members of the media can help improve the public’s understanding of drugs, people who use drugs, and drug policy:
55% of Americans want marijuana legalization – and polls have recently found majority support in not just the places you’d expect but even in states like Florida, Texas, Indiana, Ohio and Louisiana.
Yet the media still often refers to people who are in favor of marijuana law reform as “pro-marijuana”. Just because someone supports reforming marijuana laws doesn’t mean that they encourage its use or have even tried it themselves. Most people are primarily concerned about the tax dollars and human potential squandered by arresting 750,000 people in the U.S. every year for marijuana.
And besides, contrary to conventional wisdom, reform would not necessarily lead to increased marijuana use. The U.S. has some of the highest rates of marijuana use, despite some of the harshest marijuana laws – while the Netherlands, which effectively decriminalized marijuana decades ago, has consistently much lower rates. And study after study has found that marijuana use has not increased in U.S. states that legalized medical marijuana.
I can’t tell you how many hundreds of times I’ve come across an otherwise serious news article about, say, the 20 million Americans who have been arrested for marijuana possession – only to feel sick to my stomach when I notice the frivolous pun-filled headline. What other serious human rights, public health, or racial justice issue do we treat this way?
(The Washington Post’s Jamie Fuller recently called out pun-addicted headline writers in her piece “Opinions on marijuana are evolving. Pot puns definitely aren’t”.)
To make matters worse, news editors have yet to shake their reliance on absurd caricatures. Even though half of all American adults have used marijuana, it seems as if every article or TV news story about marijuana policy is overshadowed by over-the-top photos or B-roll of someone dressed up as a giant marijuana leaf. I know a lot of people who smoke marijuana – and as far as I can tell they’re not sporting the marijuana-themed tutus I’m seeing every day in the media.
That's why the Drug Policy Alliance has endeavored to provide media outlets with ready-to-use stock photos of everyday people who use marijuana. These images are examples of the type of photos that media could be using when doing a story about marijuana legalization – patients who use marijuana to relieve debilitating pain, or people losing their homes and their jobs because of a marijuana arrest. We are making these photos open license and free to use for non-commercial editorial purposes, and we hope they will help make the jobs of editors easier and the content more relevant.
Despite their vast differences, much of the media apparently thinks “decriminalization” and “legalization” are the same thing.
Decriminalization eliminates criminal penalties for drug use or possession. Roughly two dozen countries, and dozens of U.S. cities and states, have taken steps toward decriminalization. Yet decriminalization alone does nothing to end the criminalization of people who grow, produce, distribute, sell or share drugs. Thus it does not address many of the greatest harms of prohibition – massive illicit markets, high levels of crime, corruption and violence, and the harmful health consequences of drugs produced in the absence of regulatory oversight.
Legalization could more accurately be called “legal regulation.” Legalization includes decriminalization of drug use, but goes much further by legally regulating and taxing production, distribution and sale. In 2012, Colorado and Washington voters made their states the first political jurisdictions anywhere in the world to legally regulate marijuana, and in 2013 Uruguay became the first country to do so.
Legal regulation is not a step into the unknown – we have more than a century of experience in legally regulating thousands of different drugs. Most regulatory proposals – and the laws in Colorado, Washington and Uruguay – include age limits, licensing requirements, quality controls, and restrictions on advertising.
Decriminalization does not include any of these controls, though it is a decent first step that would alleviate a significant portion of the harms associated with drug prohibition. And these harms are massive – more than a million people get arrested in the U.S. every year for nothing more than low-level drug possession.
According to the federal government’s own annual data, the vast majority of people who try any drug – even methamphetamine, crack, or heroin –do not use them problematically and do not develop a physical dependence. Yet the media often parrots drug war bureaucrats who sweepingly use the term “drug abuse” to apply to any and all drug use. How absurd would it be if we called all beer drinking “alcohol abuse”?
Just as the media often conflates drug use and drug abuse, an even more common mistake is equating a person’s drug use with the sum of their identity.
It’s long past time to stop using dehumanizing terms that objectify or reduce people who use drugs to a single characteristic or behavior. My colleague Meghan Ralston recently wrote in “The End of the Addict”:
“We just take for granted that it’s totally okay to describe a human being with one word, ‘addict’ – a word with overwhelmingly negative connotations to many people. We don’t really do that for other challenging qualities that can have a serious impact on people's lives. We don’t say, ‘my mother the blind,’ or ‘my brother the bipolar.’ We don’t say, ‘my best friend the epileptic,’ or ‘my nephew the leukemia.’ We don’t do that because we intuitively understand how odd it would sound, and how disrespectful and insensitive it would be. We don’t ascribe a difficult state as the full sum of a person’s identity and humanity.”
Instead of “drug users”, try “people who use drugs”. Instead of “addict”, try “someone struggling with drug addiction”. Instead of “convicted felon”, try “formerly incarcerated person”. It may take a few extra words, but can make a world of difference.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but hopefully it will help sharpen our understanding of these issues. The unprecedented momentum for drug policy reform is sure to keep them in the news for years to come.
Jag Davies is publications manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.