Recent News Roundup: D.C.-Criminalized Edition

As historians, we often rely on past journalistic accounts to interpret events, so it makes sense for us to also pay attention to how drugs are depicted in the news today. Not only does charting the life cycle of current drug stories place previous depictions into historical context, but it can also help us understand where we are now and how certain drugs (like marijuana) rise and fall in the media over the years.



This is a particularly useful practice since drugs have been dominating recent headlines. From Columbia psychology professor Carl Hart appearing last month in the New York Times Magazine suggesting that “crack wasn’t the real problem” during the drug crisis of the 1980s, to the paper’s Fashion & Style section profiling celebrity-endorsed vaporizers at the beginning of this month, major outlets have been writing about drugs with a distinctly more open, less hyperbolic voice.

Carl Hart(Carl Hart, major news force)

Additionally, changes in drug legislation have also been closely covered. The District Attorney of Brooklyn recently announced that he will limit the prosecution of low-level marijuana arrests, while the city council in Berkeley, California, announced that they’ll be giving away free medical marijuana to those who can’t afford it otherwise.

And, in perhaps the most remarkable recent news, today is the first day of official marijuana decriminalization in my hometown of Washington, D.C. Though there’s still some trouble with Congressional oversight, people caught with less than one ounce of marijuana will be charged only a $25 fine, and police are not allowed to search individuals based on the smell of marijuana smoke. You’ll still be charged $500 if caught smoking in public places (particularly if you’re caught on federal property, which makes up over 20% of D.C.’s total land) and trafficking in marijuana remains a crime, but, starting today, the personal possession of up to one ounce of weed has been effectively decriminalized in the nation’s capital.

mj in dc (D.C.-Criminalized Marijuana in the Nation’s Capital)

I follow marijuana stories because I’m a marijuana historian. But are there other stories that you’ve been following that track closely with your interests? If so, how has the tone of news coverage about these substances changed over the years (if it has)? And what has been the effect of this coverage? From demonization in the media in the 1970s and ’80s, to the relative (and growing) comfort with marijuana today, we can see that news stories closely track Americans’ comfort (or discomfort) with marijuana. Is it the same for drugs or drug users that you study?

Let’s get a conversation going about drugs in the news. Leave your thoughts below.

6 thoughts on “Recent News Roundup: D.C.-Criminalized Edition”

  1. First, a quick step back for the wide view. Having just landed from the moon, and only studied drug altering of the human mind, one would not understand the A of ADHS. Add in these three historical uses of alcohol: germ killer, religion, and medicine, and the moon visitor can begin to understand why ADHS is going along with the rest of Western society biasing alcohol against other drugs. OK, now back onto Drugs.

  2. Yes, let’s do have that conversation. I woke up this morning with the thought: “psychotropic and zombie.” I had recently read the testimony of a young woman who was required to take “antipsychotic” drugs while she was in foster care, as is so often the case. The drugs made her feel like a “zombie,” she testified at a hearing before the Human Resources Subcommittee of the House Committee on Ways and Means (5/29/14). I had seen similar allegations before, but how often? More frequently than I could count, so I turned to Google. “Psychotropic + zombie” returned 2,100,000 “hits.”

    How have the physicians who prescribe psychotropic drugs — mainly family practice physicians, but also psychiatrists — responded to what is apparently a common complaint, and a serous one? I read widely in the psychiatric literature. I do not recall ever finding the word “zombie” in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry or JAMA or NEJM or AJP. The pharmaceutical manufacturers, who have so much to say about their products, seem not to have felt disposed to comment on the alleged psychotropic-zombie connection.

    The silence on the part of those whose incomes depend in part on dispensing psychotropic drugs must tell a story. What is that story? The silence does not signify a general lack of interest in adverse effects, or “side effects” as they are called in the professional literature. The medical journals, the FDA-approved package inserts, and the advertisements are full of cautions about “side” effects–so full that the manufacturers are forced to resort to the smallest possible type fonts to list them all. But not the word “zombie,” nor, so far as I’ve noticed, any of its synonyms.

    Why the implicit “no comment” on the part of physicians and the pharmaceutical industry? What does the silence tell the historian? Let’s have a discussion.

  3. I’m glad Dave brought up alcohol. I’ve seen quite a bit of mainstream media coverage of alcohol epidemiology lately ( for example, NPR’s coverage of a recent CDC report I’m intrigued by this sudden interest in the numbers, as the media (and the general public) is usually pretty indifferent to the population-wide harms associated with drinking (as opposed to say, the drama of individual alcoholism-and-recovery-narratives, which always seem to have an audience). Is the sudden recognition of alcohol’s harms helped by pro-marijuana advocates, who often contrast pot with booze? Does the CDC just have a better PR office than NIAAA? Curious.

  4. I think another question that would be interesting to add to help address Claire’s points is how media portrayals or views gets created? Is the media its own force, or does it reflect more of the cultural positions of its society?

    • To Bradley’s questions that I struggle with daily: The media, while quasi-autonomous, is still catering to ratings and the viewing audience that drive said ratings. Particularly by the 1980’s as cable news stations begin to proliferate and major networks begin major restructuring (diminishing resources), coverage seems to grow increasingly sensationalistic, alarmist, etc. Perhaps most problematic, news appears to stick to narratives their audiences are primed to understand and accept; coverage that affirms their existing world views and preconceived notions of poor urban minorities. Case in point: every time local news here in Buffalo has few details regarding an act of violence the incident is almost automatically reported as “suspected to be gang or drug-related”.

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