Did you hear about the Houston woman arrested for allegedly smoking pot during jury selection for a marijuana case? How about the teenagers (also in Texas) alleged to have dug up a corpse so they could use the skull as a bong? Or the Kentucky man caught with two "large baggies" of marijuana after cops noticed him pumping gas into an imaginary vehicle?
These are recent, true stories--but they're also the prevailing images of drug users in the news media.
Most people don't use illegal drugs. In 2005 the National Center for Health Statistics reported only 8.1 percent of the population had used an illegal drug within the past month.
And most people who don't use illegal drugs don't know illegal drug users. They aren't aware of the local lawyer who relaxes with marijuana on weekends, the student who occasionally uses amphetamines to study, or the chipper who uses heroin recreationally.
Drugs are dangerous. Drugs ruin people's lives. Drugs can kill. But that doesn't mean they always do.
The truth is, most people who use drugs--both legal and illegal--do so responsibly and without any noticeable detrimental effect. Drug policy analyst Mark Kleiman of UCLA wrote last year in The American Interest: "Most drug use is harmless, and much of it is beneficial--at least if harmless pleasure and relaxation count as benefits."
Since the 1980s, drug policy--with the help of the press--has demonized drug users.
Scientific studies are frequently reported in the media without the reporter having read more than a press release, and without any regard to sample size.
The Marijuana Policy Project's Bruce Mirken wrote that an editor told him, "We are dealing with a peer-reviewed journal study, and I don't feel at all comfortable going beyond what they are publishing. That is not our role."
Reporters don't question studies that say laughable things like marijuana is more addictive than tobacco. Editors write sensationalist headlines. Slate's Jack Shafer has a never-ending flow of stories for his "Stupid Drug Story of the Week" feature. And the drug prohibitionist party line is rarely questioned.
Philadelphia media are guilty of poor drug coverage as well.
After a pot bust last year, the Inquirer reported: "A potent type of marijuana known as AK47--so strong that some users are treated in emergency rooms for overdoses--has hit the Philadelphia area." (Marijuana cannot cause overdose.)
In a report on the drug-slang term 420, NBC 10 mentioned a teenager whom "420 nearly killed."
In other cases, the news media ignore important drug-related stories--such as the federal government listing cannabis as Schedule I, alongside heroin and LSD; or that the past two presidential administrations have arrested patients authorized by states to use medical marijuana.
On May 3 approximately 400 people marched from Broad and South streets to Headhouse Square in protest of current marijuana laws.
Derek Rosenzweig, co-chair of Philadelphia's chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), the group that organized the protest, says he sent a press release to multiple media outlets in the Philadelphia area. For the second straight year Philadelphia Weekly was the only media outlet at the protest.
And no daily news outlet in the city reported that 78 percent of people arrested in Philadelphia for marijuana charges in 2006 were black. Former NORML director Richard Cowan, who now runs MarijuanaNews.com, says his organization was never able to get the arrest rates for marijuana into the news during his time there from 1992 to 1995.
"We put our arrest numbers on the letterhead," Cowan says. "We couldn't get it into the papers. I remember cheering when I finally heard somebody report it."
Cowan blames "bad journalism" for the continued prohibition of marijuana. It's sad how long people have been pointing out this bad journalism, and how little anything seems to change.
Barry the Pot-Dealing Samaritan is risking his freedom to provide a sick person with the medicine he needs to fight cancer. Prison time. Fines. A criminal record that would follow him for his entire life. But it doesn't have to be that way.