The strain of “reefer madness” that’s been infecting American newsrooms since at least 1911 appears to be abating amid some sobering new economic realities. Salacious stories about cannabis continue to move newspapers just as briskly now as they did in the early Twentieth century, when the drug became illegal. But the fever’s changed gears.
“The de facto ban on serious, cogent mainstream media discussion about the topic has been lifted,” says Stephen Gutwillig, State Policy Director for the Drug Policy Alliance in Washington. “They’ve stopped acting like they’re in sixth grade. There’s less puns and ‘scare quotes.’ The Wall Street Journal did a front-page story last week that treated medical marijuana like just another industry story.”
Recently, The New York Times ran a classic, “Style” section hit piece on cannabis, but then followed it up, almost as a mea culpa, with an extremely insightful and bold “roundtable discussion” with leading thinkers on the topic. The Economist now stands alongside the National Review in calling for legalization, and even the staid Congressional Quarterly Researcher devoted its entire June issue to a thorough review of the topic.
Watchers say demographic changes (about half of the adult population born since 1960 has tried the drug by age 21) and the Obama administration’s progressive outlook have combined forces with pure capital interests and technology to effect a pushback against traditional law-and-order voices on the issue.
Ryan Grim, author of the history and analysis This Is Your Country on Drugs and senior congressional correspondent for The Huffington Post, says winds of change are, indeed, blowing in the opposite way of historical precedent—not just in the culture at large, but in journalism, too.
“Some people have referred to it as ‘the drug war exception’ to journalism: where you’re supposed to get both sides of the story, but for some reason, with drug war reporting it doesn’t apply,” says Grim. “It hasn’t in the past, but it’s starting to change.”
Take, for example, the hysterics of Teddy Roosevelt’s Opium Commissioner, Hamilton Wright—whose journalism in the early 1900s (‘UNCLE SAM IS THE WORST DRUG FIEND IN THE WORLD,’ read one Wright-inspired New York Times headline in 1911) encouraged the ‘reefer madness’ that stayed with the country and its journalism until late in the Twentieth Century.
“They gave [Wright] 5,000 words to spew out this unsupported nonsense like, ‘There is an epidemic upon us!’—things that weren’t even remotely true,” Grim says. “And the ironic thing was, the press at the time was significantly funded by advertising for patent medicine—opium elixirs and other unregulated stuff—which is now infamous.”
According to a Congressional Quarterly Researcher analysis, the 1930s emerged as the golden era of cannabis prohibition agitprop, with even The New York Times stating in 1934, “The poisonous weed…maddens the senses and emaciates the body of the user…. Most crimes of violence in [the West], especially in the country districts are laid to users of the drug.” The canonical propaganda film Tell Your Children appeared in 1936. In 1937 Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act, effectively prohibiting the drug.
It was the Nixon Administration that gave newspapers the War on Drugs to fight all-time peak levels of cannabis usage by high schoolers, which in turn led to the hard line “Drug War” of the ’80s. It wasn’t until the ’90s that the reform movement—then a generation old—became professional enough to push back against media portrayals, says Grim.
“You had NORML in the ’70s, but it was more of a theater agitprop, and not the kind of organization that was sending out press releases and producing annual reports and generally trying to play within the confines of the media game,” Grim notes. “That definitely has changed—and it’s not surprising that after the movement has started professionalizing itself, it has been able to get the ear of some different people.”