Lies our drug warriors told us
The reporters made their way through the dim lights and small huts of Virginia City’s Chinatown. In the huts, one of the reporters later wrote, “A lamp sits on the bed, the length of the long pipe-stem from the smoker’s mouth; he puts a pellet of opium on the end of a wire, sets it on fire, and plasters it into the pipe much as a Christian would fill a hole with putty; then he applies the bowl to the lamp and proceeds to smoke—and the stewing and frying of the drug and the gurgling of the juices in the stem would well nigh turn the stomach of a statue. John likes it, though; it soothes him, he takes about two dozen whiffs, and then rolls over to dream.”
The reporter, Mark Twain, whose Victorian sensibilities made him uncomfortable when faced with the scenes in Chinatown, nevertheless was one reporter who did not use his coverage of opium use to demonize the Chinese. Others were less principled. They set the pattern of much of the news coverage of drug use that followed in the next century and a half.
The Comstock journalists produced racist and inaccurate news coverage that relied on uninformed sources (law enforcement instead of physicians), inflamed the people of the town, and produced the nation’s first anti-drug law, an ordinance banning opium smoking within Virginia City, enacted on Sept. 12, 1876. The local politicians, discovering that fear of drugs and minorities sold, were just as irresponsible, blaming everything from poor sanitation to child molestation on Chinese drug “fiends.” When the local prohibition ordinance failed, they pushed for a statewide law which failed (and, of course, would be followed by national laws that failed).
The entire ineffectual template of the drug war with which we live today was established there in Virginia City—journalists who gave short shrift to science and health-care professionals in favor of treating politicians and law enforcers as drug experts in lurid and exploitive news coverage; politicians who exploited legitimate concern to promote race hatred and reelection; law enforcers who confused cause with effect and exploited public anxiety to promote punitive laws; and all three who treated prohibition as a solution: “Let severe measures be adopted and the sale of the drug will soon be suppressed!” observed a Nye County newspaper. The nation has been chasing that siren’s song ever since.
A century later, Reno physician Wesley Hall was the president-elect of the American Medical Association. On April 2, 1970, he used the forum provided by his new stature to announce that in June, the AMA would release a study showing that marijuana deadened the sex drive and caused birth defects. The statement caused a flap, but no such study was ever released. A few weeks later, Hall claimed he had been misquoted but also claimed that he had not bothered to correct the record because “it does some good.” By then, correcting the record did no good—Hall’s comments kept getting cited and quoted until experience and the passing years showed their falsity.
Over the course of the war on drugs that began in Virginia City and accelerated decade by decade, such lying became an indispensable weapon of that war. The lies sometimes took the form of outright falsehoods. At other times, they took the form of letting errors stand uncorrected or leaving out essential information. Drug warriors—whether journalists, politicians, police or public employees—need lies because the drug war can’t be sustained without them. Lies are the foundation of the drug war, and the five listed here are the tip of the iceberg. There are many, many more, and they are relevant to a marijuana measure that will appear on this year’s Nevada ballot.
1. Gateway drugs
In the early 20th century, Dr. Charles Towns was a leading public figure and drug “expert,” operator of the Towns Hospital in New York. He propounded a theory that would have a long life—that some drugs “lead” to harder drugs. “The tobacco user is in the wrong,” he wrote. “It undermines his nervous strength. It blunts the edge of his mind. It gives him ‘off-days,’ when he doesn’t feel up to his work. It always precedes alcoholism and drug addiction. I’ve never had a drug case or an alcoholic case (excepting a few women) that didn’t have a history of excessive smoking. Inhaling tobacco is just as injurious as moderate opium smoking.”
The gateway theory evolved until baby boomers raised in the 1950s on “marijuana leads to harder stuff” learned its falsity from personal experience in the 1960s. If that experience and the findings of science were not enough, there was practical evidence that some drugs actually functioned as barrier drugs, not gateway drugs. Whenever mild drugs were removed as a barrier, harder drugs came into use. In 1910, Congress received data showing that during a period of alcohol prohibition in New England, morphine use jumped by 150 percent. In 1968, a Johnson administration crackdown on marijuana in Vietnam reduced supply and provoked an upsurge in heroin use. In 1969 in California, a six-day Nixon administration crackdown on the Mexican border dried up marijuana supplies and filled heath-care facilities with a flood of heroin cases. California physician David Smith told Newsweek, “The government line is that the use of marijuana leads to more dangerous drugs. The fact is that the lack of marijuana leads to more dangerous drugs.”
The gateway theory went into decline after such experiences but always made a comeback because drug war dogma requires it. Today it is back, alive and well.
And as it turned out, “Doctor” Towns was a quack—a failed insurance salesman who was not a physician and peddled a bogus “cure” for drug addiction.
2. Marijuana’s not medicine.
Today, we’re accustomed to medical experts like Washoe County District Attorney Richard Gammick denying that marijuana is medicine (Gammick: “I didn’t support medical marijuana because it doesn’t exist."), but in 1937, it was a novel argument, since marijuana was universally acknowledged as a beneficial medicine. It was listed in the American Medical Association’s Pharmacopeia (list of approved medications) and remained there even after being made illegal until federal officials brought pressure on the AMA. (It is still in the British Pharmacopeia.)
What may have been the first time this lie was told was a key moment in the drug wars. Congress was considering legislation that year to outlaw non-medicinal marijuana at the behest of the lumber and liquor lobbies, a drive fueled by newspaper hysteria over marijuana. By continuing to protect physicians’ use of the drug, Congress recognized its medical value.
Though there was an exception in the bill for physicians, the medical community was still concerned about the restrictions. There was apparently an effort to slip the ban through Congress quietly, but AMA lobbyist William C. Woodward found out about a House Ways and Means Committee hearing on the bill and showed up to demand actual evidence of the danger of the drug instead of the anecdotal newspaper horror stories to which the committee had been listening: “It has surprised me, however, that the facts on which these statements have been based have not been brought before this committee by competent primary evidence. We are referred to newspaper publications concerning the prevalence of marijuana addiction. We are told that the use of marijuana causes crime. But yet no one has been produced from the Bureau of Prisons to show the number of prisoners who have been found addicted to the marijuana habit. An informed inquiry shows that the Bureau of Prisons has no evidence on that point. You have been told that school children are great users of marijuana cigarettes. No one has been summoned from the Children’s Bureau to show the nature and extent of the habit among children.”
The committee members tore into Woodward spitefully, giving him the kind of grilling they did not give to drug warriors.
One member told Woodward, “We know that it is a habit that is spreading, particularly among youngsters. … The number of victims is increasing each year.” Woodward replied, “There is no evidence of that.” He kept insisting on evidence instead of hearsay.
The committee ended Woodward’s testimony without thanking him or even formally ending his testimony, brusquely calling the next witness.
One of those present at that hearing was U.S. Rep. Carl Vinson of Georgia. When the marijuana ban reached the House floor on June 10, 1937, he was the floor manager. To give some idea of the care with which the bill was enacted and the depth of knowledge from which lawmakers were working, there was this exchange:
U.S. Rep. Bertrand Snell of New York: “What is the bill?”
U.S. Rep. Sam Rayburn of Texas: “It has something to do with something that is called marijuana. I believe it is a narcotic of some kind.”
Vinson: “Marijuana is the same as hashish.”
Snell: “Mr. Speaker, I am not going to object, but I think it is wrong to consider legislation of this character at this time of night.”
Then came a question that led to the lie whose consequences are still with us. Snell asked, “Mr. Speaker, does the American Medical Association support this bill?”
The response fell to Vinson. A truthful answer might well derail the bill. Vinson stood and lied: “Their Doctor Wentworth [sic] came down here. They support this bill one hundred percent.”
The bill was approved.
3. Crack babies.
The report went on the air at 5:34:50 p.m. on Sept. 11, 1985, with an on-screen headline of “Cocaine and pregnant mothers.” In 1 minute and 50 seconds, Susan Spencer of CBS ignited an inflammatory national myth—the crack baby. Footage of a screaming and trembling baby going through withdrawal after supposedly being born to a mother who used cocaine was backed by interviews with physicians Ira Chasnoff and Sidney Schnoll. Chasnoff had just published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that had caught Spencer’s eye and prompted the report. Spencer ended the report with the lines, “The message is clear. If you are pregnant and using cocaine, stop.”
University of Michigan scholars Richard Campbell and Jimmie Reeves have tracked the events which followed. As other reporters and media chased the story, it evolved. Spencer’s report was a health warning. By the time her CBS colleague Terry Drinkwater and others recycled the story, it was an attack on the mothers (Washington Post: “The Worst Threat Is Mom Herself"). As the firestorm built, politicians and others got involved, and the babies themselves were demonized. A judge called them “tomorrow’s delinquents,” and Democratic U.S. Rep. George Miller of California said, “We are going to have these children, who are the most expensive babies ever born in America, are going to overwhelm every social service delivery system that they come in contact with throughout the rest of their lives.” Boston University President John Silber suggested the babies were soulless—"crack babies who won’t ever achieve the intellectual development to have consciousness of God.”
The drumbeat against the children became so fierce that a commentary in the Journal of the American Medical Association asked, “Why is there today such an urgency to label prenatally cocaine-exposed children as irremediably damaged?” And Emory University’s Dr. Claire Coles said of the “crack baby” label, “If a child comes to kindergarten with that label, they’re dead. They are very likely to fulfill the worst prophecies.”
Hospitals started threatening to turn mothers over to police; prosecutors started charging mothers with child abuse. (The Nevada Legislature rejected a statute permitting such prosecutions, and when the Washoe sheriff tried to charge a mother anyway, the Nevada Supreme Court slapped it down.) One case—Ferguson v. City of Charleston—made its way all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which held that hospitals had to stop testing for drugs without patient consent. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine indicated that the drug habits of white women were more likely to be overlooked by physicians or hospitals, while African Americans were reported to police.
And it was all built on a pile of sand.
Spencer, like most reporters, did not know how to read a scientific study, and the Chasnoff study was flawed. The study involved just 23 women, and its author himself called it inadequate.
Worse, according to former Wall Street Journal reporter Dan Baum, who wrote an influential account of the drug war, physicians noticed something about video reports by Spencer and others that ordinary viewers—and the reporters themselves—missed. The trembling babies were exhibiting behavior that is not produced by cocaine. Being withdrawn from coke produces sleep, not the trembling and screaming shown in the sensational reports. Baum wrote, “It dawned on [Dr. Claire] Coles that the TV crews were either mixed up or lying. They were filming infants suffering heroin withdrawal and calling them ‘cocaine babies.’ “
Moreover, the physicians also felt that drugs were not the cause of the problems being attributed to the babies. Lack of nutrition and health care during pregnancy were. A Florida report noted, “In the end, it is safer for the baby to be born to a drug-using, anemic, or diabetic mother who visits the doctor throughout her pregnancy than to be born to a normal woman who does not.”
The controversy arose at a time when both Democrats and Republicans in Congress and President Reagan had sliced apart the “safety net” that had long existed for poor families. By 1985, prenatal care and nutrition were less accessible. Federal deregulation of the insurance industry had cut low-income families loose from health insurance. Federally funded medical care had been slashed. While journalism had raced off after the mock cause of unhealthy babies, the real causes had received far less press scrutiny.
It was a case study of journalism taking a complex story and simplifying it into inflammatory and irresponsible coverage that made the problem worse. It is now pretty clear to experts and insiders what happened. But the damage is done. Today, there are 103,000 hits on Google for crack baby and 107,000 for crack babies.
4. Instant addiction.
The March 17, 1986, issue of Newsweek hit the newsstands on March 10. Newsweek has long served as the unofficial house organ of the drug war. That alliance has often suspended the critical faculties of its staff members. Never was that failing more dangerous than in that 1986 issue with its “Kids and Cocaine” cover story. Inside was an interview with Arnold Washton, operator of a drug hotline who was known for hyperbole—he had once told NBC that crack was a form of Russian roulette. In the Newsweek article he said, “There is no such thing as recreational use of crack. It is almost instantaneous addiction.”
Newsweek did not bother checking the accuracy of the incendiary claim before publishing it. Instead, acting as stenographers instead of journalists, the magazine’s editors printed it without a competing viewpoint.
The assertion shot through newsrooms around the nation with the speed of sound, and those newsrooms passed it along like carriers of a disease. And it was untrue. Dr. Herbert Kleber, perhaps the leading cocaine expert in the United States has said, “No drug is instantly addictive.”
The claim was as potent in its effect as crack. Laws, fueled by the frenzy created by “instantly addicting” crack, were enacted. One of them, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, imposed lower penalties on powder cocaine (used mostly by whites) than on crack cocaine (used mostly by African Americans). In practice, whites tended to be diverted into treatment more than blacks. All four members of Congress from Nevada voted for the bill.
There were those who tried to brake the inflammatory news coverage. The Washington Journalism Review eventually ran a cover story quoting Peter Jennings saying that using crack “even once can make a person crave cocaine as long as they live.” Existing research, the Review said, disproves that statement. But the piece didn’t appear until 1990. The Columbia Journalism Review did not directly challenge the claim but did urge greater skepticism toward drug war claims.
It did little good. The belief in the instantly addicting qualities of cocaine has entered popular culture. “The crack cocaine of …” joined “If we can put a man on the moon …” as an indispensable phrase. There are 47,800 Google hits for it—"the crack cocaine of junk food,” “the crack cocaine of gambling addiction,” “the crack cocaine of sexaholics,” and so on.
5. Marijuana’s rising potency
That distinguished medical expert, Washoe County District Attorney Richard Gammick, said on Sam Shad’s television program, “This is not the marijuana that people used to roll and do a little doobie back at Haight-Ashbury and some of the other things that went on back 30, 40 years ago. This is 10 times stronger in THC [tetrahydrocannabinol] content.”
This has become one of the most common new myths about marijuana. White House drug czar John Walters loves it and used it when he came to Reno and Las Vegas to campaign against a 2002 marijuana ballot measure. “What many people don’t understand is that this is not your father’s marijuana,” he told the Washington Post in a story about the Nevada initiative. “What we’re seeing now is much more potent.” In fact, no reliable evidence substantiates Gammick’s 10-times-stronger claim, much less Walters’ 30-times-stronger claim.
What they leave out of their sales pitch are these little nuggets of information:
• The claims of higher potency are based on a 1960s study that used unusually low-potency marijuana for testing purposes.
• The Bush administration itself will not substantiate the Walters/Gammick-style claims about potency. The federal Potency Monitoring Project reports negligible fluctuations in potency over the years. The U.S. Department of Justice’s “National Drug Threat Assessment” for 2005 said that higher potency marijuana is not marketable because it makes tokers sick—"more intense—and often unpleasant—effects of the drug leading them to seek medical intervention.”
• Potency is a so-what issue—when marijuana is more potent, tokers smoke less.
Walters managed to combine two of the lies we listed here into a single sentence when, on one occasion, he talked about border smuggling of pot that he claimed was highly potent: “Canada is exporting to us the crack of marijuana.” It’s the kind of false statement that would have fit right into 1870s Virginia City.