Drugs and drug reporting: A call for calm

Post by Alex Osmond, Research Co-ordinator

21 Sep 2018

Recently, we’ve seen an increase in feverish reporting on the use of New Psychoactive Substances (colloquially known as ‘Spice’). Pictures of ‘zombies’ sprawled in town centres come up again and again.

In the last few weeks of summer 2018, the drug MDPV – called ‘bath salts’ in the US and ‘monkeydust’ in the UK – has caused a similar spate of apocalyptic articles.

This is nothing new – the media has always delighted in the details of behaviour seen as aberrant, and exaggerated reporting about drugs dates back to at least 1936, with the film Reefer Madness, and likely even earlier.

Problems with hysteria

To be sure, drug use can have far-reaching and worrying effects on individuals, communities and society; ‘hysterical reporting’ (as I’ll call it from now on), however, isn’t the best way of giving us information about this.

Sometimes it whips up hysteria when there shouldn’t be any, or the facts become muddled.

The focus on the most visually disturbing effects of a drug (like users become unresponsive) gives readers an exaggerated idea of a substance’s effects. Consequences like unconsciousness are rare, and the milder effects of drugs will be the most common. I’ve seen Spice reporting commonly using the phrase ‘worse than heroin’, which strikes me as odd, because there isn’t an objective scale of how ‘bad’ drugs are. What’s more, the drugs seen as the ‘worst’ do not necessarily deserve their place at the bottom of the pile.

Alcohol is more damaging to the body and mind than heroin is and causes a physical addiction that crack cocaine does not.

We might also be missing important details. Across the UK, for example, there has been a worrying rise in bloodborne viruses and tuberculosis cases, some of which are linked with drug use.

I haven’t found any news reports about this, however.

Rough sleeping is increasing in Wales and this year we’ve had heavy snowfall and record-breaking heatwaves, which have had and could still have ramifications for those living on the streets. At times like this, we should look at situations calmly, reporting with a clear head rather than trying to persuade readers we’re living through a post-apocalyptic zombie movie.

Hysterical reporting about drugs and addiction also fails to convey what addiction is like: for most people, addiction is tedious and mundane. Sourcing money, buying drugs, and using drugs is something one does every day. The cycle becomes rote. One of the reasons addiction is hard to beat is the fact that a person needs to be persuaded to give up what gives their life meaning, in exchange for an uncertainty that might not seem immediately appealing.

Additionally, by focusing on the outward aspects of drug use (users looking like ‘zombies’, for example), we miss a critical point about arguably more important things: these drugs, at least at first, have effects compelling enough to ‘distract’ users from what can be serious mental health issues. This is not to suggest that all drug users are trying to escape from such issues, but when it comes to homelessness, this is often true. We’ve already commented on the fact that drug use often arises because of being homeless, rather than being a cause.

Objectifying people like this creates distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’; strange, when reporting like this is juxtaposed with increasingly sympathetic stories about homelessness in Wales. If a homeless person deserves sympathy, a homeless person who uses drugs does too. Furthermore, it’s not as if people acting in unpleasant and potentially disruptive ways in public is a new phenomenon that has come along inside packets of Spice; the media used to lament binge drinking in city centres in the same way.

When drugs are presented as being particularly dangerous, overwhelming or cheap, vulnerable people might actively seek them out. This is a tricky area – the press has a responsibility to report the news, not to regulate people’s drug habits; however, over-sensationalising the overpowering effects of the drug is potentially dangerous when it comes to people who might be seeking the most effective ways of escaping reality they can find.

I’m not suggesting that we decriminalise or even legalise the substances they take. Personally, I struggle with the decriminalisation debate; I understand claims that the ‘War on Drugs’ isn’t working, but I’m also uncomfortably intimate with the damage drugs can do. The whole issue requires careful thought, with level-headed reporting to go with it.

Many people take drugs without damaging themselves, and stay off the front pages: in 2016/17, one in twelve people between the ages of 16 and 59 had taken an illicit drug in the last year. In 2016, nearly a quarter of school pupils reported that they’d tried an illegal substance, although this has dropped recently. Statistics like this prove that drug use is not strange behaviour limited to society’s most marginalised.

What does drug use in Wales look like?

Here are some more level-headed insights from our staff and clients:

These are the facts we should be focusing on. Getting hysterical is at best a distraction and can be, at worst, downright misleading.

Click here to read more topical blog posts from The Wallich’s Public Affairs and Policy team.

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