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.
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.
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.