The popular conception of ‘drugs’ is fuzzy, to say the least. Properly understood, drugs are any material substance which engenders changes in consciousness when consumed. Popularly understood, however, ‘drugs’ often refers to a handful of proscribed substances. This is why we hear phrases like ‘drugs and alcohol’, as though alcohol weren’t included in ‘drugs’, and this is why the daily coffee drinker does not think of his or herself as a ‘drug addict’, although they undoubtedly are. Indeed, this is how it has come to be that in a society granted an unprecedented degree of health and longevity by modern medicine -that is, by the considered application of drugs-, it is still possible for the phrase ‘Drugs are Bad’ to gain currency. By now, LSD is almost cliche, and yet how well is it actually understood in the popular imagination. Ask ten strangers if they know what LSD is, and ten of them will say they do. But ask them any other question about LSD, at all…
Still, one might expect the media to be better informed than the general public. And are they? In answering this question, let me submit the following headline from the front page of The Australian, a newspaper with a national circulation, and an editor, and factcheckers, and all: ‘Teenager Nick Mitchell’s LSD Overdose – death, delusions, and despair’; from December of 2012, half a century after LSD first received broad attention. At the time, I wrote a lengthy tirade against, and another to, the editors of this publication, but it will suffice here to point out a couple of monumental problems with this article.
Firstly, the headline is flagrantly, almost arrogantly, false; nobody even faintly acquainted with the subject matter would think of claiming that a teenager had overdosed on a single tab of LSD: in rats, the LD50 (the dose at which 50% of test subjects die of toxicity) of LSD is some 12mg per kilo of bodyweight; the average dose of LSD is about one hundreed micrograms, or 1/120th of that amount. I do not know whether The Australian made literally inconceivable claims about a well researched drug out of dishonesty or out of incompetence, but the extent of either required to produce this article is incredible.
Secondly, I will point briefly at the alliterated ‘death, delusions, and despair’ which is self-evidently cheap sensationalism.
And as usual, in articles by hack-journalists in mainstream publications, a police official, inept to the point of a caricature, is sought out for his wisdom; in this case, Head of the NSW Police drug squad Detective Superintendent Nick Bingham, who said that the teenagers death “should pose as a stark warning about the dangers of any drugs.”
“LSD, if that’s what it was, is an insidious drug. It’s got a smiley face on it and looks harmless, but it kills,” Supt Bingham said.
There is so much stupidity contained within this one sentence that I’m honestly not sure where to begin. “It has a smiley face on it,” says the detective. LSD is usually distributed on blotter paper – a sheet of perforated cardboard printed with (usually) psychedelic artwork. The detective has apparently seen precisely one sheet of blotter paper and deduced that LSD “has a smiley face on it,” in the same way that I, after rummaging through a single recycling bin, retrieving a single beer bottle, and thereby concluding my education in the chemical properties of alcohol, might deduce that it “has a horse on it.”
“It kills,” says the detective. Not physically, it doesn’t. There has not been a single recorded death from LSD toxicity since it was first synthesized in 1938. This is something the superintendent of the NSW Police Drug Squad should probably know, at least before he starts handing out wisdom to newspapers.
And finally, “if that’s what it was.” Given that the poor child evidently overdosed on something, and given that it evidently wasn’t LSD, this raises an interesting question, and one you would think that journalists (and maybe even detectives) might be inclined to ask: What did Nick Mitchell overdose on?*
So thirdly (and this is characteristic of submissive establishment journalism), authority figures are asked to comment on issues that they are clearly and wholly unqualified to comment on, and their objectively false claims are printed without comment or correction. “LSD kills,” says a sergeant who knows nothing about LSD, and The Australian duly and uncritically prints it.
It wasn’t until June, when another teenager took an ‘LSD Death Plunge’ (another headline, this time from the Sydney Daily Telegraph), that journalists began to realize that there were substances more dangerous than LSD, on which a teenager might actually overdose – this time they actually suspected 25i-NBOMe was the culprit…which raises the question of why Australian newspapers invariably chose to refer to LSD in the headline. This time there can be no question of the newspapers intentions; this time it was sheer dishonesty: how else does one account for a borderline sensible body which outright contradicts a sensational headline? LSD DEATH PLUNGE (not actually LSD). This is no less than an open transgression against journalistic integrity.
And again, Nick Bingham, the scientifically illiterate mouthpiece of the establishment, was sort out for some propaganda to attribute to an authority figure. This time he called 25i-NBOMe, which he had undoubtedly just heard of, “synthetic LSD”, and the Telegraph printed it without comment or correction. I hope I don’t have to explain this, but LSD is synthetic, and 25i-NBOMe isn’t LSD; the two are only related inasmuch as they’re both psychedelic compounds. His statement literally doesn’t make sense, and yet it was reprinted far and wide.
Indeed, his ill-informed phrase persists: see, for example, this article from Perth Now News in which an unidentified substance, which is likely 25i-NBOMe, is referred to consistently and solely as ‘suspected synthetic LSD’. The same phrase was used in WA Today, in ABC Local, and in the Western Australian. After a brief flirtation with accurate reporting last June, the entire Australian media establishment is now scrupulously avoiding naming the drug which they are actually talking about, 25i-NBOMe. This baffling phenomenon is not restricted to Australia, either. Here the Minnesota branch of CBS Local refers to “a form of LSD”.
We are being deprived of a sensible conversation about 25i-NBOMe specifically, and about the advent and increasing popularity of research chemicals in general.
Such a conversation, among other things, might focus on the degree to which the 25i-NBOMe problem has been created by the policy of prohibition. The importance of this chemical in the atmosphere of prohibition comes from three properties, above all else: it is a great deal cheaper than LSD, it is a great deal more dangerous than LSD, and it can be passed off as LSD to inexperience and naive youngsters; truly quite an unholy trinity. The first and third facts, taken together, mean that there is a substantial incentive for people to sell drugs irresponsibly – they mean that people will import 25i at prices like 50 cents a hit, and then resell it as ‘LSD’ for $15 a hit. What the second fact means is that people will take 25i, a physically dangerous substance, believing that it is LSD, a physically safe substance; and therefore are put at significant risk.
In other words, the legalization of LSD is the only effective means of addressing the 25i problem: grant people legal access to safe chemicals like LSD, and they will not be driven to a blackmarket in which they are sold hazardous fakes.
In short, the treatment of drugs in the media is staggeringly dishonest, to the extent that obvious and outright falsities are printed on the front page, and demonstrable and relevant facts such as those presented in the above three paragraphs are entirely absent. Our countries policy of prohibition has directly led to young people dying at the hands of dubious chemicals, and this has not inspired our media to question the wisdom of this policy or to spend more than 3 words discussing the chemicals in question: that is incredible.
*In all likelihood, 25i-NBOMe, which has a recreational dose of 1mg, can kill in quantities which would fit on a ‘tab’, and is commonly misrepresented as LSD – this, the degradation of the LSD market by frauds, is in itself a more interesting story than the death of one teenager.