Towards A New Journalism

I started this blog almost a year ago because so little of value was being written on the subject of drugs, but I haven’t yet outlined exactly what problems hamper drug journalism today or how they can be improved upon. In the hopes of promoting more intelligent writing in this field, I’d like to expound upon the theory of journalism which informs the writings on this blog.

Some problems are immediately obvious: the reporting on drugs is lazy and dishonest. That major newspapers in Australia can print headlines with phrases like ‘LSD overdose’ when it has been well established for well over half a century that people don’t overdose on single doses of LSD is problematic in the extreme. Such a headline fails to pass the most rudimentary fact check. That nearly every publication in Australia persisted in referring to a substance with an established name, reputation, and data, 25i-NBOMe, as “synthetic LSD” for well over a year is a dereliction of the most basic duties a journalist can be said to have. In these ways, and more, journalists in this country (and in every other country) are failing to meet the bare minimum standard anybody could expect of them. But I am not writing this to demand the bare minimum, I’m writing this to demand a standard of journalism that goes above and beyond that bare minimum.

The real root of the deficit is that most writers are unconcerned with questions like what journalism is, what its role should be, and all the complexities these questions entail. Should we be content merely to report facts without comment and allow the reader to make up their own mind? For example, if the number of meth labs being raided is increasing, should we report that fact and leave it at that? If a man is arrested for importing drugs, should we dutifully trumpet “NSW Police arrest man on suspicion of importing cocaine,” or should we take a moral stance on this action?

They call it the Drug War, and that is exactly what it is. It is being fought with military equipment, and the casualties now number in the millions. Is it not about time for journalists to once again become voices of morality? I for one am not a Dictaphone for facts or a distributor for the statements of officials. I write as a friend and ally of drug users everywhere; as a friend and ally of a demographic upon whom the institutions of political power in our society have explicitly declared war with the tacit approval of the populations of every developed country on this planet. My position then, like the position of so many great journalists in the history of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, is anti-war. I write for peace. I agitate unapologetically for a cessation of hostilities. If a journalist writes about the drug war as anything but a disturbed onlooker they had better have a damned good reason, and impartiality will not cut it. Impartiality in the face of great evil is tantamount to support for the status quo, and who will seriously defend that status quo?

But that is not the extent of the journalism I wish to see. I will not say that the new journalism of the Drug War need merely be anti-drug war. That’s not the only problem.

I contend that it is the role of journalists to inform, and on that front the present journalism is an abject failure. To write with expertise on a subject requires expert knowledge, and the issue of drugs, and the drug war, are above all else multidisciplinary. The competent journalist of the drug war must, then, be a student of relevant disciplines. They needn’t be an expert in all of the relevant fields, but they should be aware of what the experts in these fields are saying.

The drug issue involves psychopharmacology. I do not believe it is possible to write intelligently about, say, 25i-NBOMe without a cursory knowledge of its psychopharmacology. And yet, few of the plethora of articles which appeared during the “synthetic LSD” hype made much, if any, mention of the drug’s effects. Little examination was given to its safety profile, which is quite a poor safety profile indeed, except to say that it can kill. How does it kill? Toxicity. How does this compare to other drugs of a similar nature? LSD, for example, is non-toxic and, consequently, does not kill.

It involves economics. Intelligent writing on 25i-NBOMe, to its credit, made much of the fact that 25i-NBOMe was remarkably cheap, but no examination was given to why it could be so cheaply manufactured. And ultimately, the economic perspective of 25i-NBOMe leads inexorably to the conclusion that its price (economics) and its similarity to LSD (psychopharmacology) combined to create a significant incentive for dangerous profiteering in the form of fraud – buying the cheap and dangerous substance and selling it at the price of and in the guise of the more expensive and not-at-all dangerous substance (economics again).

It involves both philosophy (why do people take LSD?) and sociology (why do people take heroin?).

It involves neuropsychology. It is impossible to write intelligently about addiction in any way (‘Addiction on the rise,’ say) without understanding what modern neuropsychology and particularly developmental neurobiology have taught us about addiction. Specifically, they have taught us that addiction arises largely out of abuse and isolation, which begins to paint a vivid portrait of the addict population – they are victims, in the first instance, and having turned to drugs are being victimized again. How many papers have you read that in?

It involves history. Every mother whose child dies from a heroin overdose is happy to contribute to the demonization of opioid drugs, and every major newspaper is happy to dutifully print it, but nobody bothers to ask how the tears of the poppy went from being Gods Own Medicine in the terminology of medicine men, carried ashore to the very first colony of the New World by none other than the Puritans, to being a symbol of dread.

It involves politics. Who benefits from prohibition? Why do laws take so long to adjust to new evidence, if indeed they ever do?

It involves, most controversially, the subjective experience of being human. How does the heroin or meth user live? How do they feel? How do they feel about the drug war? What does it feel like to take LSD? How do those who have done so think about the experience, about how it fits into the context of their lives? How has it changed their view of society? What happens to the children of those nameless multitudes hauled out of their beds in the depths of night and thrown into cages? When a teenager dies from their drug use, the mother’s views are sought immediately, but when a father is dragged to prison nobody asks how the child feels. It is worthwhile to paint the many stories which arise both from drug use and from the drug war, as vividly and accurately as the English language can be made to do so, so that we might have a better understanding of the human constituents of this god awful situation, and that we might, through long suffering, inspire an iota of empathy in the docile public who support the manufacture of their circumstance.

With notable exceptions, the journalism of the drug war lacks balls, depth, and breadth. To borrow a phrase from Vonnegut, journalism has been cut off from “the underground rivers that [connect] it to the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans…” It is “content with being a splash pool three feet across, four inches deep, chlorinated, and painted blue.”

In Defence of Heroin

Heroin is without a doubt the most hated and feared substance in our society. And alcohol, conversely, is the friendly face of licit Australian drug culture. It may come as a surprise, then, that there isn’t really that great a distinction between these substances – that heroin use can be precisely as safe and as morally valid as alcohol use and that we have as much (or as little) reason to hate either of these drugs. I don’t expect you to take my word for it, of course, I’m going to demonstrate this point for point.

The first and most obvious argument that will be made for the far superior evil of heroin is that it is addictive. First of all, we must understand what is actually meant by a substance being addictive. No substance causes addiction, but a percentage of the users of any drug are liable to become addicted. Meaning that the addiction is caused primarily by the life-experience and resultant neurobiology of the individual, and not by the drug. This is why some people (those with the neurobiology which underlies addiction) become addicted and some do not. You can read about this in far greater detail in the brilliant scientist Bruce Alexander’s report to the Canadian parliament, or the physician Gabor Mate’s excellent book on addiction, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. However, even presuming that the drugs themselves were responsible for addiction, there is little to distinguish alcohol from heroin. In 2012, 52.5% of Americans reported drinking alcohol, and about 8% are alcoholics. That’s about 1 in 5. Whereas it is estimated that about 23% of people who use heroin become addicted. That’s about 1 in 4. Hardly the kind of difference that would justify murdering the merchants of the latter and giving your children a flute of the former on New Year’s Eve.

The next, I suppose, must be that heroin kills. Well, so does alcohol: 4% of all deaths (6% of male deaths, 9% of deaths among people aged 15-29) are attributable to alcohol. Aside from which, we must obviously account for the fact that heroin is a black market substance and therefore its users are subject to the hazards attendant to navigating a black market. To understand how a safe and legal market for heroin might affect this, we can look to Switzerland’s trial of heroin maintenance for long-term addicts who had proven resistant to treatment. The results, as summarized in Dr. Mate’s book, were as follows:

  • “Fitness for work improved considerably: permanent employment nearly doubled.
  • The patients housing situations rapidly improved and stabilized (in particular, there was no homelessness).
  • There was no fatal overdose due to prescribed substances.
  • There were no notable disturbances in local neighbourhoods.
  • There were significant economic benefits in terms of savings per patient-day, owing to marked reductions in legal and health costs.
  • Among participants there was a marked decrease in crime of all kinds, from shoplifting to drug dealing – in the case of hard drugs from 46.9 percent to 8.2 percent.
  • Overall, offenses dropped by 68 percent. According to the Central Criminal Register, the number of convictions dropped by 80 percent among addicts enrolled in the program.”

In addition, there can be little practical education about a substance as systematically demonized as heroin. We can hardly tell people how to use heroin safely whilst hysterically maintaining that using heroin is the worst, lowest thing a human being can do. Most opioid overdoses are attributable to combining substances – people who use heroin in conjunction with alcohol or benzodiazepines are far more likely to overdose, and proper education to that effect could greatly reduce the number of deaths.

Next, some will argue, children born to heroin users are damaged and addicted to heroin. It will suffice to ask if they’ve heard of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which affects a large number of live births. Still not seeing a particularly clear distinction.

I wish finally to point out that addiction is symptomatic of great suffering. I hope this knowledge, combined with a little empathy, might lead us to a more nuanced understanding of drug use. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’m going to reprint what I’ve already written about this:

Let me be clear: nobody thinks addiction is a good thing. The real question is whether it is causal or symptomatic. And the answer, quite emphatically, is that it is symptomatic. Addiction arises from a deeper cultural malaise; from dislocation, isolation, stress and abuse. The research is very clear on this point: most hard-core drug abusers come from abusive homes. They are suffering deeply, and drugs offer them relief. What in essence this means is that drugs are rarely the problem. It is meaningless to condemn drug addiction while ignoring the profound injustices which invariably precede it. As Vincent Felitti (MD) has written, “dismissing addictions as ‘bad habits’ or ‘self-destructive behavior’ comfortably hides their functionality in the life of the addict.”

People self-medicate sadness. Sadness is bad. That so many people lack any effective relief bar heroin is bad. Heroin itself? There are worse things. These self-medicated masses have been compared by Antonin Artaud to “unhappy escapees from hell…escapees destined eternally to reenact their escape.” What’s bad is the impetus for their flight, and not the propulsion.

When we send soldiers to fight in meaningless wars, this is bad. When they watch their brothers and sisters in arms destroyed by falling bombs, this is bad. When they destroy other human beings themselves, and when they suffer tremendously under the resultant guilt, this is bad. When their PTSD flares up in every unfamiliar situation, this is bad. When heroin erases the suffering we’ve so laboriously heaped upon them, we must seriously consider the possibility that this is good. We should at least re-evaluate how bad it really is.

As Artaud has also written: “So long as we have failed to eliminate any of the causes of human despair, we do not have the right to eliminate those means by which man tries to cleanse himself of despair.”