4 Things Reporters Get Terribly Wrong About "New" Drugs

February 16, 2017 - By Stefanie Jones and Sara Qureshi

In recent years, there has been increasing media attention on drugs known as “K2”, “bath salts”, fentanyl, “molly”, and others. Unfortunately, much of the coverage – even by some of the most well-meaning journalists – contains misinformation and inaccurate or misleading terminology. This all serves to perpetuate unfounded myths and unhelpful hysteria about these substances.

The Drug Policy Alliance has created media tip sheets on synthetic cannabinoids, synthetic opioids, synthetic cathinones, and MDMA to help journalists accurately and constructively cover these frequently misrepresented substances. These tip sheets address some of the biggest mistakes made when reporting on these drugs, including:

Casual Use of Incorrect Terminology

Media coverage is littered with colloquial and slang terms for drugs. This is seemingly benign, but incorrect terminology spreads confusion among people who use drugs and the public.

For instance, what is “K2”? Originally, it referred to a specific synthetic cannabinoid product sold legally in bodegas and corner stores across the country. It came in tiny colorful packaging and the brand name was “K2.” Since that particular brand, along with another called “Spice,” became popular, the names stuck, and now they are both used to refer to any synthetic cannabinoid.

“Ecstasy” and “molly” are other examples of this. Both are slang terms for MDMA, but journalists often use them interchangeably. MDMA refers to the actual substance people believe they are taking, while “ecstasy” and “molly” can actually contain any number of different substances due to the lack of legal regulation.

Using these terms sans quotation marks, or any kind of clarification, gives the false impression that “K2,” or “molly” is one specific, consistent substance. In reality, these terms could refer to any number of substances, each with different possible effects – an important fact that is easily obscured.

Oh, and don’t call synthetic cannabinoids “synthetic marijuana” or “fake pot.” Though synthetic cannabinoids often act on many of the same receptors in the brain as THC – the active ingredient in marijuana – the comparison doesn’t stretch much further than that. Calling synthetic cannabinoids “fake pot” perpetuates the harmful myth that these substances are similar.

Jumping to Conclusions

In the rush to get a story out, journalists often report speculation as fact before all the evidence has come to light. This can quickly start an endless cycle of misinformation.

In 2012 an especially horrific story out of Miami made headlines; a man had attacked and chewed at the face of another man. At the time, one police officer had speculated that synthetic cathinones (commonly known as “bath salts”) were involved. Based on this speculation, and despite a lack of evidence, outlets readily reported that “bath salts” had caused this man to turn into a “cannibal” and a “flesh-eating zombie.”

A month later, toxicological tests found no trace of synthetic cathinones in the attacker’s system. By that time, however, the damage was done. There was suddenly a frenzy of media attention on alleged cases of synthetic cathinone use – most with bizarre behavior, and many later proven to be unconnected to synthetic cathinones. Regardless, “bath salts” became synonymous with “cannibalism” and “zombies.”

Relying on outlier cases and speculation of witnesses promotes unhelpful hysteria, erodes public trust in reporting, and adds to the misinformation that surrounds these substances. This can be harmful in the long term, especially when there are real risks.

Calling Humans “Zombies,” and Other Dehumanizing Language

Speaking of zombies...

Often, when a wave of drug use affects an area, or a particularly gruesome drug-related incident occurs, the word “zombie” begins to pop up in the news. In fact, going by headlines, one might think that episodes of drug-induced zombie-like behavior are a somewhat regular occurrence here on earth.

This isn’t a recent phenomenon, nor is it particular to any one drug; it is all part of the age-old pattern where media uses overly sensationalized language when reporting on drugs. While this may make for a vivid story, it takes away from its ability to explore underlying social issues. Moreover, this portrayal of people who use drugs can be dehumanizing, and contributes to the prevailing stigmatized image of people who use drugs, all the while fueling unproductive hysteria.

Just this past year, a spate of synthetic cannabinoid (“K2”) related hospitalizations hit parts of Brooklyn and Harlem. Story after story described the situation as a “zombie apocalypse,” and painted a picture of “hordes” of people overrunning the neighborhood. This sort of exaggerated language obscures the fact that these so-called “zombies” are real human beings. Furthermore, a narrow focus on the cases with the most bizarre behavior, combined with over-the-top imagery, frames the issue in a way that fails to explore larger social issues at play or any possible solutions.

Ignoring the Role of Prohibition

“New” drugs come with many risks – but the danger these substances pose are due to prohibition. Just because a substance is illegal doesn’t mean the market for it goes away. Chemists can tweak a formula to make a legal substitute for a popular illicit drug, and without any oversight or regulation, the new substances created can be quite dangerous.

Let’s return to “molly” as an example. The drug MDMA is well-researched and is not that harmful if taken with intentional precautions. A copycat substance, mephedrone, became popular, but also caused far more unpleasant experiences and hospital visits. A main reason mephedrone even entered the market was because there was a shortage of MDMA – one example of prohibition driving invention and substitution.

Reporters also err when they don’t point out that many overdoses could be avoided if currently-illegal substances were made legal, and then regulated. The recent rise in deaths from fentanyl-related overdoses is driven by prohibition in two ways. The potent, cheaper-to-produce fentanyl is cut into heroin in the first place to increase profit margins. Then, because people are buying from an unregulated underground market, they have no way to know if their heroin is adulterated.

Prohibition is also behind people choosing to use riskier drugs simply because they are not illegal yet or because they don’t show up on drug tests. The synthetic cannabinoid market meets a demand created by the ongoing prohibition of marijuana. In fact, people would be much less likely to use synthetic cannabinoid products if legally regulated marijuana were accessible to them.

The media plays an essential role in shaping the public’s understanding and perception of drugs. It is well worth the effort to report on these substances accurately and constructively – and hopefully make these four common mistakes a thing of the past.

Stefanie Jones is the Director of Audience Development at the Drug Policy Alliance. qureshi [dot] sara22 [at] gmail [dot] com (Sara Qureshi) is a media consultant for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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