Pot and the press: 100 years of fake news

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Paul Danish/Sue France

Chris, a budtender in Steamboat Springs and an aspiring freelance writer, had a great post on The Weed Blog last week. It ought to be required reading for everyone in the mainstream press who writes about marijuana.

Chris reveals a dirty little secret about journalism that has been hiding in plain sight for at least a generation: When mainstream journalists write about marijuana, they often find it almost irresistible to treat the topic flippantly.

“The media seems incapable of treating a marijuana story professionally,” he writes.

60 Minutes, a news [program] steeped in credibility, is not even capable of doing a cannabis story they do not sensationalize or passively ridicule. Every story they have done since 2009 is full of ridiculous puns like ‘high turnout for pot,’ ‘marijuana store is high on profits’ or ‘burning the midnight hash oil.’

“If that was the type of headline you saw for a story regarding race or sexuality, people would be extremely offended. The media has a responsibility to offer the facts … and to stop turning every story on marijuana into a damn joke,” he adds.

No kiddin’.

The situation isn’t quite as dire as Chris makes it out to be. Today there are journalists who will play a marijuana story straight — but there are plenty who don’t.

And up until a few years ago the situation was very much as Chris describes it. During the ’80s and ’90s I was involved in a couple early attempts to petition legalization initiatives onto the Colorado ballot. Getting any coverage was difficult; getting coverage that didn’t involve ridicule or a freak-show spin on the story was nearly impossible.

But in one important respect, Chris is way too easy on the press.

Does the phrase “fake news” mean anything to you?

If Trump wanted a smoking gun example of fake news in which almost the entire American mainstream media has been willingly complicit, it would be the way the mainstream media has covered marijuana for the last 100 years.

The “coverage” has gone far beyond mere spin and distortions to brazen lies, demonization and de-legitimization of both marijuana and its users.

The truth is the war on drugs, and the war on marijuana in particular, is almost entirely a creation of the American press — with William Randolph Hearst’s papers being the leading perpetrators.

Here are some examples of the sort of stuff that used to appear in Hearst’s papers during the 20-year run-up to the start of pot prohibition in 1937 (all examples taken from Jack Herer’s book The Emperor Wears No Clothes):

—“NEW DOPE LURE, MARIJUANA, HAS MANY VICTIMS. Called ‘Silly Smoke’… It Soon Becomes Murder Smoke in Cigarettes.”

—“MARIHUANA MAKES FIENDS OF BOYS IN 30 DAYS; HASHEESH GOADS USERS TO BLOOD-LUST.”

—“Declaring that marijuana smoking is ‘taking our youth like wildfire,’ Mr. Anslinger [head of the Federal Narcotics Bureau] said: ‘If the hideous monster Frankenstein came face to face with the monster marihuana he would drop dead of fright.’ This is not an overstatement. Users of the marihuana weed are committing a large percentage of the atrocious crimes blotting the daily picture of American life It is reducing thousands of Boys to CRIMINAL INSANITY.”

And then there was the racism. Hearst’s papers and other yellow journals would routinely run stories portraying “Negros” and Mexicans as frenzied beasts who regularly raped white women under the influence of marijuana and jazz music.

After Nixon started the war on drugs, the anti-marijuana narrative was updated and repackaged, but the substance remained the same.

Marihuana became marijuana.

Hippies took the place of “Negros” (which didn’t keep blacks from being targeted).

Jazz became rock ‘n’ roll.

Marijuana stopped being “The Assassin of Youth” and became the “Gateway Drug” to other drugs that were the assassins of youth.

And so on.

And through it all America’s brain-dead media kept uncritically reporting the drug-war lies – which to an extent it still does.

The American press would have you believe that the concept of fake news was something that Trump dreamed up. Well, it isn’t, and the way the mainstream media has covered marijuana for the past 100 years is the apotheosis of it. 

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