The Drug War’s Dopey Media

Media Rants

By Tony Palmeri

From the October, 2007 edition of The Valley Scene

Critics of “big government” point to the alleged excesses of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs of the 1960s to make their case. The critics have prevailed: by the late 1990s a Republican backlash aided by Democratic capitulation succeeded in dismantling the Great Society’s “War on Poverty.” By the mid 1990s the poverty war had become, in the words of sociologist Herbert Gans, the “war on the poor,” with Project Head Start, Medicare, and Medicaid the only major surviving programs.

The now almost 30-year-old “War on Drugs” is one of the biggest government programs in the history of the nation, requiring taxpayer contributions at the federal, state, and local levels. Premised on the idea that the user is the moral equivalent of the dealer, and that a street punk delivering a bag of pot is the same as an international drug lord, the War on Drugs ushered in an era of dramatic increases in the prison population. We now have 35 million (!) felons in the United States, with drug crimes constituting an ever higher percentage of that. Huge increases in prison spending coupled with a belief in prison as a cure for all social ills became the foundation of what journalist Eric Schlosser in 1998 called the “prison industrial complex.”

The dismantling of the war on poverty could not have happened without the cooperation of the corporate media. Criticisms of “welfare queens,” “freeloaders,” and the “culture of dependency” never failed to get prominent space in broadcast or print media. When it comes to the war on drugs, corporate media have been mostly dopey. We need sober analysis (pun intended), yet too often get sensationalism.

In preparing this rant I shared some email with UW Oshkosh Criminal Justice Professor Stephen Richards, PhD. A drug war veteran, Richards before earning his doctorate was charged with “conspiracy to distribute marijuana” and sentenced to nine years in federal prison. He has co-authored two books with Jeffrey Ian Ross, the best selling Behind Bars: Surviving Prison (Alpha/Penguin) and Convict Criminology (Wadsworth). I asked Dr. Richards to comment on the elite media’s responsibility in the drug war:

Click this link to listen to Tony Palmeri's 2006 "Radio Commentary" Interview With Stephen Richards

The elite media has for the most part aided and abetted the military style of the war on drugs, which has really been a police war on poor people who publicly consume recreational chemicals. The mainstream media was and is all too ready to report almost word for word what they receive from drug czars, drug squad police reports, and prosecutors.

The corporate media has spent most of the 20TH Century using drug stories to attract an audience. Mass-market media venues are all about revenue, market share, and corporate profit. As far back as the 1920’s newspapers reporters were writing copy about musicians and pot addiction. In the 1960’s, San Francisco became the place to get stoned, trip out, and see God. Since 1980, when Ronnie Reagan officially began the “war of drugs,” the media has run countless accounts that sensationalized crack epidemics, crack babies, drug whores, meth labs, date drugs, ecstasy and other designer drugs.

Defendants are declared guilty by the media before they ever enter a plea in court. Their names and faces are paraded across local newspapers pages and television screens. The media has participated in the arrest, conviction, and imprisonment of millions of Americans for use and abuse of small quantities of exotic substances.

I asked Richards what role the mass media should play in the drug war:

I wish the media would run stories about people who experiment with illegal substances, get bored, and eventually give them up, without legal intervention, and return to an occasional beer or glass of wine. In effect they tried and probably liked it, but like most of us just got too busy with work and family obligations. Maybe they wished they had more free time to get stoned, high, and wasted, but have bills to pay, schedules to keep, and no vacation till next summer. So, they look forward to their next trip to Jamaica, or the once a year camping trip when an old friend has a joint. Meanwhile, they make do with alcohol, the legal liquid drug, the most dangerous of all.

Dr. Richards paints a bleak picture of drug war USA:

Most of the advanced industrial nations must think we Americans have gone mad. It reminds me of our nuclear weapons strategy, remember MAD, mutually assured destruction. The Europeans think of drug abuse as a medical problem, while we call it a crime. Maybe if we had European or Canadian style national health care we could convert some of these silly prisons into hospitals.

We grow up in urban and suburban communities of concrete and lawn, march to school and work, and lose are minds watching junk on TV. Reality is manufactured and imposed on each one of, and then, when we try to challenge or change our consciousness, the thought police come and bust us, cart us off to jails and penitentiaries, all in the name of what, protecting the children we never were, or if we were, for far too short a time. Whatever happened to Peter Pan? Is she (he) in prison for flying too high once too often?

Tony Palmeri ( is an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh and holds a seat on the Oshkosh Common Council.