Embedded in the Netflix catalog of movies is an oft-ridiculed cult classic called “Reefer Madness.” The hour-long film, which plays more like an extended PSA than an actual drama, shows a handful of young people being transformed into rapists and murderers as a result of cannabis use. Almost 80 years removed from its release, Netflix has re-categorized Reefer Madness as a comedy, given the absurdity of what more people now realize are outrageous assertions regarding marijuana use.
That said, what this movie implies about American media and our consumption thereof may actually qualify as horror. It might seem humorous that people could be led to believe such over-the-top propaganda, but it's less so when you consider that they still can.
Although the US government’s formal attitude toward marijuana is still a long way from sanity, states are gradually coming to their senses about marijuana, with two going as far as legalizing its recreational use. But as the media trial of marijuana (hopefully) winds down, the one for synthetic drugs, especially MDMA, is still in its infancy.
Generally speaking, if you were to seek out research about the long-term effects of MDMA or rational discussion about the use of designer drugs as a group, you would be hard-pressed to find much of either in the past two decades of American media. At the the turn of the millenium, we were led to believe by MTV reality show True Life that use of MDMA drug put actual holes in the human brain.
Maybe picking on MTV is too easy. The pictures they paint are misleading and have the potential to start myths with years of staying power, but stated purpose is providing entertainment, not good information. Surely the way they provide information cannot be held to the same standard of as that of, say, news outlets.
Enter bath salts.
In the wake of a tragic attack on May 26, 2012 in which Rodney Eugene ate the face off of Ronald Poppo in Miami, America found a new nondescript “drug” to villainize in the absence of understanding. The media firestorm that followed the attack, based only on the speculation of local police, led to the creation of enough sensational rumors to fuel an entire franchise of “Madness” films.
Some outlets even told us that “bath salts” were actually the bath salts that could be bought from a fragrance store and consumed to get high, something that likely would have never been attempted by anyone without the bizarre word-of-mouth marketing that made them infamous. The cannibalistic nature of the attack raised enough public concern about the potential for a zombie apocalypse that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) actually felt the need to go on record and remind the public that zombies are not real.
All of this chaos despite the facts that:
a) The term “bath salts” does not refer to any definitive drug or chemical compound meant to be ingested.
b) The Miami medical examiner only detected marijuana in Eugene’s system.
Almost as shocking as the media’s insanely poor reaction to the tragedy was they what they did after bath salts left the conversation:
The medical examiner’s report led the media outlets initially covering the news to backtrack so quietly that many people will still say “bath salts” with confidence if asked what caused the Miami attack. What’s more is that Eugene’s previous diagnosis of schizophrenia was mentioned less than half as much as this made-up designer menace.
But the conversation didn’t shift toward mental illness, or violence prevention, or protection for the homeless. It didn’t even become a conversation about how we can improve designer drug policy. It only ceased to be about bath salts. Once the media exhausted the shock value of the attack, they filled the void with the next headline and left the manufactured panic over bath salts fade into history without a satisfactory correction, muddying the discussion indefinitely.
The mutation of journalism into a misguiding, 24-hour soap opera is a disgrace, but we only have ourselves to blame by sanctioning it through our consumption. Why do we do it? Because thinking is boring and hard. Why demand research into designer drugs so we can learn to use them safely when we can watch an attractive news anchor tell us how bad they are and stop talking about it completely?
Combating willful ignorance through proper education and good information is the only we can encourage responsible attitudes toward drugs. It’s certainly not like the populace can be scared out of using drugs.
Public opinion about drugs has too long been driven by the exhilarating fear we get from a mysterious tragedy, the catharsis we receive from the death celebrities we like, or the sadistic schadenfreude we derive from the struggle of strangers. We crave these stories so desperately that the tragic has become the cinematic, and that bad news has become good news.
The policy around drugs is not the only one to fall victim to a media smokescreen, but it might be the most dangerous to get wrong. Replacing comprehensive drug education with witch hunts is what leads young people to overdose when presented with a drug they’ve only been told not to do and not how to do. It’s also what leads governments to hastily ban new drugs and the research thereof, allowing their place to be filled with newer, more dangerous concoctions by the black market.
Scare tactics do more to serve the bottom line of news outlets than prevent problematic drug use and we need to stop taking the bait. We must demand more and better information about drugs and the safest ways to use them.