Yellow Journalism~


major media's role in the war on drugs

By David Malmo-Levine


There are two kinds of impact on public opinion, one brief and transient, the other prolonged and deep. The first is the single news item, soon obscured by dozens of new ones, each day tending to obliterate the impact of what went

A compelling study of the ephemeral quality of isolated news accounts is Deborah Lipstadt’s book, Beyond Belief, which reveals that American newspapers from 1933 to 1945 printed numerous reports showing that something horrendous was happening to European Jews under

But the news stories were brief, isolated, and seldom on the front page. They were not pursued with continuity, never drawn together to form a coherent picture, and newspapers did not press to discover the difference between official denials and reality. Consequently, the atrocities did not become important in the public mind and, probably as a result, they did not provoke strong government action.

Ben Bagdikian,

The Media Monopoly, 1990

When drugpeace activists use terms like “cultural genocide” to describe the effect of the drug war on pot smokers, many people react by insisting that such a term is an exaggeration.

That’s understandable. People just go with what they “know” – what compelling evidence they’ve had easy access to. The media’s coverage of the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany serves as an important reminder that sometimes the most important and vital news of the day gets the least amount of attention while it’s happening.

Take the current debate on the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, currently known as Bill C-8. While there have been a few reports that something horrendous is happening to the rights of peaceful drug users, the news stories are brief, isolated, and seldom on the front page. They are not pursued with continuity, they are never drawn together to form a coherent picture, and most newspapers do not press to discover the difference between official statements and reality.

If only Canadians knew what the US was giving us in exchange for our clean water and trees.

Bill C-85: Kim Campbell Draws Fire

The bill was first mentioned in the media on June 2nd, 1993. It was then called Bill C-85, the Psychoactive Substances Control Act, and media response was justifiably negative.

The media focussed primarily on the doubling of fines for first-time possession
1 and the apparent speed at which the Tories were attempting to ram the legislation through
Parliament.2 All the articles seemed to originate with a single Canadian Press story, and none of them made it to the front page.

Editorial comment on the bill was also mostly negative. The Toronto Star criticized Kim Campbell and Jean Charest for being hypocrites, as they both admitted to smoking pot. The article refrained from calling for anything more daring than the decriminalization of

Reporter Charles Lewis of the Ottawa Citizen wrote a lengthy article on C-85 which was reprinted in other newspapers
4. In it, there were excellent quotes from many anti-drugwar sources. The only pro-drugwar quote, taken from Kitchener Tory MP John Reimer, was the age-old claim that “…marijuana is still the gateway to other drugs.” John Reimer was spared the embarrassing task of backing up his claim, and the relaxed laws and low abuse rate in Alaska was mentioned as a living example of the “gateway theory” being invalid.


Positive Spin #1:

Legal Industrial Hemp

The next time the bill was in the news Chretien’s Liberals had formed the government, and it was now known as Bill C-7, the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. The first mention I could find of this new version of the bill was on March 21st, 1994.

On that day many of Canada’s large dailies reported that the federal government would “legalize” the cultivation of industrial hemp, “once Parliament has approved the
law.5” The articles originated from a letter sent by then Minister of Health Diane Marleau to the Ligue Antiprohibitioniste du
Quebec, and each article mentioned that the levels of THC would be tightly controlled, not to surpass the European Economic Community standard of 0.3%.

What the newspapers failed to mention was that, according to some of the world’s experts on industrial hemp (including Jack Herer, founding father of the modern North American hemp movement), THC acts as the plant’s sunscreen and insect repellent. Higher THC strains of cannabis also generally allow for a higher quality fiber and a better yield of
seed.6 This is why low THC hemp from Western Europe is used for paper, but only Eastern Europe, Italy and China produce quality hemp fibre.

To regulate the level of THC, a vast bureaucracy must be created. The only advantage of low THC industrial hemp is that it appears to satisfy environmental and economic concerns regarding the reintroduction of industrial hemp, yet doesn’t threaten the synthetic energy, fiber, food and drug monopolies, and is also compatible with the present “zero tolerance” drugwar industry – at home and abroad.

Voices of Opposition

The day after the announcement was made, the Ligue Antiprohibitioniste du
Quebec received some attention when they responded to the Ministry of Health by questioning the wisdom of a continued “war-on-drugs type of
mentality.7” The media thus focussed on the “doubled fines” and “legal industrial hemp” aspects of the bill.

While the rejection of the bill received substantial attention, the rejection itself was without substance. There was no mention of a reason as to why the fines were unjust, nor mention of the possible drawbacks of low THC hemp, nor was there any justification given for the limit on THC in the first place.

The bill was criticized further in a few scattered articles. On April 19, 1994, Southam News printed an article by Eugene Oscapella, a founding member of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy and co-chair of the Canadian Criminal Justice Association.

Oscapella’s article addressed the issue of “drug related violence.”8 His point was that drug use didn’t “cause” a fraction of the violence and death caused by gang wars, high prices and a lack of quality control. In other words, violence is caused by prohibition, not drugs.

A more general criticism of Bill C-7 appeared in the Globe and Mail on September 24th, 1994. Of all the major features on the new drug bill, this detailed but hidden (page C-2) feature by reporter Chris Armstrong was the only one that actually described the increased police powers in any

Armstrong also noted that the bill passed through first and second reading in Parliament “with little debate or media attention.” His article wasn’t reprinted in any of the other major daily papers.


The Vagaries of Politics

The bill next appeared in the press via a Canadian Press release of June 16th,
1995.10 The bill had just been withdrawn for “more discussion” because a group of Liberals had written a lengthy private report criticizing it. Liberal MP Hedy Fry mentioned that there was international pressure to pass the bill, but assured the public that the government “would not allow pressure from anyone else to subvert the democratic process.”

An article that was reprinted in many newspapers was Doug Fisher’s “Going to Pot” feature of August 20th,
1995.11 In it, he mentioned that expert opinion was against the punishment approach, but explained the politicians’ hard line on “the vagaries of politics.”

The dictionary defines “vagary” as being “caprice; an unreasonable notion or desire.” Fisher was therefore suggesting that the public was being unreasonable and politicians were merely reflecting their demands.

Fisher also ignored recent polls by Health Canada12 which show that about 70% Canadians support the decriminalization of marijuana, and instead used statistics from “the late 1980s and early 1990s,” to justify his claim that “a majority of Canadians oppose relaxed marijuana laws.”

Positive Spin #2:

Legal Herbal Tea

The next article on the bill appeared on October 23rd, 1995, by Dennis Bueckert of the Canadian Press.13 The focus of the headlines was the fact that C-7 had been amended to exempt herbs, other than “the herb” itself, of course.

Further into the article, a spirited debate occurred between Paul Szabo, chairman of the Parliamentary committee studying the bill, and Richard Garlick of the Canadian Center for Substance Abuse. Garlick denied Szabo’s claims that marijuana was as dangerous as cocaine, and that Canada was obliged by international agreements to maintain “criminal sanctions” against pot, citing several US states which had decriminalized possession.

On October 30th, 1995, a Globe and Mail article written by David Vienneau announced a proposed amendment to drop the doubling of
fines.14 Vienneau made the important point that the new amendment would reduce possession to a strictly summary conviction offense. This means that no fingerprints or photographs should be taken by police, but would not remove the possibility of a jail sentence and a criminal record.


Positive Spin #3:

No “Traceable” Record

On November 15th, 1995, the bill got front page headlines in the Vancouver Sun, the Toronto Sun and the Winnipeg Free Press. This was the first and only front-page attention the bill had ever or would ever receive. The headlines were inaccurate to say the

The articles came from another story by Dennis Bueckert of the Canadian
Press.16 His original article made the claim that “people with convictions would no longer have problems traveling across international borders because their names would not show up in police computer systems.”

Different evidence was revealed by Vancouver Sun reporter Lindsay Kines the next
day.17 Unfortunately, his article was not found on the front page, but rather on page B12, where it would be harder to find and have less impact. He quoted Canadian immigration lawyers and American customs officials who questioned just how “untraceable” the record might be. A customs official stated “I really don’t think it’s going to affect the way we handle someone,” and an immigration lawyer told of clients who had been barred entrance to the US because of arrests that had not even led to convictions.

Not only was this article not reprinted in any other newspaper, not only was it buried in the back pages, but it ended with a number of claims that are commonly known to be myths: that the Canadian public supports a war on drugs, that today’s marijuana is more potent than it used to be and is therefore more harmful, and that continuing to have harsh criminal penalties will “send the right message to our kids.”

“Some Senators Support Legal Pot”

This was the headline of the May 18th, 1996 Canadian Press article.18 The article was positive and educational, as a few brave Senators explained that they found the “punitive approach hasn’t worked,” and that it’s a “health approach we should be taking a serious look at.”

As good as these comments were, this article echoed the tail spin of Lindsay Kines’ article of November 16th: that the Senators “don’t have to fear a voter’s backlash.” In other words, public opinion is in favour of the drug war, and the Senators are breaking new ground.

Back to Positive Spin #1 Once Again

The most recent information as of June 11th was written by James Hrynyshyn for Southam Newspapers. The headline? “Ottawa expected to include hemp as approved

Nothing about the pros and cons of low THC. Just ominous passages such as “it’s expected to pass unless more radical amendments are tagged on,” and “although several Conservative committee members may suggest decriminalizing all forms of marijuana, neither the Senate nor the cabinet is expected to endorse the idea.”

Yellow Journalism

The term “yellow journalism” was invented at the turn of the century to describe William Randolph Hearst’s successful attempt at using his ownership of a fleet of newspapers to whip the public into a war-frenzy so that the US could expand their colonies in the pacific.

Both Hearst in the US and Emily Murphy in Canada used parental anxieties surrounding teen drug use to make marijuana illegal, using much the same type of hype. The very same myths they used then are being brought out today to keep cannabis illegal.

There is a tendency within the advertiser-dependent corporate press to only feature the government’s position on an issue. Other opinions on the truth of the matter are only briefly mentioned, and then usually on the back pages. This is due to the practice of depending on government sources more than reporter’s intuition to determine what gets on the front page.

The Controlled Drugs and Substances Act increases police powers of search and seizure, encourages police to hire people to sell drugs and act as informants, and allows cocaine and heroin to be prescribed as medicines while marijuana cannot. All of these things should be worthy of more attention than they have received: practically nothing in any Canadian newspaper. Most articles didn’t even mention the name of the bill (not one article had a “C-8” in the headline) making it difficult if not impossible for the public to do research or participate in the debate.

It was a conflict of interest that caused Andrew Mellon to use his influence in the US government to ban natural hemp fiber. This allowed his investments in DuPont to flourish. The same type of conflict of interest exists today in Paul Martin, current Finance Minister and former (and probably future) head of IMASCO (the holding company of both Shoppers Drug Mart and Imperial Tobacco. Both of these companies advertise in many newspapers). As long as pot remains illegal, Paul Martin’s investments are safe from his real competitors: homegrown medicinal and recreational marijuana.

Hearst used the newspapers he owned to promote policies which would permit his timber investments to flourish. Today, the owners of mass circulation newspapers use their power to support policies that permit the investments of major advertisers to flourish. To quote Jack Herer, “it must be remembered that many of the largest publishers have direct holdings in timberland for paper development, and the pharmaceutical drug, petrochemical companies, etc. are among the media’s major advertisers.”

What Can Be Done

There’s a ideological stream of thought that has flowed through the history of most radical media. The idea is that “positions of concentrated power” intrinsically create conflicts of interest and should be done away with as much as possible.

But just because someone owns something doesn’t mean they control it. The paper has to at least look like it’s telling the truth, that’s why you’ll still find good reporters being hired. They’re waiting for accurate information and lots of occasions (festivals, protests, trials, letter writing campaigns and other peaceful but assertive attention-getting actions) to justify to their editors and managers that the story deserves some space.

It was a misinformation campaign that made pot illegal, and it is a re-education campaign that is freeing the
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Drug law would double fines for Marijuana, June 2/93, Toronto Star, A11 // Ottawa to double fines for possession of marijuana, June 2/93, Montreal Gazette, B1

Rushed pot bill angers experts – 1st fine would rise to $2000, June 2/93, The Province p.A17 // Toughened marijuana law pushes ahead, June/93, Vancouver Sun p.A6

Tory hypocrisy on marijuana, June 3/93, Toronto Star, A20

Up in smoke?, June 13/93, Edmonton Journal, C3

Legalised hemp, March 21/94, Edmonton Journal // Commercial pot to be legalised, March 21/94, Edmonton Sun // Feds OK for hemp reported, March 21/94, Vancouver Province // Farmers can grow hemp – but not with a kick, March 21/94, Toronto Star

Will success spoil hemp? A debate over industrial grade cannabis. May ’96 High Times, p26

Pro pot group opposes plan to raise fine for possession, March 21/94, Vancouver Sun // Marijuana group fights law allowing hemp farms – act also strengthens fines for drug use, March 22/94, Montreal Gazette // Que. group takes potshots at hemp bill, March22/94, Edmonton Journal

Ill-conceived anti-drug laws to blame for increase in violence – Edmonton Journal, April 19/94

Cracking down on the demon weed, September 24/94, Globe and Mail

Drugs bill withdrawn for more discussion, June 16/95, Vancouver Sun

Going to pot, August 20/95, Edmonton Journal

Canada’s Alcohol and Other Drugs Survey, 1994, Health and Welfare Canada

Health food exempted from new drug bill, October 23/94, Montreal Gazette // Amended drug bill exempts herbs, October 23/94, Globe and Mail, A7 // Herbal teas won’t be regulated under amended anti-drug bill, October 23/95, Vancouver Sun, A7 // Herbal tea can brew in peace, October 23/95, Edmonton Journal, A14 // Drug bill OK’S herbal tea, but not marijuana, October 23/95 Vancouver Province, A29

MP’s decry tough new law on pot possession, October 30/95, Globe and Mail

Bill to eliminate criminal record for marijuana possession, November 15/95, Vancouver Sun, A1 // Feds pushing softer pot law – Ease criminal record for small amounts of hash, marijuana, November 15/95, Toronto Sun, A1 // Dope stigma to ease – people caught in minor pot cases won’t have a traceable record, November 15/95, Winnipeg Free Press, A1

Convictions for pot possession untraceable under new bill, November 15/95 Edmonton Journal, A3

Canadians busted for pot still face border block, lawyer says. November 16/95 Vancouver Sun, B12

Some senators support legal pot, May 18/96 Vancouver Sun, A7

Ottawa expected to include hemp as approved crop, May 28/96 Vancouver Sun

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