The media likes to write about illegal drugs mainly because the media likes to scare people. It’s part of a longstanding deal between newspapers and readers: We’ll shock you, you’ll enjoy being shocked, we make money.
Drugs are one of the easiest subjects to embellish due to a mixture of most people’s lack of understanding and their readiness to believe anything in a landscape many perceive to be teeming with immorality.
Cloaked in mystery, the drug world is presumed to be populated by shameless monsters capable of anything. So for the media and politicians who want to push a message, the drug zone is a free-for-all, where the truth is malleable and reality and fiction are interchangeable.
As a result, there exists a goldmine of narco-nonsense that has been reported and said about drugs over the last century.
Unsurprisingly over the last 12 months, with COVID-19 putting people in a near-constant state of low-level panic, the table has been set for some fanciful narcotic content. Indeed, the drug bullshit detector went into overdrive. So here are the best worst narcomania-infused tales from 2021.
1. GEORGE FLOYD “DIED OF A DRUG OVERDOSE”
In April, at the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with murdering George Floyd in 2020, defence attorney Eric Nelson said Floyd had instead died of a drug overdose – not because the officer had cut off his oxygen supply by kneeling on his neck for nine minutes. It is an excuse commonly used in cases where police have fatally subdued someone in the street.
Unlike the official autopsy report, an independent report ordered by Floyd’s family did not find an underlying health condition or traces of fentanyl significant factors in his death. It simply concluded that his death was due to “asphyxiation from sustained pressure” from an agent of the state. Floyd’s death was recorded on camera, and at Chauvin’s trial scientists and the jury rejected the myth that he died from a drug OD. Chauvin was convicted and jailed for 22 years.
2. DRUG DEALERS ARE SELLING “WOKE COKE”
On the surface it’s a tale about resourceful cocaine dealers and how the illegal drug trade mirrors legitimate product marketing. But the subtext was really about how stupid, hypocritical and gullible drug users and “woke” people are.
Unfortunately, even though it may be some dealer’s USP, woke coke does not exist, because under prohibition it’s a product dominated by violent cartels. Even so, the invented story went viral, another missile fired in Britain’s tiresome culture war.
3. THE NEVER-ENDING DRUG CLICKBAIT STORY THAT WILL BE PUBLISHED ON A LOOP UNTIL LONG AFTER YOU DIE #1
Throughout 2021 the UK media continued, for the sixth year running, to re-publish the same two gormless drug stories, just for clicks.
The first, which always comes with horrible photos (the only reason it’s published) is the “flesh eating cocaine” one, about how a chemical which is sometimes used as a cutting agent in cocaine rots your skin.
What the story – regurgitated with slight tweaks hundreds of times by regional and national media – fails to mention is that doctors say these cases are incredibly rare: you would likely have to snort at least two grams of levamisole-cut coke every day for several years for it to happen.
4. THE NEVER-ENDING DRUG CLICKBAIT STORY THAT WILL BE PUBLISHED ON A LOOP UNTIL LONG AFTER YOU DIE #2
Under close variants of the headline “What to do if you think your neighbours are smoking cannabis”, the other drug story is the journalistic equivalent of a rat in London: you are never more than two clicks away from reading this story on any given day, somewhere in the country.
The story, which is published even more frequently than the flesh rot one, follows a Q&A format, with advice to tip off the police if you think you smell weed next door. Last year journalists admitted to VICE the story, which wouldn’t look out of place in George Orwell’s 1984, is repeated just because it’s clickbait.
5. AMERICA’S RECREATIONAL DRUG SUPPLY IS BEING LACED WITH FENTANYL
This is a myth pushed now for a few years by the US government, health agencies, district attorneys, police and media in order to scare drug users, but it really kicked into gear in 2021.
Social media was awash with rumours about young party drug users OD’ing after using cocaine and ketamine, that unknown to them had been laced with fentanyl. The media and many “drug experts” continued to push the line that recreational drugs such as weed – not just heroin and opioid pills – are being deliberately “laced” with highly dangerous fentanyl, even though this tactic, unlike mixing fentanyl with heroin, makes no logical sense to dealers or users.
It does however fit into the “demonic drug pusher” myth. The New York Times said cocaine was being laced “frequently” with fentanyl and ridiculously quoted one dealer saying he was “spritzing liquid fentanyl onto baking sheets of marijuana”.
All this despite very little actual evidence of party drug users, barring very rare cases of contamination, dying of fentanyl. In reality America’s opioid OD crisis does not impact America equally. The vast majority of cases of people using cocaine contaminated with fentanyl are in street heroin markets, where dealers bag up fentanyl-laced heroin alongside cheap crack and coke deals, while stories of rich kids dying of fentanyl-laced party drugs are conspicuous in their absence.
6. YOU CAN OVERDOSE FROM TOUCHING FENTANYL
Now a regular favourite from the drug scare story bank, the “you can OD from just touching or looking at fentanyl” myth was again wheeled-out by the authorities this year. It’s a great one for making drug users look like they have inhuman stamina and for whipping up pointless fear, as if the pandemic was not enough to be dealing with.
In July a San Diego cop was filmed on his colleague’s bodycam opening up the trunk of a car during an arrest, picking up a bag of white powder and then keeling over onto the tarmac, supposedly of a fentanyl overdose. He was given Narcan – which blocks the effects of opioids – and the police department released the footage complete with emotional interviews with the officers involved. Despite toxicologists confirming that it is impossible to OD just by touching or being near fentanyl, the stories continue.
7. PEOPLE ARE GETTING HIGH OFF CAR PARTS IN DR CONGO
This story originated from Reuters, which is usually one of the most trustworthy news sources, and was copied by other media outlets, but it’s highly dubious.
Apparently poor street drug users in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, are getting high from a nasty concoction of cheap synthetic sedatives and painkillers. So far so normal, this happens in virtually every city in the world. But what gives the story air is the claim that part of this mixture, known to users as “bombe”, is made from stolen car exhausts, more specifically a “brown powder obtained from crushing the ceramic honeycomb core of automotive catalytic converters".
The problem with this story is that there is no proof people can get high from anything found in catalytic converters and there are no reliable drug experts confirming the car exhaust angle, just a cop and a man from an evangelical anti-drug group. The story blames a rash of car exhaust thefts on the drug craze, but catalytic converters get stolen anyway for the precious metals they contain. What’s more, the soporific effects users describe from bombe sound exactly like the effects of a mix of sedatives and painkillers, and nothing else.
8. COCAINE USERS ARE TO BLAME FOR CHILD DRUG GANGS AND YOUTH MURDERS IN BRITAIN
I have had to correct this piece of mythical propaganda, pushed by senior ministers and clueless journalists in the run-up to December’s launch of the UK government’s new drug strategy, too many times now.
But here’s a reminder of what they are saying. Talking about cocaine users, Policing and Crime Minister Kit Malthouse said in October: “When they get their two or three grams of coke for a Friday and Saturday night why do they not connect that with the kid, the 14-year-old kid who was stabbed, just the day before, in the next door postcode?”. The same day Home Secretary Priti Patel said “many middle-class users refuse to believe they are funding the exploitation of children in county lines gangs”.
The reason people don’t make these connections is because there are no connections between recreational coke use and children being stabbed or working in “county lines” drug dealing gangs. Teenage violence is rarely connected to drugs and the teenagers who get mixed up in gang violence and county lines rarely have anything to do with powder cocaine, they sell heroin and crack to long term addicts in a hand-to-mouth street trade that could not be more far removed from the recreational drug scene.
Why is the government so keen to repeat this false narrative? Because the real causes of youth violence and county lines drug dealing is not drug users, it’s state negligence and unaddressed online gang culture.
9. FIREWORKS ARE BEING LET OFF TO SIGNAL DRUG DROP-OFFS
This reminded me of the trainers hanging over the telephone wire legend, that shoes strung by their laces over a line indicated a drug dealing spot.
The “intel” on this one came from one of those people notorious for their streetwise know-how – a Tory MP.
Robbie Moore, Conservative MP for Keighley in West Yorkshire, told the House of Commons that his constituents were sick of fireworks being set off late at night, in the run up to Guy Fawkes night on the 5th of November. He said he had heard that fireworks being let-off were usually a sign from drug dealers that a fresh supply of drugs was in town.
"Although Bonfire Night is fast approaching, many of my constituents are plagued by fireworks being let off for all hours of the night throughout the calendar year. I have even had it reiterated to me that this is often used as a signal for drugs being dropped,” Moore told MPs.
Why would a drug dealer with a highly illegal stash send an encrypted text message when they could let off a rocket instead?
10. EVERYONE IS BEING JABBED WITH NEEDLES FULL OF DATE RAPE DRUGS
This was a needle scare story with a modern social media twist, involving mysterious unseen strangers injecting young women with knockout drugs in bars and clubs across the UK. It took the country by storm over the Autumn and was reported globally from New Zealand to the US.
Social media was abuzz with people claiming they had been spiked with needles and this quickly made its way onto the national stage. Women, who rightly felt scared by cases of drink spiking and male violence, boycotted nightclubs and there were demands for drug dogs and invasive searches at club doors. Patel, the UK Home Secretary, promised action, with one MP saying needle spiking should be treated with the same urgency as terrorism.
Rarely has so much panic and anxiety stemmed from so little evidence. As VICE World News was the first to disclose, these needle attacks would require Russian spy levels of expertise and would be almost impossible to carry out, especially on such a large scale. Despite 247 reports of needle spiking by November, there have been no confirmed cases, no sightings, no secondary attacks on people who said they were jabbed and no-one has been charged.
The needle spiking scare spread across the Atlantic to the US. Tragedy struck at the Astroworld festival in Texas in November, with eight people crushed to death by surging crowds while rapper Travis Scott was performing. It was alleged the panic had been caused when a security guard passed out after being jabbed in the neck with a needle. The needle stabbing theory was perpetuated by Houston Police Chief Troy Finner, although he later admitted it was not true.
11. GERMAN WEED IS FULL OF HEROIN
This was a myth put forward by Social Democrat (SPD) politician Karl Lauterbach as a reason for legalising cannabis in Germany. In an interview with Germain regional daily, the Rheinische Post in October, Lauterbach, who is also a professor of public health, said: "More and more often, the illegally sold street cannabis is being mixed with a new type of heroin that can be smoked. This quickly drives cannabis users into a heroin addiction."
However, analysis by VICE in Germany with police and NGOs found there was no evidence to back up the rumour about opioids being laced into weed to get people hooked – a common fake drug scare story. There was a problem with some weed being mixed with synthetic cannabinoids. Nevertheless, the heroin myth was enough to enable Lauterbach, now Minister for Health in Germany’s new government and his coalition partners to secure weed legalisation in a country set to be one of the biggest weed markets in the world.
Bullshit drug stories can be funny and they can make people buy more drugs. They can also lead to bad policies and increase stigma for drug users. But as long as they continue to shock the public, expect a lot more where these came from in 2022.