Image by Lia Kantrowitz

Why Trump Probably Won't Crack Down on Pot

The same dense, diffuse media environment that propelled the self-proclaimed groper to victory makes it tough for old-school drug panics to take over America—even if Attorney General Jeff Sessions hates weed.

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Mar 17 2017, 6:17pm

Image by Lia Kantrowitz

In a speech delivered to law enforcement officials in Virginia on Wednesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions expressed dismay about increased public acceptance of marijuana.

"I realize this may be an unfashionable belief in a time of growing tolerance of drug use," he said, according to his prepared remarks. He later added, "And I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana—so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that's only slightly less awful. Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs will destroy your life." (In the actual speech, perhaps tellingly, Sessions left out the words "only slightly less awful.")

My own tweet in response got picked up fairly widely, including a retweet by renowned sci-fi author William Gibson:

While this delighted my fan-girl heart, I'm not mentioning it simply to brag. The overwhelming response to what Sessions said (or was going to say) perfectly illustrates how even lighthearted social media can serve as a check on harmful drug propaganda. Indeed, the same splintered and deeply contested media environment that allowed a self-proclaimed serial groper to become president could prevent his administration from succeeding if it does try to crack down on America's growing fondness for weed.

To understand why, it's helpful to consider a sociological concept called "moral panic"—and the role the media play in this phenomenon. Coined by South African sociologist Stanley Cohen in the 1960s, a moral panic has several key features.

According to Scott Bonn, professor of criminology at Drew University and the author of Mass Deception: Moral Panic and the US War on Iraq, a moral panic is essentially an exaggeration of a threat that leads to an overreaction by government, usually with unduly harsh policies. "What makes it a moral panic is when the state response is greater than the threat warrants," he says.

Moral panics involve several critical players: so-called folk devils who are alleged to be the source of the threat; "moral entrepreneurs" who promote themselves and their solutions as salvation while hyping the threat; the media, which buys into it; and politicians, who react.

"The media are an essential player in all of this," Bonn says. "It doesn't mean that there's a conspiracy; it just means that they've gone along for the ride."

A classic example is the "crack epidemic" of the 1980s and early 90s, which made a drug that was a real public health problem in poor communities into a national threat warranting mass incarceration.

The moral entrepreneurs in this case were actually mainly politicians: Republicans stirred up panic over crack because it was an excellent signal to racist white voters that framed poor people— African Americans in particular—as the source of their own problems.

The "folk devils" here were crack users and sellers. Users were overwhelmingly depicted as black—even though whites smoked plenty of cocaine themselves— and they were portrayed as evil zombies who would kill for a hit. Sellers were even worse: pushers of a substance that caused instant moral degradation. The overreaction and harsh policy, obviously, brought what most of us now know as the peak of the war on drugs.

And the media buy-in was tremendous: The New York Times, Washington Post, and all of the television networks and countless local media hammered on crack's dangers over and over and over, to the point where, in 1989, 64 percent of people polled said that drugs were America's biggest problem. The media overwhelmingly spoke with a unified voice, cheering on the drug war.

Bonn notes that there are two types of moral panics: those led by grass roots activists and those spurred by elites. The crack panic had elements of both, which may be why it grew so large and was sustained for so many years.

But these days, America is dealing with a very different media environment— and that could stymie Sessions and Trump if they declare war on weed (they continue to send mixed messages on the subject). The monolith of the mainstream media is no more—thousands of different perspectives vie for attention, and if politicians try to spread drug-related panic, scientists, experts, and journalistic debunkers like me can reach large audiences rapidly.

Essentially, you can't have an elite-led moral panic without lots of media support: If too many journalists object, the critical mass needed to spur uncritical fear responses simply can't be generated. "You could argue that in world today, the internet provides a counterbalance to elite propaganda," Bonn says. On the other hand, he notes, grassroots moral panics may be amplified by social media, "which could be the basis for disseminating falsehoods and hysteria"—a.k.a. fake news.

The particular case of marijuana will make Sessions's task even harder. The "grassroots" here obviously aren't panicking—support for legalization is growing and recently reached 60 percent in one survey. Nearly one in five Americans now live in a state where recreational marijuana use is legal or will soon be legal. And 26 states and Washington, DC, now have some form of legal medical marijuana, with three more set to implement legalization schemes in the near future.

Marijuana panics also require public ignorance: the most significant of them occurred in the 30s, 50s, and 80s, when alternative perspectives were much harder to find and scientific data far more difficult to access, according to historian Emily Dufton, author of the forthcoming Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America. "It's hard to generate fear about this drug right now," she tells me. "Having an information vacuum is critical for it and that doesn't exist any more."

Dufton points out that several other conditions also militate against panicking the public about pot. "Right now, marijuana has a 21-year history of being legal medicine," she says. Also, marijuana panics are much easier to stir up when there isn't another demon drug vying for public attention—and at the moment, given the tremendous overdose death rate, opioids are in the spotlight.

The contrast between drugs that are now killing more people than AIDS did at its peak—and one that has never produced a known overdose—is stark. I was snarking in my tweet about it, but I was also making a serious point: Marijuana can sometimes substitute for opioids—and when it does, it can save lives. More than half a dozen studies now support this idea: They show that pain patients often do use marijuana instead when it is legal and that opioid prescribing, use rates, addiction rates, and overdose fatalities are substantially lower in medical marijuana states.

And one response to my tweet showed just how cruel Sessions's ideas about marijuana really are:

The statements offered so far by the Trump administration and law enforcement officials have understandably fed concern that they will attempt to crack down on legal marijuana. And it wasn't so long ago that a few prominent government officials expressing concern about a drug was enough to spark mass hysteria. But the response from the public already suggests that the old lies won't cause moral panic any longer—and without moral panic, the drug war is unsustainable.

Follow Maia Szalavitz on Twitter.

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