The New York Times' reefer madness

In a shocking article, the newspaper of record reveals that many Net users are deviating from officially mandated Just Say No drug rhetoric!

Published June 24, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

readers of the New York Times might assume that front page stories are selected on the basis of newsworthiness. Occasionally, however, the paper gives an article prominent play in order to advance a cultural agenda (or, more cynically, to prove that it still has the clout to do so). Last month the Times-manufactured fuss over heroin chic led all the way to a lip-biting announcement from President Clinton.

Last Friday, the Times was at it again with an article headlined, "A Seductive Drug Culture Flourishes on the Internet." To the paper's credit, this topic is at least not hopelessly passi. It is even worthy of serious coverage. But as with the heroin chic story, objective reporting here takes a back seat to middlebrow fear-mongering. Given the confluence of two of America's favorite boogeymen (drugs and the Internet -- together at last!), there is no doubt that this too is a story with legs.

The article, by Christopher S. Wren, begins like this: "Even as parents, teachers and government officials urge adolescents to say no to drugs ..."

Parents! Teachers! Government officials! Wren expeditiously establishes societal order, then proceeds to shatter it, thus creating a sense of threat that pervades the entire article.

"... the Internet is burgeoning as an alluring bazaar ..."

A bazaar! People are buying drugs over the Internet! Well, not quite. It eventually becomes apparent that this bazaar mostly "sells" ideas. And the occasional hemp baseball cap.

"... where anyone with a computer ..."

And a modem, of course, but Wren's on a roll here.

"... can find out how to get high on LSD, eavesdrop on what it is like to take heroin or cocaine, check the going price for marijuana, or copy the chemical formula for methamphetamine, the stimulant better known as speed."

Scary, huh? But it's hard to see how any of the above rates as "alluring." Chemical formulas are no more seductive on the Web than they are in library books (which, for the record, also contain such information). Checking the price of marijuana is more likely to scare off the curious than anything else ($400 an ounce? Are you fucking kidding me?). And as for "find[ing] out how to get high on LSD": Um, take it, right?

The mood established, Wren goes on:

"Teen-agers need only retreat to their rooms, boot up the computer and click on a cartoon bumblebee named Buzzy to be whisked on line ..."

People familiar with the Internet, of course, will know that one must already be online before Buzzy appears. Indeed in order to find Buzzy, one first must first do a search for something along the lines of "hemp, pot, bong, wasted, dude," and then travel, of one's own volition, to the site where Buzzy lives. The many millions of Times readers who are not Net savvy, however, can be forgiven for picturing a scene like this: Little Tommy turns on his computer for a relaxing game of Duke Nuke 'Em when he suddenly sees a seductively alluring little bee. Out of curiosity, he clicks on it and is whisked (whisked? on the Web?!) to ...

"... a mail-order house ..."

That's right, mail-order. Wren describes two sites that advertise books, paraphernalia and, in one exceptional case, actual pot seeds, but he does not make clear that you can't actually purchase this stuff online. Teenagers who want their own hydroponics set-up can get an address off the Web, but then they must unretreat from their rooms, find stamps, write a check and so on, just as if they'd gotten the info from the back of Rolling Stone.

Wren acknowledges that drug chat on the Web "would be nothing new to a high school or college bull session, but face-to-face contact can help adolescents evaluate a speaker's credibility. The anonymity of on-line discussion, in contrast, tends to make even outlandish statements seem credible to impressionable young eavesdroppers." I won't deny that folks can be way too gullible about what they read online, but my own experience is that plugged-in youngsters are far less impressionable than novice adults (hello, Pierre Salinger).

But that's a hallmark of this type of article: the claim that the Internet is inherently more persuasive than it should be. Sort of how people once feared that flashing "drink Coca-Cola" between frames at the Saturday matinee would drive audiences trancelike to the refreshment stand. "We really are witnessing the development of the most powerful medium that has ever existed, in terms of its ability to attract and interest young people," asserts Jeff Chester of the Center for Media Education. "It's more powerful than television ... because it is interactive," confirms anti-drug activist David Rosenbloom.

The Web is more engrossing than TV? What are you, high? For balance, Wren quotes HotWired's Jon Katz, who makes a similar point but without the ominous spin.

To prove that online drug pushers are targeting young people, Wren points to a combination of "glitzy" graphics and "a sassiness that leaves sober arguments against drug use looking pallid." Something sober looks pallid? Get outta here!

"One clue to adolescence on the Internet," continues Wren, "is the prevalence of cartoons in praise of marijuana." Or maybe that's just a clue to the psychological adolescence of potheads of all ages. Check out the two examples that accompany Wren's article. In one, three Freak Brothers rip-offs cavort beside bubble letters that read, Jerry Brownishly, "Why ain't we the people free to grow our own?" In the other, a Popeye look-alike named "Pot-Peye" smokes his spinach, while Bluto says, "Ya'know Pot-Peye, I can, like, dig your beautiful headspace, man!" Tell me these gems are aimed at anyone under 45.

The article's final section is titled, "A Vast Warehouse of Misinformation." Wren is horrified to find a chat room in which "When a man asked whether it was safe to mix methamphetamine with alcohol ... a seasoned user named Durto assured him, 'Yeah, you can drink on speed, and drink and drink.'" Maybe I'm sharper than the average would-be speed freak, but those extra two drinks suggest to me that Durto is being sarcastic. Did Wren intentionally misplace a ;-) somewhere?

I wouldn't put it past him. Consider the part where he writes that "the Internet also abounds in casual advice like the 'suggestions for first-time users' of 'ecstasy,' a hallucinogenic stimulant that has been found to damage the brains of monkeys ... Nicholas Saunders, the author of these suggestions, cautioned ecstasy neophytes only to 'avoid alcohol and other drugs, and if you are dancing, realize that you may be dangerously overheated even without feeling uncomfortable.'"

Hey, that's pretty good advice, and far more likely to make an impression on a determined raver than a lecture about simian research. But Wren wants us to gasp: The stuff causes brain damage and Saunders' only warning is about dancing?

But that's not his only warning. Saunders goes into extensive detail about the brain-damage research, as well as the possibilities of kidney and liver damage, heart trouble, strain on the immune system and much more. None of this, by the way, is presented with any graphics, sass or "interactivity," although there are hundreds of footnotes. In fact, Saunders' pro-ecstasy treatise is quite scholarly -- pallid, even. It may be 90 percent bullshit, but it's disingenuous of Wren to call it "casual" and imply that it's designed to entice kids. Hell, I could barely slog through one chapter.

In and of itself, I'm not too concerned that one New York Times article is trumped up. The buzz-kill is that once the rest of the media-political culture jumps on this story, it's going to make the original piece seem downright reasonable. Look for a concerned, clueless proclamation from the president any day now.

By Daniel Radosh

Daniel Radosh is a freelance writer and a contributing editor at the Week.

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