War of the Words

Aug 25, 2008

drug war, drug warriors, MPP

A common source of frustration for MPP – and for most folks in the marijuana policy reform movement – is being mischaracterized as "pro-pot" or "pro-drug" by the press. Not only are these labels misleading and politically charged, they're completely inaccurate.

Most of us who wish to end marijuana prohibition do so because we see the policy's utter futility and its legacy of failure and waste. Our argument isn't that marijuana is fun; it's that marijuana prohibition is a disaster, and that perpetuating it is inhumane and irresponsible. That's true whether you use marijuana or not, and whether you approve of marijuana use or not.

I don't think reporters mischaracterize us on purpose. Reporters pride themselves on their ability to approach topics with a healthy dose of skepticism. But most of them haven't given marijuana policy as much thought as, say, the pro-choice movement, which you'll rarely – if ever – see referred to as "pro-abortion."

And it isn't just the small papers and local news channels. A few weeks ago, CNN Headline News' "Showbiz Tonight" called MPP a "pro-pot group." And just last week, a reporter with the Washington Post used the same label to describe us in a story about Libertarian Party presidential candidate Bob Barr.

I'm not bringing this up to bash anybody. When I contacted the Post reporter to request a correction to the online version of her story, she was prompt in responding to me, and I believe that she and her editor gave my request sincere consideration based on their point of view. But they declined to change the story.

It makes sense that defenders of marijuana prohibition like to characterize critics of our current policies as being pro-marijuana or as encouraging marijuana use. They have a much better chance defeating this straw man than if they were to engage in an honest debate about properly assessing marijuana's relative dangers to individuals and to society and developing effective policies designed to mitigate those dangers. It's very difficult to defend prohibition in that light.

It can certainly get wearisome countering these same mischaracterizations in the press, but it's also an opportunity. Although I failed to get the Post article corrected, I did get in touch with the paper's ombudsman, who agreed that the phrase "pro pot" was "simplistic" and posted a note to the Post staff advising them about my complaint and her opinion.

So who knows? I'd like to think that pointing out the problem at least caused some folks over there to think about marijuana policy for a moment or two.