The Impact of the Media on the War on Drugs: Can No News Mean Bad News?

47 Years. 1 Trillion Dollars. 1.57 Million Arrests for Drug Law Violations in 2016. 2,205,300 people were incarcerated in the US during 2016(Drug Policy Alliance). The War on Drugs is a complex issue and an issue that needs attention. But why has the drug war lasted so long? Why are minority communities being affected the most? Why has there been so much money spent on this issue? How close are we to solving this? There are many factors that have been amplifying this problem, for one, there is the media, specifically the television and news programs.

My Interest

I am personally interested in this topic as the war on drugs is very compelling to me. After learning a little about it in the “13th Documentary” this topic interested me as it is a very complex and current issue. Also, last year I read an I-Search about the opioid crisis and this also made me interested in choosing this topic because I wanted to conduct my own research. I was aware that previous students had also chosen the War on Drugs, so I had to do my own take on this topic. At first, I wanted to explore how drugs have been portrayed through the media over time and also people’s attitudes towards drugs throughout time. Then, after consulting with Mr. Schneider we were able to combine both topics and decide on researching the media’s role in the War on Drugs.

For a more extensive explanation of my interest, you can click the link and read my personal interest paper.

Historical Problem

The widespread use of drugs in the US can be traced back to the 19th and 20th century. At first, the prohibition of drugs were related to safety and health. In the 1960s, the impact of the media emerged and began to heavily stigmatize drugs. Drugs became symbols of “youthful rebellion, social upheaval, and political dissent” (Belenko). Ultimately, in 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a “War on Drugs” as he believed that drugs were America’s number one public enemy (American Criminal Law Review). The War on Drugs was a campaign led by the US government, it’s goal was to combat the drug problem by attempting to stop the production, distribution, and use of illegal drugs (Fulkerson & Mohammad). Nixon pushed for an increase in federal drug control agencies and implemented new rules.

(Disproportionate Impact of Drug Laws on Black and Latino Communities)

However, in 1968, the War on Drugs experienced a dramatic shift, it was revealed that Nixon had other intentions with the campaign. John Ehrlichman, an assistant to Nixon who worked in Domestic Affairs admitted that the campaign was racially motivated. The Nixon White House had two enemies “the antiwar left and black people” (Butler). This heightened the impact of the media on the War on Drugs because the media now linked and portrayed the image of minority communities being directly related to drugs.

The hippies were associated with marijuana and black people were associated with heroin. Therefore, with the new strict laws on these drugs, Nixon was able to disrupt the communities and “arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings” and Nixon later admitted that they were lying about these drugs being directly linked with these communities (Butler).

Next, in 1981 Ronald Reagan began his presidency. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he dramatically increased the rates of incarceration due to more convictions of drug crimes. Prisoners for nonviolent drug law offenses increased from “50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 in 1997” (Butler). The media portrayed minorities communities in a negative light which created a damaging effect on the drug war overall. The impact of media continued to increase during the 1980s where there were more portrayals of addiction, specifically crack cocaine.

(US State and Federal Prison Population)

(Just Say No)

This led to the start of Nancy Reagan’s, “Just Say No” campaign in 1979. Nancy used the media to her advantage to appeal to different types of audiences, specifically young adults. She appeared on televisions programs, talk shows, and other different types of medias. “Just Say No” became a slogan for what someone should say if offered drugs. Throughout the 1980s the campaign became a “direct public respect for people to take action” (Lilienfeld & Arkowitz). However, it became evident quickly that the War on Drugs was not successful in combating the problem. Between 1992 and 1999, use of drugs increased by 15% (Fulkerson & Mohammad).

Furthermore, the impact of the media increased during this time as many anti-drug commercials emerged. For example, the infamous “This is Your Brain on Drugs”, this commercial featured an egg which represented the brain and a sizzling pan which represented drugs, then someone cracked the egg and put it on the sizzling pan. This idea of drugs being extremely dangerous appealed to citizens’ fears.

(This is Your Brain on Drugs)

Similarly, Nancy Reagan starred in a commercial where she read a letter from a 3rd-grade student, who outlined his negative experiences with drugs. The media was successful in stigmatizing drugs throughout the 1980s, however, this became a huge part of the problem as the War on Drugs continued to rage on. Nancy Reagan’s campaign was not successful as it was already evident that the new policies undeniably had failed. There were no improvements in the numbers of drug users as “40 million Americans were using illicit drugs regularly” (Epstein). Moreover, the laws implemented by Reagan increased the jail population and “drug offenders made up over a third of inmates in crowded federal prisons” (Epstein).

For my full paper, you can click this link.

Current Day Problem

Currently, specifically from the early 2000s to the present, the impact of the media on the War on Drugs has continued to increase as the War on Drugs has progressed. First, the media is impactful as it influences “numerous aspects of society, including public perceptions of social problems and public policy” (Orsini). Therefore, since the media is able to impact society, the stigmatization of illegal drugs has been able to occur for long periods of time.

(Media Bias)

This is because the media is extremely strategic, as it uses “particular frames, devices, and rhetorical practices” to appeal to different audiences. For example, news coverage primarily focuses on “drug seizures” to show the “risks and violence associated with drug use” (Orsini). Television news has become the main source of information and it influences the “public opinion” as people “trust what they see more than what they hear” (Jernigan & Dorfman).

Moreover, out of all the drug stories that were aired on television, illegal drug stories were the majority when compared to alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceutical drugs (Jernigan & Dorfman).

The target audience for the media are individuals who have “limited experience with drugs” (Orsini). In short, the majority of the media has continued to focus on the negative aspects of illegal drugs, which is a problem as the media has bias and shows a narrow scope. For instance, this problem was evident when the impact of the media developed into a fear of illegal drugs, due to the tragic terrorist event on 9/11 as drug use became “unpatriotic” (Orsini). Then, in 2009 when President Obama was elected his stance on drugs changed to be more restorative rather than punitive, this was an attempt to solve the problem.

(Restorative Justice)

The media portrayed addicts to be “ill but could be cured” (Orsini). However, this attempt did not ultimately work as drug addiction is still prevalent in society. The problem continues as the media is quite misleading. The media’s portrayal of the War on Drugs is a “social construction” as “the images viewers see are assembled together” (Poyntz).

For my full current day problem paper, click this link.

(Astroturf and Manipulation of Media Messages)
This video expands on the idea of media bias and the effects.

Call to Action

It is time for a change and it is up to us to fix this problem. I hope my website brought awareness to this issue and taught you something new. We need to start solving the stigmatization of drugs to change both the media’s and society’s perspectives on these drugs.

(Time for Action)

I encourage you: -to further educate yourself about my topic -to be aware of your attitude –educate others -to support organizations that are fighting against the War on Drugs such as SSDP and the Drug Policy Alliance.

(Why We Need to End the War on Drugs)
This TED talk explains how crucial it is to attack this issue and end the War on Drugs.

Macro Solutions

On a larger scale, for one it is important to understand that the War on Drugs is a very complex issue and that the media’s impact on the War on Drugs will be solved once the War on Drugs is solved.

First, it is necessary to invest in more extensive and immersive public education about drugs and education about media bias. Specifically, one would learn how to detect media bias and ways to prevent it.

(Public Education)

It is crucial to change the media’s narrative by encouraging different opinions. We must stop the media from targeting minority communities. To do this we need to be more informed and protest these unfair laws.

To solve the War on Drugs, we need to take in consideration and realize that our current approach is ineffective. We need to be more open-minded to implementing new and different solutions such as legalization and decriminalizing non-violent drug crimes. Decriminalizing these illegal drugs would be a better approach because people should the right to use what they desire and this would decrease the amount of money that is being used to enforce strict drug laws.

This video speaks about the legalization of all drugs and why it would be more beneficial than our current prohibition.
(Legalize All Drugs)

For further information about my proposed solutions, you can click this link.

Thank you so much for clicking on and reading my web page. I hoped you enjoyed reading this and I hope you learned something new. To continue this conservation, feel free to leave a comment or a question. Thanks again!

Click here for my full works cited.

Share this project
  1. April 27, 2019 by Jack WIlcox

    Hi Kendall,
    Great job with your page! I like how you have a lot of statistics and videos, making your information very useful. The topic that you did is important and I think you did a good job representing that on your page. Awesome work!

  2. April 27, 2019 by Ella Peterson

    Your topic was very interesting! You did a great job showing how two problems, the war on drugs and the media, intersect. Thank you!

  3. April 29, 2019 by Lisa Kopelnik

    Hi Kendall,
    Your webpage was so interesting and enlightening. Your research was stellar and thorough, and your page was aesthetically informative and really well-designed. The intersection between the war on drugs and media was so interesting to read about, I’ll make sure to continue to stay updated.

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