On Monday 6th March, Dan Proudman reported in The Sydney Morning Herald that two men from the Hunter region had died from drugs, although could not confirm which drugs were involved. Proudman stated that both men were known to use methamphetamine, and may have used it in the days leading up to their deaths. Even though the toxicology results have not yet been finalised, Proudman speculated that the two men “succumbed to a substance other than ice”, and this could be indicative of a “re-emergence of killer synthetic drugs”.
The title of the article is “Two men dead after being ‘cooked from the inside’ in drug overdose”. Such language is often used as hyperbolic clickbait, compelling readers to click on the news story, and is usually at the expense of the quality and accuracy of reporting. Such reporting is irresponsible as it can incite moral panic. The “re-emergence of synthetic killer drugs” is speculative as no one has yet confirmed what substances the two men had overdosed on. The deaths might have resulted from a methamphetamine overdose, particularly if other drugs were involved. By using the term synthetic, the journalist is playing on the logical fallacy that synthetic substance are more dangerous than natural substances, which in turn fuels moral panic. Such drug moral panics reduce the credibility of media and can lead to reactive legislative responses that are not evidence-based.
Proudman reported the statements made by a senior detective, including “whether it’s a bad batch of ice, some form of synthetic drug, a bad cocktail of drugs or something thrown into the pill, does it really matter?” This statement perpetuates the “all drugs are bad” rhetoric (excluding alcohol of course). Certainly no drugs are safe, but some drugs are more harmful than others. One study had a multidisciplinary team rank 20 drugs on a range of harms including those to the person using the drug and those to the broader community. They found that heroin was more harmful than tobacco and that Cannabis was less harmful than both. MDMA and LSD were ranked as some of the least harmful drugs. Interestingly, the data showed that alcohol posed the greatest risk to consumers and the community. It is important to recognise that each drug poses a certain degree of harm, and this is where harm reduction can focus its efforts. By focusing on the one or two cases that involve a novel drug or circumstances, it shifts the focus away from the hundreds of incidents of harm each weekend involving alcohol.
Proudman also reported that the senior detective stated that “people have absolutely no idea what they are taking”. If true, this claim supports the introduction of a pill or drug testing service in Australia. Such a service would help people to find out what drugs they were in possession of and make informed decisions about what drugs they consume. People want to know about the contents of the drugs they are about to take. However, no AOD experts were quoted (so we assume that they weren’t consulted), and Proudman missed the opportunity to provide such harm reduction information, such as only using a small dose of an unfamiliar drug, waiting up to 90 minutes before consuming more and conducting reagent testing to help get an idea of an unfamiliar drug.
The language and speculative unbalanced reporting could be stigmatising. We know that moral panics can lead to stigma and the way in which the young men were portrayed in this story was very negative. It would be interesting to know who these two young men really were, not just that they were “drug users”. We know that stigma creates barriers for people who use drugs to seek treatment. However it is influential in shaping the public’s view of drugs and people who use drugs, which is why we argue that there is an ethical and moral imperative for increased sensitivity to these issues when reporting about drugs and people who use them as outlined in AOD Media Watch’s Guidelines for Journalists.
Karina Czaplinski, Dual Diagnosis Clinician & Dr Stephen Bright, Senior Lecturer at Edith Cowan University