Business Web Sites
Daily BulletinHoliday Centre

The Conversation

  • Written by The Conversation Contributor
imageMedia reports would have us believing young people are using synthetic products in droves.stuart anthony/Flickr, CC BY

Recent reports of a “battle” between manufacturers of synthetic drugs and police would have us believe young people are using these products in droves. But although we have seen a rapid emergence of new, synthetic drugs over the past few years, there is no good evidence to support their ubiquity of use.

Young people are continuing to use traditional drugs such as alcohol, tobacco and cannabis, and the harms they experience from these remain a problem.

Media reports about synthetic drugs are a good example of moral panic. Hyperbolic descriptions of the dangers of new drugs can be counterproductive. Rather than containing their spread, the media can act as advertisers for emerging substances.

Overreactions can also lead to ad-hoc and ineffective legislative changes.

Moral panics in the news

My paper – which I will present today at at the Australasian Professional Society on Alcohol and Other Drugs Conference in Perth – explores the way the media report on drugs, and the dominant frameworks in which they are discussed.

Drug-related moral panics are not new. King Charles II tried to ban coffee in the late 17th century out of concern people were talking about politics while drinking it. Unlike political conversations under the influence of alcohol, coffee drinkers were more likely to remember their conversations.

What has changed in modern times is the increased frequency of drug-related moral panics. This is likely in part due to the globalisation of media. And let’s face it: nothing sells news like a good moral panic.

imageThe number of people searching Google for synthetic cannabis strongly connected with the volume of news stories on the drug.Johan Viirok/Flickr, CC BY

To be fair, there’s a limited number of ways the media can frame stories on drugs.

And while most journalists are good critical thinkers, when it comes to drug-related news stories, they tend to revert quickly to these dominant themes. These frame drugs as dangerous pathogens, creating the idea that people who use them are irresponsible, sick or deviants.

Here are five ways in which media reports on drugs promote moral panics and lead to counterproductive effects.

1. Synthetic?

Panic is exacerbated through framing new, synthetic drugs as “synthetic”. This elicits the cognitive error that natural products are somehow safer and better for us than synthetic products. Clearly this is untrue given that arsenic and asbestos are both natural.

Calling them “synthetic” also leads to strange descriptions, such as “synthetic LSD” or “synthetic amphetamines”. This makes no sense since both LSD and amphetamines are synthetic. How can there be a synthetic synthetic drug?

2. Drug advertising

Research conducted by my colleagues and I showed that instead of dissuading people from using new drugs, media reporting can essentially work as an advertisement for them.

Most people who used synthetic cannabis when it first emerged in the media as a drug of concern did so out of “curiosity”. One man in a Queensland newspaper reportedly saw it “on the news and thought … holy smoke, I’m going to order this”.

Further, our research found the number of people searching Google for synthetic cannabis strongly connected with the volume of news stories on the drug.

3. Normalisation

Moral panics can cause people to overestimate certain drugs' prevalence. Thinking more people are using them than the reality could lead some to normalise the products.

imageMoral panics can stigmatise people who use drugs, making them out to be deviants.Ryan Seyeau/Flickr, CC BY

People’s perception of the harm of the drug is also reduced. If news stories are reporting on the horrific effects of a drug and these don’t correspond with a person’s own experience, then the information is no longer credible.

Worse, it could lead people to disregard all the education on drugs they have been provided with.

4. Stigma

Moral panics tend to stigmatise people who use drugs. They may, for instance, frame these people as being deviants or weak willed.

Such stigmatisation has been shown to prevent people from engaging in treatment.

5. Shifting focus

Finally, panicking about a drug’s impact on society can shift the focus away from real issues.

For instance, 5,554 Australians die each year from alcohol. Yet there is a disproportionate focus in the media on synthetic cannabis, reported recently to have contributed to three deaths in Victoria over several months.

This shifting focus can result in legislative reactions that are not evidence-based and which may have unintentional consequences.

In 2013, the Queensland government changed the law to make a substance considered illegal based not only on its effect, but also its chemical structure. This was a reaction to increasing media concern about synthetic cannabis being sold to “school leavers” heading to the Gold Coast.

However, banning chemical structures effectively also banned a number of innocuous chemicals in the state, including those found in cheese and avocados.

It is unlikely such local legislative changes will have a significant impact on the supply of substances on the illicit market. And because other countries have not passed similar laws, new drugs will continue to emerge.

Stephen will be on hand for an Author Q&A between 2 and 3pm AEDT on Thursday, November 12, 2015. Post your questions in the comments section below.

Stephen Bright does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

Authors: The Conversation Contributor

Read more

The Conversation


Prime Minister - Step up in drought budget support

Drought-hit farmers, small businesses and rural towns are set for an immediate cash injection to keep stock fed and watered, keep businesses open, keep locals in work and pump funds into local eco...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

David Littleproud MP interview with Tom Connell

Interview with Tom Connell – Sky News NewsDay   The Coalition’s latest drought support package   TOM CONNELL: David Littleproud, thanks for your time. We've got this drought package going throug...

Tom Connell - avatar Tom Connell

Prime Minister Address Tom Hughes Oration Dinner

Thank you very much, Julian, for that very kind introduction.  It was very generous. Thank you very much for those words.  It's great to be here with you.  I'm here today to give the vote of thank...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Business News

Decathlon Group: Global sporting brand opens its third store

International sporting brand Decathlon today opened its much anticipated third store in Victoria.    Located at 405 Boundary Road, Moorabbin Airport, the store extends the brand’s footprint across V...

Tess Sanders Lazarus - avatar Tess Sanders Lazarus

How to grow your construction business into an empire

If construction is the business that you are in and you are looking to make the transition from being a small operator to a major player, you are going to have to ask some tough questions. And qui...

News Company - avatar News Company

Acciona And Surfing Australia Partnership

Acciona Ambassador and 2020 World Surf League (WSL) Women’s World Tour rookie Isabella Nichols with Bede Noonan, Managing Director of Acciona Geotech at today's launch. CASUARINA/NSW (N...

Blainey Woodham - avatar Blainey Woodham


Planning a High School Educational Trip: Useful Pointers to Keep in Mind

Planning and managing an educational trip is not an easy job for teachers, especially if the group consists of high school teenagers! At the same time, high schoolers are also at an age where they...

News Company - avatar News Company

Why Do So Many Brits Travel To Australia?

Australia is one of the most popular destinations for travellers around the world, but maybe none more so that British travellers. Hundreds of thousands of Brits leave the UK on a yearly basis to sw...

News Company - avatar News Company

Hen Weekends Abroad- Top 5 cities for a perfect hen party

All good things end. It’s not to say that marriage shouldn’t be treated as something absolutely exceptional - on the contrary. Unfortunately though, once we find the person we couldn’t imagine our l...

Monika Rose - avatar Monika Rose