The Washington Post has a drug problem. The newspaper—fearless and skeptical when writing about politics, power, and business—often ends up publishing copy indistinguishable from police department handouts when the topic is dope. The latest example of Post drug credulousness appears on Page One of the Dec. 16 edition in a story titled "38 Arrested in N.Va. Drug Ring That Dealt Mainly to Youths."
The story isn't really about the arrest of 38 members of a drug ring in a sting operation. It's about "a dramatic increase in drug use among young people in the Washington suburbs," to quote the story. Are Washington suburban kids taking more drugs? I'm open to the possibility, but I'm certain that a slew of arrests of dealers made during an enforcement sweep doesn't automatically translate into a rise in drug use. To make such a case, one would have to compare arrest statistics over time, which the Post doesn't.
Stupid drug stories usually depend on personal narratives to carry the alarmist freight: The two featured players in the Post story are Matthew Mittong and Mindy Weakley of Prince William County, who were a couple. Both died in drug-related deaths this year. Neither was a "youth"—they were young adults of 26 years. The story makes a lame attempt to salvage the "youth" angle by noting that Weakley started taking prescription drug pills for kicks at 17, after injuring herself in a car accident.
The Post piece doesn't really embarrass itself until its closing paragraphs when it switches gears from the youth angle to claim that "the use of prescription drugs and heroin has led to a significant increase in overdose deaths" in Virginia. The paper's source is a new report from the Virginia medical examiner's office covering 2008. The Post article states that "the office found a reported a 91 percent increase in such deaths, from 384 to 735, from 1999 to 2008. In 2008, heroin and prescription narcotics accounted for at least 71 percent of all overdose deaths in Virginia."
But that's not exactly what the medical examiner's report (PDF) actually says. It attributes 735 deaths to drug/poisoning cases. Of those 735 deaths, two were homicides, 145 were suicides, and 14 were classified as "undetermined." Only the remainder—574—were labeled accidental drug deaths. Of these fatalities, only 26 were of people 19 or younger. The overwhelming majority of drug-related accidental deaths were adults between the ages 25 and 54—a total of 452. (In the 20-to-24 age group, 55 died.) Any drug-related death is tragic. It's doubly tragic if the victim is a kid. But the Post misleads readers by not noting who is doing most of the dying.
Determining the precise cause of death in drug-related cases has long bedeviled medical science because many users die with more than one drug onboard. A detailed 2008 report (PDF) by the Florida Medical Examiner Commission and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement found that most accidental drug-related fatalities in that state involved multiple drugs, not just one.
The Post hints that Weakley's death might have been of the "polydrug" variety. She was known to consume both prescription painkillers (presumably oxycodone) as well as heroin. One of her longtime friends says that the teen-aged Weakley would "take a pill because it would increase the feeling of a couple of beers." The interplay of such central nervous system depressants as alcohol, heroin, and prescription painkillers is unpredictable. A combined dose that entertains you one weekend may kill you the next. (For more about polydrug fatalities, see this excellent review of the scientific literature in Addiction.)
That the Post neglects to probe the ultimate cause of Weakley's death—or that of Matthew Mittong—indicates two things about the paper: that it's oblivious to how drugs kill and that everything it knows about drugs it's learned from the police.
Stupid Drug Story Update 1 In our last episode of "Stupid Drug Story of the Week," I ridiculed the Today show for hyping inhalant use as a "deadly trend" and claiming that it had become the "it drug" for young kids. The new "Monitoring the Future" report (PDF), released earlier this week, shows no appreciable increase in use of this drug among kids.
Stupid Drug Story Update 2 In March, the Washington Post claimed that PCP was making a "comeback" in the Washington area. As partial proof, it pointed to the fact that "[t]en percent of adult defendants now test positive for the drug, the highest rate in five years, according to D.C. Pretrial Services." I accused the reporter of making a big deal out of a tiny increase, writing:
While it's true that 2008's rate of 10 percent positive was the highest rate for defendants in five years, what do you suppose the positive rate was in 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004? That would be 9 percent, 9 percent, 8 percent, and 6 percent, respectively.
The District of Columbia's monthly drug-test statistics indicate that I was right to taunt the Post for its hysteria. Here are the 2009 percentages, month by month, for adult arrestees who tested positive for PCP:
January: 8 percent
February: 8 percent
March: 7 percent
April: 10 percent
May: 10 percent
June: 10 percent
July: 10 percent
August: 9 percent
September: 8 percent
October: 8 percent
So much for PCP's comeback.
Some people can't give up drugs. Others can't stop writing about them. Seen a stupid drug story lately? Help me with my problem by sending it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Trip with me on my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type credulous in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send to email@example.com.
Become a fan of Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.