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CBS' "48 Hours" fails acid test.

CBS kicked off the new year with big news: Lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, has recently made a "return trip."

"The drug of the psychedelic '60s is back, and there's a good chance your children know all about it," warned a grim Dan Rather in his intro to the January 6 edition of the newsmagazine "48 Hours." "Experts say that teenagers are using more LSD and other illegal hallucinogens than cocaine, the scourge of the '80s."

Pretty compelling stuff. But the show's premise is wrong: There's little evidence of a "resurgence of LSD." In fact, the number of young Americans tripping on acid, according to the government's National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), has been small and relatively stable for more than a decade.

Since 1975, NIDA has funded an annual $3 million survey by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research of 16,000 high school seniors about drug use. In the survey's first year, 7.2 percent of the students admitted to using LSD at least once during the previous year. Since then, use dropped to a low of 4.4 percent for the class of 1985, inched up to 5.4 percent in 1990 and slipped to 5.2 percent in 1991, the most recent poll. A separate survey of 26,600 seniors begun in 1988 by the nonprofit Parents Resource Institute for Drug Education (PRIDE), found that the use of hallucinogens rose somewhat between the start of the 1991 school year and that of 1992, from 6.3 percent to 7.1 percent, but the category includes LSD, PCP, Ecstasy and similar drugs.

The "48 Hours" report is just a recent example of a story that Jack Shafer, editor of Washington City Paper, has identified as a "press perennial." In a New Republic article last March, Shafer criticized the press for hyping the "return of LSD" in stories that date back to at least 1979. (Among the publications that have done such stories are the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, Newsweek, New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Washington Post.) Shafer says the "48 Hours" report was simply "anecdotal reporting with great visuals.... There was no skepticism and no hard data."

Al Briganti, the senior producer of "48 Hours," maintains that the show's premise was documented with data from NIDA and PRIDE and interviews with users, drug treatment program directors and emergency room personnel. But Mona Brown, the NIDA official who provided "48 Hours" with the agency's data, says such reports mistake "an increased awareness of the problem... [forl increased use. According to our studies, the rates of LSD use have not increased over the years."

Briganti says "48 Hours" relied on NIDA data from annual surveys of 1,300 to 1,400 college students. That poll did show an increase in LSD use from 3.4 percent in 1989 to 5.1 percent in 1991, but NIDA itself downplays the results because "the numbers [of students surveyed] aren't large and we're not positive that's an accurate barometer of an increase," says Patrick O'Malley, senior study director at the Institute for Social Research.

"48 Hours" also used NIDA data that Briganti and others, such as officials at the DEA, have said show a "substantial increase" in emergency room visits for bad trips. However, NIDA notes that because it began using a new method in 1988 to compute the data, figures before and after that year are incomparable. Between 1988 and 1991, annual emergency "episodes" from LSD actually increased just 2 percent, from 3,835 to 3,912.

Further, when Dan Rather told viewers that teenagers now use hallucinogens more often than cocaine, he failed to say that this is due to a precipitous drop in cocaine use, from 13.1 percent of high school seniors in 1985 to 3.5 percent in 1991, according to NIDA.

Although the DEA launched an LSD public awareness and enforcement campaign two years ago, agency spokesman Gene Haislip acknowledges the hallucinogen "is a fairly small part of the national drug problem." He says the agency began its campaign because "the press helps shape priorities. We have to try to shape the press."

Concludes Patrick O'Malley, "The larger story is that LSD use has not changed much among high school and college students."
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Title Annotation:sensationalistic reporting of non-existent resurgence of LSD use
Author:Negin, Elliott
Publication:American Journalism Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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