Media and Drugs

Spice and the role of media in public policies

In August of 2008, a store in Chile called “Psicoactivo” began selling an incense called Spice. In December of 2008, Germany and the Netherlands declared that same product illegal because, although it was sold as an incense, it wasn’t long before people started smoking it. The European governments said that the decision was based on studies that said when smoked, Spice had four times the power of regular marijuana. Why? Because it contains particles of JWH-018, a synthetic cannabis-based chemical that is illegal in some countries of the world.

Not a lot of people were aware of the existence of Spice in Chile, and even less knew about it being used as a drug, and its ban in Europe. Its use was reserved to people who usually took part in the marijuana culture in Santiago, the capital of Chile. During the first months of 2009, Spice became more popular as it was sold on a website.

But the existence of Spice was made public on April 21, 2009, when Teletrece (a news program on local TV station Canal 13) ran a piece on it: how it was sold legally and how buyers used it as a drug. The report showed an undercover journalist purchasing the drug with hidden cameras and people smoking it with their faces blurred. It was repeated during the piece that the substance was illegal in Europe, but in Chile it was completely legal and attainable. The program’s website advocated for a new policy concerning this drug: "By law, the illegal substance list has to be modified, and that can only be done by a presidential order." By the next day, the story was in the most important papers of the country and, suddenly, everyone knew about Spice.

Only three days later after the news piece aired, on April 24, the government announced that Spice was now illegal in Chile. The government and the health department said that the drug had been studied for a couple of months. Patricio Rosende, the Chilean vice-secretary of the Interior, said to El Mercurio (a local paper) that "the analysis done by the Health Department concluded that Spice has components very similar to those of marijuana, and they are very toxic." But the reality is that the studies only determined the components of the drug, and there are no conclusive studies, in Chile or any other part of the world, that establish the dangers of the components of Spice, and more specifically of the JWH-018 component.

It was a "better safe than sorry" approach by the government that was literally started by a media report.

The story of Spice in Chile is just another example of how the media takes an active role in the definition of public policies. A few years ago in Chile, the media used to be a watchdog to the work of the state powers, but in recent times, it has come to replace them when they’re not “doing their job” right.

A few more extreme examples of this, outside Chile, are television shows like the U.S.’s “Dateline NBC’s To Catch a Predator” where a journalist would set a trap to a sexual predator and confront them on camera, or “Caso Cerrado” a latin show that airs on Telemundo in which Ana María Polo, a Cuban-born lawyer, mediates family conflicts. Although she doesn’t act as a judge on the show, her resolutions are legally binding by a contract signed by every participant of the show.

Although shows like this may have a more sensational angle, they are still “doing” part of the job of some of the state powers. In those cases there is a definite intention to change the public policies, and in the Spice story the news program made a point to point out that the drug was illegal in Europe, and insisted that in Chile it was not. It was calling for the state’s action, and the state acted based mostly on its information.

This shows the different ways in which media are affecting public policies and that is something worth discussing. Should the media take an active part in the issues addressed inappropriately by the government or should they just sit back and only point out what’s wrong? Do journalists have the authority, skills and enough elements of judgment to serve as the main information for the government’s action?