Press Box

Debunking PCP’s “Comeback”

The Washington Post fails to make the case.

A Washington Post article on PCP

Along with child molesters, Klansmen, and the 9/11 terrorists, the illicit drug PCP occupies a space in the news culture so low that a journalist in search of a crowd-pleasing story need not consult the facts or build a compelling argument to write a crowd-pleasing story about it.

It’s been that way for the four decades users have taken the drug, and nothing anybody writes—least of all me—can change that. Mining the public’s dread of PCP this week is the Washington Post, which drew on the slimmest of pretexts Tuesday to declare on Page One that PCP was making a “comeback” in the district.

All the clichés of PCP coverage that inform our thinking about the drug are there: the Grand Guignol accounts of users ripped on the drug stabbing their daughters, shooting their mothers, and driving their cars into pedestrians; police officers and prosecutors alleging the drug’s rebound; and assertions that the drug is producing a general crime wave.

That PCP stinks is a given, but the drug’s stinkatude doesn’t release reporters, editors, or newspapers from the obligation to tell the truth about it. Take, for example, the story’s assertion that PCP is making a “comeback,” that there is a “rise in PCP use,” that use is on the “rebound” among criminal suspects, and that the drug is on the “spread.” The article’s author, Keith L. Alexander, cherry-picks the data to make this hysteria-stoking claim: “Ten percent of adult defendants now test positive for the drug, the highest rate in five years, according to D.C. Pretrial Services.”

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, as the stats compiled by pretrial services indicate (PDF). I doubt very much that 2008’s one percentage-point increase in positives over 2007 and 2006, or its two percentage-point increase over 2005, signifies much of a PCP resurgence.

Instead of hyping a PCP revival, Alexander should consider writing a story about how PCP use—as reflected in the crude measurement of drug tests administered to adult arrestees—appears to be pretty flat. Circumstantial evidence can be found in the pretrial services stats for January (PDF), which report that only 8 percent of arrestees tested positive for PCP. Some PCP comeback!

Although PCP has long been part of the area’s drugscape, the Post has rarely done more than accept police department and prosecutor handouts in reporting on the topic. For instance, if the police declare a “street value” for a quantity of seized PCP, the Post automatically publishes it. An Aug. 24, 1978, Post story quoted a street price of $700 per ounce for PCP. On March 15, 1984, the Post wrote of “10 ounces of liquid PCP” having “a value of $1.4 million.” That’s $140,000 per ounce. The arithmetical cartoon continues:

Washington Post, Oct. 22, 1985: 2 gallons worth $1 million ($3,906 per ounce).
Washington Post, Nov. 8, 1985: 46 ounces worth $400,000, or $8,700 per ounce.
Washington Post, Feb. 5, 1986: 3.5 gallons worth $8 million ($17,857per ounce).
Washington Post, June 24, 1986: 2.5 gallons worth $2 million ($6,250 per ounce).
Washington Post, Feb. 1, 1987: 7 gallons worth $1.4 million ($1,562 per ounce).
Washington Post: Aug. 25, 1987: 1 gallon worth $735,000 ($5,742 per ounce).
Washington Post, Aug. 27, 1987: 2.25 gallons worth $12 million ($41,666 per ounce).
Washington Post, Feb. 23, 1988: 6.5 gallons worth $1.9 million ($2,283 per ounce).
Washington Post, April 8, 1988: 30 gallons worth $8 million ($2,083 per ounce).  
Washington Post, Feb. 15, 1989: 28.5 gallons worth $6 million ($1,847 per ounce).
Washington Post, Nov. 23, 1993: 5 gallons worth $250,000 to $1 million ($391 to $1,563 per ounce).
Washington Post, June 21, 2007: 5 gallons with a street value approaching $1 million ($1,563 per ounce).

Yesterday’s Post piece pegged the price at $1,966 per ounce (a 178-ounce seizure with a street value of $350,000).

If I haven’t made the point that law enforcement conjures a drug valuation out of thin air and the press publishes it without question, bear with me. An April 24, 1984, Post story stated PCP numbers that work out to $3.12 per dose (presumably one cigarette or other smoking material soaked in a vial of PCP). A June 7, 1985, article indicated a price of $11.54 per dose. I know that prices in underground markets vary widely because economic information isn’t transmitted as transparently as in legal markets, that purchases in bulk are always cheaper than small transactions, and that I’m quoting prices over a span of 30 years, but this is ridiculous.

How do stories like the Post’s get published? As Robert P. Bomboy wrote in 1974, newspapers don’t (but should) keep reporters on the drug beat and few employ editors who are knowledgeable about drugs. The press corps gives into their readers’ worst fears when reporting about drugs, embracing the most sensational or dramatic aspects of the story. And worst of all, the press routinely fails to cross-check information provided by law-enforcement sources. When reporting about PCP, Klansmen, child molesters, and terrorists, most reporters would just rather not challenge anybody’s preconceptions.


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