Why you should care
Because we’ve only been hearing one side of the story. Here’s the other.
Portraits of the war on drugs are woven into our cultural consciousness. A faceless drug user plunging a needle into arms covered with constellations of track marks, parks littered with syringes, a mourning family at a loved one’s grave. Of course, this coverage is important. In 2017, 72,000 people died of drug overdoses, and overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Yet these grim, one-dimensional portraits of drug users perpetuate stigma and harmful myths about addiction, focusing more on problems than solutions, valuing anecdotes over evidence. Narcotica, a new podcast that launched in May 2018, is giving the other side of the story — one that humanizes drug users and destigmatizes drug use. “We challenge a lot of media narratives because they get it so wrong,” explains host Troy Farah. “They repeat propaganda from cops and from the government who have an incentive to keep drugs illegal.”
It’s their knowledge and passion for drug policy reform that makes the pod so compelling.
Farah, a California reporter with expertise in science, psychedelics and pharmacology, co-hosts the pod with two other journalists with extensive experience reporting on drugs and criminal justice: Christopher Moraff in Philadelphia and Zachary A. Siegel in Chicago. The trio are like smart, informed friends you hope to meet at a party.
And it’s their knowledge and passion for drug policy reform that makes the pod so compelling. Like in Episode 10, when Farah draws on his knowledge of policy and pharmacology to weigh in on the controversy surrounding kratom, a plant used to treat anxiety and pain. And in Episode 9, when Moraff, whose experience as a street photographer allows him to make strong connections with people, speaks with a mother grieving her son’s death by overdose. Siegel rounds out the group’s dynamic by openly sharing his history of opiate addiction.
Each of the 10 episodes released so far explores complex stories of drug addiction, policy and research, but in a way that makes the heavy subject matter engaging — by showing the other side, by putting a human face on it. “The podcast allows us to paint a picture of this kind of life with more nuance than most media because you get to hear the voices and character of sources,” Moraff says. Narcotica’s sources include experts, doctors, researchers and people who Farah says media has historically left out of the equation — like drug users.
The first episode, “Opioid of the Masses” (which the trio sees as their gold standard), challenges the dominant media narrative on the overdose crisis and the war on drugs, including weigh-in from drug users from Philadelphia. It also presents a compelling case for how fentanyl is not actually deadly to the touch — which could positively impact overdose victims by allowing first responders to begin treatment more quickly.
It’s important to note that Moraff, Farah and Siegel do not claim complete objectivity. Rather, they share the ways their own experiences have shaped their reporting. Case in point: Each speaks about their own drug use during an upcoming episode featuring Jerry Stahl, author of the influential addiction memoir, Permanent Midnight. Siegel explains that his own addiction with opioids has driven a lot of his journalistic coverage, but he also wants to make it clear that “just because someone has done drugs or had an addiction, that doesn’t qualify them as an expert on the subject or someone who can speak for the community.” Know what the medical literature says, he stresses, “know your science, chemistry and research.”
People interested in public health, science and addiction will appreciate Narcotica for its rigorous reporting. Recovering addicts like me will love Narcotica for offering hope and a refreshing alternative to the stereotypical portrayal of drug use and addiction. The podcast is provocative, informative, even funny. And you’ll likely learn more than you thought you would about drugs. And that’s shining a much-needed light on the darkness of the drug crisis.