The challenge: how to inform the community about changes in life style without glamorizing such things as a new "in" drug.
The Post Style section attempted this with a major piece June 1 on "Ecstasy: The Lure and the Peril" by Jane Leavy. The article was the product of a month of research and appeared on the same day the Drug Enforcement Agency issued an emergency order placing the drug in the same danger category as heroin and cocaine.
Starting this past Monday persons involved in manufacturing, selling or possession with intent to distribute the drug became subject to imprisonment of up to 15 years and a fine of up to $125,000 for a first offense.
The Post article devoted 92 column inches, in addition to a major headline and illustration, to the subject. In going through the article it seemed to me that about 26 inches told of the "lure" and fewer than eight were about the "peril." The remaining inches were neither.
True, the sixth paragraph of the story mentioned "reports of paranoid delusions, elevated blood pressure, severe jaw clenching and, says the DEA, a possibility of permanent brain damage," but then added, "To some, the risks are worth it." Also, the final paragraph of the part on the front page quoted a Harvard professor, "I think the therapists giving it are fools. People get sentimental and lugubrious and think they've discovered the truth."
I may be representative of the homebodies who are content only to read about such college and yuppie preoccupations and are unlikely to reach for a dose, but a reader who invited me to reread the article through the eyes of an impressionable teen- ager or insecure young adult made me realize some of the glowing experiences could fall on welcoming ears.
Some excerpts from the opening paragraphs:
"They sound like born-agains who have glimpsed a better world, evangelicals of the latest psychoactive reality. . . . It's the psychedelic for the '80s. . . . It's no big deal. It's mild. . . . Words like 'peace' and 'relaxed' are so broad. It's a feeling of great warmth and connectedness with the world."
Similar reports could be found in the April 15 edition of Newsweek, which gave "Getting high on 'Ecstasy' full page. The New York magazine of May 20, which devoted six pages to "The new drug they call 'Ecstasy' was even more enthusiastic.
Asked about The Post article, Gene R. Haislip, head of the DEA Office of Diversion Control, termed it "pretty balanced" and said the attention given to the hallucinogen MDMA -- commonly known as Ecstasy -- was "helpful since it pointed out the damage" the drug could do.
His reaction is a reminder that in a story of this length different readers see different things. To impressionable youngsters the impact may be "here's something lots of people are doing and enjoying." To federal law enforcement officials the bottom line is that the article gave some public attention to a menacing, mind-altering drug and to the government action to ban it.
The problem of telling what's going on without making it attractive was much in Jane Leavy's mind when she wrote the article. She said that as a result she didn't quote all of the favorable experiences she could have recounted but did attempt a "sober and balanced" piece about about what is known and why the drug is so popular.
Mary Hadar, assistant managing editor/Style, was firmly in Leavy's corner. "The article is an accurate reflection of what Jane found. . . . Just because DEA says it's dangerous we can't alter the results of our reporting. What we can do is place prominently all the caveats, the DEA action, the side effects."
Major articles in Style tend to provoke reader response. Its charter is broad -- "a daily magazine dealing with social issues, profiles of people who make a difference at that moment, culture, social events, service features and life styles. We try to reflect social change and the level of acceptability," explained Hadar.When a drug is declared unlawful I question whether "lure-and-peril" treatment is appropriate, and in any case, I believe the peril deserves more -- not less -- emphasis than the lure.