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Drugs in the News

In a world grappling with issues of substance use and abuse, drugs are bound to see their days in the spotlight of our 24-hour news cycle.

Maybe it’s because of another tragic celebrity overdose, forcing us to confront the fact that even our heroes and icons struggle with addictions and vices. Maybe it’s because someone’s drug use landed them on the wrong side of the law, or one drug itself is finding itself on the right side.

We looked at six types of drugs, analyzing how often they popped up in the news media. Any time we saw a surge in coverage, we checked it out to see what caused that particular spike. Here’s what we found.


Not surprisingly, marijuana was the most frequently mentioned substance of them all. Marijuana’s spikes largely parallel policy changes regarding regulation of the drug. This started in 2008, when then-presidential-candidate Barack Obama announced he was in favor of legalizing medical marijuana. In the ensuing years, marijuana popped up in the news when Washington and Colorado legalized recreational use. California considered decriminalization but ultimately decided against it.

Unlike other drugs, marijuana did not pop up in association with a high-profile drug-related death. However, two high-profile incidents involving Michael Phelps and Justin Bieber brought marijuana into the spotlight. Phelps was photographed smoking at a college party and subsequently suspended from competition. Miami police arrested Bieber for a DUI, after which he admitted he had also taken prescription drugs and smoked marijuana.


Cocaine was the second-most frequently mentioned substance in the news thanks in part to three high-profile news stories involving the transgressions of both politicians and those sworn to protect them. In April 2012, a scandal erupted involving the Secret Service, a hotel room in Colombia, a group of prostitutes, alcohol, and cocaine. The following year, the infamous Rob Ford crack video surfaced, and US Rep. Trey Radel was forced to resign following a cocaine arrest.

Cocaine’s deadly consequences also came up following the deaths of Corey Haim and Heath Ledger. Neither death was specifically linked to cocaine abuse, but the drug was mentioned in these articles that detailed past struggles with addiction.


Heroin is a drug with severe addictive potential and tragic consequences. Its wide-reaching destructive influence is reinforced when it ensnares the lives of some of our heroes. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Cory Monteith’s heroin overdoses shocked the nation and brought drug abuse into the national spotlight.

Heroin doesn’t only pop into the news when celebrities die. The closing of Silk Road, essentially an for drugs, made headlines in 2013. Also notable were stories covering the emergence of a “flesh-eating” Russian synthetic heroin known as krokodil, as well as those documenting an alarming uptick in to heroin use in New England.

MDMA & Ecstasy

With the rise of rave culture in the United States around the turn of the decade, it’s been no surprise to see a rise in news about the drugs that may have helped fuel the scene: both ecstasy and ecstasy’s purer form, MDMA.

The reports range from the silly (like Madonna’s spat with Deadmau5 over her, “Has anyone here seen Molly?” comment), to the tragic (like Electric Zoo being canceled following two MDMA overdoses), to something more sinister (such as Rick Ross rapping about drugging a girl’s drink with MDMA as a date rape device). MDMA also popped back up in the news when Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, the “godfather of ecstasy,” passed away at age 88, and when studies found that MDMA could potentially be used to treat depression and PTSD.

Prescription Drugs

One of the most dangerous drug trends in the US today are not drugs we buy off the streets but ones prescribed by our doctors. Xanax, and other powerful painkillers like Vicodin and OxyContin, have become tools for drug abuse — with scary results.

In 2007, wrestler Chris Benoit took Xanax — among other prescriptions — and used it to drug and murder his wife and son before hanging himself. Anna Nicole Smith and Heath Ledger were victims of dangerous mixes of prescription drugs which caused overdoses. Another alarming report from the CDC said women’s painkiller-related deaths were up 400 percent. In 2011, we see a spike coinciding with a crackdown on “pill mills,” or clinics selling prescriptions to those who don’t need them.


Methamphetamine went mainstream when the popularity of Emmy-award winning television show “Breaking Bad” exploded, bringing the drug — and its consequences — into the American living room week after week.

It’s no surprise then, that two news spikes we saw were “Breaking Bad”-related: one for the news that the DEA wanted a man named Walter White from Alabama for distribution of methamphetamine. The other spike occurred when the “Breaking Bad” finale aired, sparking a storm of praise from numerous media outlets for the show’s run. Other news spikes look at South Africa’s rise as a global meth hub and also an incident where actor Michael Douglas’s son was arrested for selling meth.


The chart above is a sentiment map of the publishers used for this study. “Sentiment” indicates a negative, neutral or positive connotation to the drugs included in the articles for each publisher. The data represented was taken from a random sampling of articles including keywords for our six drug categories, using the Alchemy Sentiment API to assign each article a score.

Prescription drugs, such as Xanax and opioid painkillers were the media’s chief villain. This may have been caused by the large number of deaths associated with prescription drug overdoses.

Given the drug’s new legality in several states, we expected sentiment for marijuana to lean toward neutral like we see in the chart. What we didn’t expect were similar results for MDMA and ecstasy. Even more shocking was the news source who had the most neutral lean toward MDMA:


Here’s the news: For many, drugs aren’t just in the news. Drugs — and addiction to them — are around us every day. Someone you know may be struggling with drug addiction this very moment; it just doesn’t wind up on a TV screen like it did when Whitney Houston’s struggles came to light. Unlike news editors, drug abuse and addiction do not exercise discretion. These issues aren’t exclusive to Philip Seymour Hoffman. It could happen to you or a loved one. If you — or someone you know — is struggling with drug abuse, seek help by calling today.


For this project we scraped the internet for news articles containing the terms “Marijuana,” “Cocaine,” “Heroin,” Meth,” “MDMA,” “Ecstasy,” “OxyContin,” and “Xanax,” from 16 of the internets top news publishers. Over 188,000 news articles pertaining to these terms were found from 2007 to August 2014. Grouping the results by month, we combed through these articles to expose some of the reasons for significant spikes in news coverage surrounding these terms.

Furthermore, we ran a sampling of articles for each publisher, per term, through Alchemy’s Sentiment API to determine that publisher’s stance on each substance. Alchemy assigns a sentiment score to each article based on the context of the target term. More information on Alchemy’s API and how it determines sentiment can be read here.

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