On Monday the 25th of July 2022, ABC’s Four Corners aired an episode about harms occurring within the Australian community from psychedelic drugs. The piece served as a necessary righting reflex to the public narrative about psychedelics, which has increasingly focused disproportionately on the positive aspects of psychedelic drugs. We have previously raised concerns about such reporting bias.
Positive drug discourse in the media is a powerful tool for breaking down negative social constructs about banned drugs. Representing banned drugs, and people who use them, in a positive light, is fundamental to deconstructing the tattered tale of back-alley drug dealers and itchy skin. By acknowledging that people who use banned drugs are not defined through these narratives, we are able to lay the discursive foundations necessary to move toward reform.
While positive discourse on banned drugs is central to harm reduction and social justice, those functions are undermined when the arguments used to frame banned drugs positively exceptionalise a single class of drug. Psychedelic exceptionalism is the belief that psychedelics should be privileged over other banned drugs for reform. It functions by placing psychedelics on a pedestal through the explicit stigmatisation of all other banned substances. It masquerades as positive drug discourse, but in reality, contributes to harmful rhetoric as it relies on reinforcing the very stereotypes about ‘the bad’ drugs that harm reduction advocates are working to correct.
ABC’s 4 Corners exposed a central narrative of psychedelic exceptionalism; the portrayal of psychedelics as medicinal and natural, therefore not warranting the same criticism as other banned substances. This narrative is a logical fallacy since all drugs have some medical utility and natural does not mean safe. Additionally, people’s perceptions that ‘natural’ drugs are superior tend only to apply to banned substances: few people complain about the ‘unnatural’ quality of paracetamol, for instance. The argument also tends only to be applied in convenient circumstances: most opioids are naturally derived, but the exceptionalist argument doesn’t extend to promoting those.
The episode also appeared critical of several players in the psychedelics sphere who subscribe to the exceptionalist fallacy, namely the charity Mind Medicine Australia and underground ‘facilitators’ such as Julian Palmer.
The displays of psychedelic exceptionalism featured in the documentary were… exceptional. There were inappropriate songs suggesting the public ditch traditional pharmacotherapy in place of psychedelics, a refusal to acknowledge psychedelics as drugs, and an inability to acknowledge psychedelics as anything but inevitably safe. ABC’s Four Corners’ journalists rightfully critiqued the irresponsibility of suggesting individuals with mental illnesses abandon medication, and the blatant disregard for the potential to experience harm through seeking psychedelic therapy – even in the face of sexual assault allegations made against the underground psychedelic facilitators who had provided said therapy.
As Julian Palmer himself eloquently puts it, “there is an element where plant medicine providers have an element of power…there can be an abuse of that power by [people] in that space”. Despite denying allegations that he is one of those people, his point remains valid that individuals under the influence of any psychoactive substance are potentially vulnerable.
Reporting that balances public perceptions by contrasting the risks of psychedelic therapy against the usual fawning coverage is essential so that individuals seeking alternative therapy have access to an accurate media representation of the discourse, allowing them to make more informed choices.
With their story, ABC’s Four Corners endeavoured to provide viewers with a balanced window into the psychedelic community, however, the portrait painted by the selected interviews was misleading. Often, journalists will briefly insert an opposing position into a piece to present the story as balanced. This tactic, known as false balance, is problematic as it represents the story through its extremes, often overlooking the dominant discourse entirely.
ABC’s Four Corners represented the views of Julian Palmer and Mind Medicine Australia as the dominant perspective, while clinicians such as Dr. Stephen Bright and Dr. Paul Liknaitzky were represented as the opposing, minority perspective. Thus, the audience was left largely unaware of the genuine dominant representatives of the psychedelic community, such as Psychedelic Research in Science & Medicine, Entheogenesis Australis or the Australian Psychedelic Society.
While this Four Corners episode succeeded in exposing psychedelic exceptionalism and warning of the potential dangers of ‘bad players’, most psychedelic harms are caused by prohibition and stigma, and the absence of any discussion on banned drug reform and social justice reduced the potential harm reduction impact of this work.
Realistically, the most practical way for mainstream media to ground content in banned drug reform is to ensure accurate representation of the communities they feature. Community representation of people who use banned drugs challenges simplistic stereotypical representations by acknowledging people who use drugs are the community. Breaking down the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ discourse seen in mainstream media is critical to reform as it positions us to consider drug use as a normal part of the human experience. In doing so, those who use drugs and those who encounter problems as a result of this use are humanised, resulting in reduced stigma.
While ‘Psyched Up’ may not have been grounded in banned drug reform, the piece still functioned to critique the dominant ideology of psychedelic exceptionalism and encouraged mainstream viewers to take a critical approach to drug discourse. This should be commended. But the piece was held back by its focus on the movement’s opposing extremes: banned drug reform is not as simple as saying banned drugs are good or bad – it’s about acknowledging all benefits and all risks, warts and all.
Emily Segers, Edith Cowan University student
Disclaimer: The author takes full responsibility for the content of this article.
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Journalists that would like to seek expert commentary on drug issues can contact AOD Media Watch who can provide referrals to a range of experts on the issue being reported. Guidelines for journalists can be accessed from our website and resources for the media are available from Mindframe.
Response from ABC Four Corners
The ABC appreciates the considered analysis of the Four Corners episode ‘Psyched Up’, and much of it requires no response from us.
However, we reject the opinion of the author that “the portrait painted by … selected interviews was misleading”.
The views of Mind Medicine Australia (MMA) were included (and critiqued) in the program due to the charity’s outspokenness and public lobbying regarding psychedelic therapy in Australia. A close examination of MMA was in the public interest, including for reasons identified in your critique.
Four Corners also rejects the allegation of “false balance” raised in this critique.
It is important to note we engaged with dozens of researchers and advocates in the psychedelic space in Australia, with whom the program made extensive efforts to secure on-camera interviews.
Unfortunately, many of these researchers, organisations and clinicians declined to speak on the record or participate in an interview due to Mind Medicine Australia also being interviewed for the program.
Four Corners also included an interview with Rick Doblin, the head of the world’s largest and arguably most mainstream psychedelic organisation, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (or MAPS) in the US, as well as Dr Bright who is a founding member of PRISM, along with Dr Liknaitsky.
We thank Dr Bright and Dr Liknaitsky for their contribution to the program and AOD Media Watch for their feedback and role in the psychedelic and drug reform space.