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PAINFUL TRUTH: Face value is not enough

A press release about legal cocaine quickly took on a life of its own
Cocaine – still illegal. (Black Press Media files)

Never, ever, ever take a press release at face value.

Especially if it leaves the impression the company issuing said press release is implying it’s going to go into the presumably lucrative business of supplying legal cocaine for harm reduction purposes.

Last week, we had a bizarre furor around Langley (you can read about it starting on our front page, if you missed the online versions).

Essentially, a local cannabis firm put out a press release that was, to put it mildly, poorly worded.

Yes, they had secured a Health Canada licence to produce a relatively small amount of cocaine.

However, the paragraphs that followed implied that the company was looking to position itself to… to do what, exactly? To start selling cocaine commercially?

There was a distinct lack of connective tissue in the document. There was nothing that said “Oh, also we have permission to sell cocaine to harm reduction organizations” or “doctors can now prescribe cocaine to addicts.”

Because none of that is true. There are a few harm reduction groups in B.C. that have been selling pre-tested cocaine to try to prevent toxic drug deaths, but those remain, essentially, vigilante operations. It may or may not be the moral thing to do, but it remains very illegal.

But the first articles on this matter (none of them from Black Press Media) simply re-wrote the press release, taking it entirely as if it were true. No checking with Health Canada. No comments from provincial authorities. No additional questions answered by the company.

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And, since the very next day included a Question Period in the B.C. Legislature, as well as press conferences where both Premier David Eby and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were taking questions, those articles acted like a firecracker thrown into an open vat of gasoline.

B.C. Liberals went after the NDP. Federal Conservatives tore into Trudeau.

But it was all nonsense.

A number of news organizations should have known better. I can tell you that even before we began reporting on the political firestorm the story set off, we were launching frantic phone calls and emails at Health Canada, federal politicians, the company, anyone who might be able to clarify exactly what that awkward press release actually meant. Before the end of the day, we’d confirmed our suspicions – the cocaine licence was for research and the limited medical purposes that the drug is still used for. (Did you know it’s a topical anaesthetic for some surgeries? I learn something new every day.)

Most outlets didn’t bother to even try, it seems.

Journalism is under tremendous pressure these days.

Our business model has taken hits from online advertising. And where we used to have daily deadlines, or weekly, now every minute of every day can be a deadline. The internet never sleeps.

Which is all the more reason why we have to work to get it right. And why sometimes, it’s better not to be the first one with a story. It’s better to be the first one who’s right.

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Matthew Claxton

About the Author: Matthew Claxton

Raised in Langley, as a journalist today I focus on local politics, crime and homelessness.
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