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DrugSense History

Note: The following article was published in Heads Magazine in May, 2001. References to current achievements and statistics are dated. Please see our overview for more current information.

DrugSense and The Media Awareness Project (MAP): The History of an Internet Activist Prototype
by Tom O'Connell M.D., editorial input provided by Mark Greer, Matt Elrod, Richard Lake, and Jo-D Dunbar

DrugSense and its largest endeavor the Media Awareness Project (MAP) could be considered a prototypical Internet activist IT (Information Technology) organization in the sense that it was planned, created, and put in operation at a time (late 1996), when that acronym would have drawn blank stares from most. It was formed by principals in widely scattered geographical locations who, with but a single exception, were known to each other only through email. The two Mark Greer and Tom O'Connell who had met only once before organization's founding, met briefly for a second time in November 1996, right after MAP had been incorporated by Greer as a 501(c)3 corporation (October 17) and was applying for its first funding; but it wasn't until a year later -- at the first board of directors' meeting at Lindesmith Center West in San Francisco on October 18, 1997 that the organization's principals all found themselves in the same room at the same time.

The "dot com" crash, which can now be seen as the classic "bubble" produced when financial markets uncritically embraced the promise of a new technology, has engendered a degree of disenchantment with the Internet itself. However the crash didn't do away with the Internet; it simply marked the demise of some commercial elements that had expanded at a rate faster than could be sustained by their profits. Still in its infancy, the Internet has a potential that can only be guessed at and will certainly grow in size and influence for years to come.

A somewhat different arena where the Internet still plays a major -- but yet incompletely defined -- role is where it interacts with traditional news media, the institutions we previously relied on to gather and disseminate news and, importantly, the opinions generated by that news -- opinions which, in a democracy -- ultimately become public policy. How rapidly computers and the Internet have shouldered their way into this arena can be inferred from how rapidly the acronym IT has come to define the process; at least in the eyes of some. Another measure of the importance of the Internet to traditional media is the nearly universal Internet presence of media websites with which they attempt to retain old subscribers and recruit new ones. These sites make much, in some cases all, their sponsors' content available under a variety of commercial and non-commercial arrangements and are still evolving and looking for direction.

A reasonable place to begin MAP's story is the Ninth Drug Policy Foundation (DPF) Convention in Santa Monica in October, 1995. Cliff Schaffer, creator of the original on-line drug library, Jim Rosenfield, creator of a similar library, and Dave Borden, founder of DRCNet, the original Internet drug policy reform organization, called an informal evening meeting for anyone with Internet access and an interest in on-line activism. Two of those attending were Greer from Porterville, CA and O'Connell from San Mateo. Very much "newbies" to both reform and the Internet, they were intrigued by the possibilities being touted by the reform veterans so they signed up for DRCTalk, Borden's email discussion group as soon as they returned home. The months that followed were to be a heady time for the reform, which had been receiving little press recognition because the policy they opposed was so thoroughly taken for granted by the media. That changed abruptly in February 1996 when The New Republic published a seminal editorial by Wm. F. Buckley Jr. calling the drug war a failure and urging that our policy be radically overhauled. This provocative message from a staunch conservative produced a surge of media interest; many influential dailies cautiously endorsed Buckley's criticism to the extent that they agreed the previously sacrosanct policy should at least be reexamined.

In almost direct response to both Buckley's editorial and also to a signal that Republicans would claim in the '96 Presidential Campaign that he was "soft" on drugs, Bill Clinton wasted little time. He persuaded the nearly invisible Lee Brown to step aside as drug czar in favor of the more charismatic Barry McCaffrey; thus guaranteeing that drug policy wouldn't lack media attention for the next five years. So rapidly did Clinton respond that McCaffrey, resplendent in full uniform and seated next to Hillary in the gallery, was introduced as the nominee for drug czar during the State of the Union address later the same month.

At roughly the same time, Mark Greer began pushing a novel idea on DRCTalk: the coordinated writing of letters to newspaper editors, traditionally a mainstay of cash-starved grassroots groups, had been endowed with more clout and precision because the web enabled accurate information to be collected and shared with unprecedented speed and precision. By adding volunteer labor to the equation, those benefits could be realized at an historically low cost. At a time when on-line editions were just starting to appear; participants in those early DRCTalk discussions were already sharing scanned news items and editorials from local papers which were then OCRed (scanned) and posted to the discussion group for the purpose of generating the widest possible response. In the first such efforts, right after Buckley's editorial, some items had even been laboriously typed into email by people lacking scanners and OCR software. Those primitive efforts foreshadowed what is now MAP's greatest asset, the Drug News Archive, a searchable database of uniformly formatted news and opinion pieces related to drug policy containing over 63,000 items, and now growing at 500 or more items a week. Updated several times a day and made freely available to all under Fair Use doctrine the archive is prized by journalists and scholars as an indispensable resource for anyone with a serious interest in drug policy.

The next event to galvanize the on-line reform community was California Attorney General Dan Lungren's mid-Summer raid on Denis Peron's Cannabis Buyers' club in San Francisco. Proposition 215, seeking to legitimize medical use of marijuana in California had received enough signatures to be placed on the '96 ballot, but the campaign for it was simply being ignored by the state's newspapers and was dying for lack of publicity. By generating headlines around the world, Lungren's weekend raid changed everything and for their part, the letter writers on DRCTalk did their best to keep the resulting interest alive. In a very real sense, the spontaneous response to Lungren's raid was the prototype of what were to become the "Focus Alerts" which have been used to rally MAP letter writers since shortly after its founding in early 1997. Today DrugSense and MAP volunteers have been instrumental in generating tens of thousands of letters to the editor (LTEs) and more than 6,700 published LTEs valued at more than $6.7 million in equivalent advertising value.

By the time passage of Propositions 215 in California and 200 in Arizona had shocked the drug warriors in November 1996, Mark Greer, who had urged letter writers to send him faxes of their published work, already had a vision of the organization he hoped to create. He attended the Tenth DPF conference in Washington DC, with a xeroxed "book" of letters already published by DRCTalk authors with which he hoped to secure start up funding for his project. An important concept in Greer's promotion was that published letters to editors (LTEs) could be assigned a commercial value at least equivalent to (and probably greater than) the cost of a similarly sized ad in the same newspaper. An important collateral idea was that even unpublished letters are read by a newspaper's editorial staff; if well written and coherent, they could also be influential. Largely as a result of his one-man effort, Greer secured a small DPF grant. He also attracted the attention of career reformer Kevin Zeese, former President of NORML, and one of the original founders of DPF.

Two other events, which would influence MAP's genesis took place in the summer and fall of 1996: the first was the protracted failure of Calyx, DRCNet's ISP, at a time when interest in focused letter was intensifying. This shook many of the troops and although a "Bcc list" proved a workable stop-gap for a few weeks, the ISP failure convinced many that a more reliable server was needed. One skeptic was Matt Elrod, a transplanted American and long time resident of Vancouver BC. Elrod, who would soon become a key player in the formation of MAP, had already been sold on Greer's idea and had formed his own drug policy discussion group ( "MattTalk," ) on IslandNet, his local Canadian ISP. While Greer was busy trying to convince his American colleagues to back his project, Elrod's Canadian version (CMAP) was already archiving news items which Elrod also posted to DRCTalk. A trained librarian, Elrod was also the first to recognize the importance of uniformly formatting archived material. When Greer, et al eventually took Elrod up on an invitation to start the MAP venture in Canada, those standards would be applied to the Drug News Archive from the very beginning.

The second event to shape MAP was Greer's separation from the reform establishment at DRCNet. It began with a controversy generated by charges in an early article on reform by NYT reporter Christopher Wren that Greer had urged activists to flood the 800 number of a prohibitionist call-in campaign in order to tie it up. The eventual fall out included a "flame war" within DRCTalk over permissible tactics, with battle lines clearly separating newbies and old-timers. In another context, a similar email squabble might have died down without consequence, but when combined with the technical uncertainties of the host ISP, the availability of Elrod's site, and the frustrations of a complex turf battle, it convinced MAP's embattled founder to take his creation to Canada and enlist Elrod, by then working with the Baremetal ISP, as his webmaster. Another activist, Atlantan Ashley Clements, played a critical behind the scenes role as facilitator. Begun as a serendipitous marriage of convenience, the arrangement has proven mutually beneficial and enduring.

Fortunately, reform veteran Kevin Zeese also retained his keen interest in the project; he convinced Greer to accept a board of directors originally Zeese, Kendra Wright and O'Connell and schooled him on being more diplomatic with the reform establishment without dampening his own enthusiasm, which Zeese saw as an essential element in creating an effective volunteer organization. Zeese was later instrumental in securing a measure of financial stability from Robert Field who became MAP's first important funder. He also saw the synergy possible between MAP and other fledgling organizations like November Coalition and the Drug Policy Forum of Texas, so he recruited Nora Callahan Founder to the November Coalition and Jerry Epstein to the MAP Board.

Another critical addition at this time was Richard Lake, a cannabis activist with credentials extending back to being the Solano County coordinator and editor of the newspaper of the 1972 California Marijuana Initiative, Prop. 19. Lake's interest in medical use of cannabis was kindled by the cancer of a close relative. He became incensed at disinformation campaign the new drug czar launched against 215, so he joined DRCTalk in late 1996. A veteran of Fidonet and UseNet then living in Toledo, he was soon attracted to the news gathering and editing functions of the new MAP project. When the first volunteer editor graduated from college and had to be replaced, Lake was the ideal person to take over the rapidly expanding archive. Working closely with Matt Elrod, Richard, who now lives in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, helped develop and implement the professional standards governing the archive. He also recruited and trained the large corps of volunteer "Newshawks" and editors so essential to its smooth function. The final critical element in the news archive's ability to be expanded without missing a beat has been the use of robot editor programs developed by Matt Elrod to minimize the time involved in human handling.

Nevertheless, some human handling is required; the seventy plus articles posted in an average day require a dozen or so volunteer editors. New items accepted for inclusion are checked, formatted and posted to the archive with an average delay of only seven hours; an amazing achievement, especially for volunteers. The archive's expansion has been smooth, steady, and impressive: from 5,000 items at the end of 1997, it has grown to over 63,000 today. Its importance can't be overstated; as Joe McNamara is fond of saying, "the drug war can't stand scrutiny." MAP exists not only to provide that scrutiny, but also to ensure that it's as accurate as possible. To help with the scrutiny, a weekly newsletter was started in July 1997 with Tom Hawkins as one of the original editors. As the archive expanded, so has the scope and readership of the Newsletter. A review the weekly news has been its main purpose since it was taken over by O'Connell in early 1998; Tom has recently been assisted by Jo-D Dunbar (San Luis Obispo, CA) former NORML web master. Jo-D was brought on as the DrugSense Membership Development Coordinator and as an additional web page development specialist in June of 1999.

Prior to working on the newsletter, activist Young, who had authored and coordinated Focus Alerts for MAP, could well have been the prototypical MAP volunteer. He writes,

" I discovered MAP in the summer of 1997.I'd been trying to collect information to write a book about the drug war.. (and) subscribed to a number of on-line news clipping services, but when I inadvertently surfed into the MAP site, I realized it was much better than anything else I had seen, and I was jealous that I hadn't thought of it first. I started hawking stories from Chicago newspapers and sending out letters. I quickly received personal encouragement from Richard Lake and Mark Greer on both projects.. Seeing a couple of my letters in print hooked me completely."

Steve eventually finished his book, "Maximizing Harm," which was originally published on-line and has since made it into print.

Like any new organization enjoying early success, MAP's single biggest problem is to continue doing its present job well while growing in tandem with a burgeoning reform movement. To that end, it has arranged to support the Internet presence of a growing list of reform organizations by providing as-needed technical assistance, email list management, and news feeds. "Powered by MAP" is being seen on a growing number of reform websites.

By any measure, MAP has become the dominant reform presence on the web, and far surpasses all government drug related websites as demonstrated in a study generated by DrugSense last Spring. Numerous other studies and news articles have confirmed both the popularity of DrugSense and MAP objectives and the impact its methods are having on the media. The most recent example of this dominance was supplied by an article in the New England Journal of Medicine at press time.

Some prior news coverage has also begun to recognized the efforts of MAP, its staff, and its volunteers such as those archived at but the media is really just beginning to realize its value and impact.

That this dominance has been achieved on a comparatively minuscule budget is a source of both pride and frustration. In terms of impact on drug policy, the MAP effort clearly shows that dedicated volunteers can provide hundreds, if not thousands of times the "bang" for the buck as well paid government functionaries; however the sad reality is that the government has almost limitless tax revenues at its disposal and activists must depend on donations.

In that setting, prudent expansion will always be a major challenge.