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Eye on the Media
CBS News 'Eye on America' Reports on Erowid
by Fire & Earth Erowid
May 2003
Citation:   Erowid F, Erowid E. "Eye on the Media: CBS News 'Eye on America' Reports on Erowid". Erowid Extracts. May 2003;4:2.
 
On January 27, 2003, CBS Evening News ran a short "Eye on America" feature about "recreational drug websites". Their report focused on Erowid's role as an information source, presented the case of a young man they said had harmed himself after reading about information on Erowid.org, and questioned whether such information should be available to everyone.

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The primary focus of the story was an interview with a young man being treated at the University of Massachusetts hospital. They described that he had overdosed on an "exotic combination of chemicals and plants", the recipe for which he had found on Erowid. The young man was quoted as saying that he thought "hallucinogens were fun things to do on a Friday night."


It's Erowid's reports on side effects, on precise doses, and its long list of recipes that make it the encyclopedia of altered states.
-- Wyatt Andrews, CBS
News Correspondent

No specifics were given about what he had ingested, but through a number of other sources we learned that he had purchased Syrian rue seeds from which he made an extract. He ingested the extract orally (for its MAOI property) and then smoked 5-MeO-DMT.

The young man said that he had read about the combination on "Erowid dot org", to which the interviewer replied questioningly "Erowid dot org?" and then the commentator stated the URL again flatly: "Erowid dot org." It seemed as if the editorial intent was to advertise the location of the site as clearly as possible.

A physician from the hospital was interviewed, but provided no specifics on camera about what had happened. It is interesting to note that the physician, Dr. Edward Boyer, was the author of an article critical of Erowid in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2001 (Erowid Extracts No. 2). He told CBS News that he was "stunned" by the amount of information on Erowid.org and that he thought some of the information on the site was not appropriate for children. He went on, however, to say how he himself found the site to be a useful resource.

CBS News included an edited and slightly reworded statement that we had sent them in email: "We are a library, with no interest in encouraging anything but learning and care." They then included a brief on-camera interview with Rick Doblin (founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, MAPS) who countered the view that we promote irresponsible behavior: "Providing access to tools, is not the same as encouraging people to use them."

The report ended on an ominous note, returning to the theme of dangers lurking on the internet: "For the young man who overdosed, and his parents, it's a cautionary tale about the freedom of the internet. The web gave him access to unlimited information, but it was mixed with a brand new way to flirt with death."

Overall, we were pleased with the story. Although we strongly dislike the fearmongering advertisements that heralded the piece and the overall negative tone, the producers of Eye on America are to be commended for including elements of balance. The few facts were reasonably accurate, they included an extremely positive quote from Dr. Boyer, did not attack us personally, selected a fair quote from our email, and included the balancing opinion of a friend of the Erowid Project.

We have an ambivalent relationship to the news media. While we certainly want our resources to be available to those who need them, we believe that the issues raised by our site are not easily dealt with in one- or two-minute-long news spots. With major news sources, often stories are more like advertisements or meme-bites than they are functional transmissions of fact.


Every physician I know, every law enforcement person I know who wants to find out the very latest in drugs goes to Erowid.
-- Dr. Edward Boyer, M.D.

For television news producers, there are severe conflicts of interest between ratings success and depth of journalism. Financial motives push strongly against calm, neutral presentations and towards prurient, exciting stories about terrible lurking dangers to attract the fickle, distracted viewer. CBS News added morphing, psychedelic graphics super-imposed onto images shown of our site; the story implied that Erowid somehow recommended taking MAOIs and smoking 5-MeO-DMT; advertisements for the piece warned about children's safety on the internet; and Dan Rather led into the story with "Some websites can teach your children how to make mind-bending drugs that can kill them."

It is worth noting that, as of the time of the story, Erowid included 7 experience reports from people who had combined these two substances, including reports with titles like "Baseball Bat to the Skull" and "A Bad Combination". Several other reports mentioned worrisome effects like blacking out and vomiting.

Dr. Boyer believes that the young man experienced serotonin syndrome leading to severe overheating and subsequent rhabdomyolysis (toxic muscle damage). A case report documenting this incident is expected in 2003. Since there is a history of traditional use of South American brews that contain both an MAOI (harmala) and 5-MeO-DMT, this incident helps raise important questions about potential health risks. We look forward to future research on this topic.

This was the most prominent television mention of Erowid to date, and it was not a complete trainwreck. The extremely controversial nature of these issues fosters misunderstanding and polarization in dialog and we are glad that CBS News chose to include balance as they raised valid medical and ethical issues for their audience.

For several days following this three minute television spot, Erowid's traffic nearly doubled, leading to more than 40,000 visitors each day.