Maureen Dowd made waves when she used her nightmare encounter with a marijuana chocolate bar as fodder for her New York Times column. But she has nothing on Dan Rather.
The former longtime CBS anchor, always known for his folksy sayings and his bizarre collisions with the news, once convinced a bunch of Texas cops to let him shoot smack for a story. That’s right, heroin. Black tar. Dowd only wishes she had cojones like those.
How did Rather get away with it? He was a radio reporter at the time, in the 1950s, in Houston. So the rules and the legal culture were much different, and Rather knew most of the locals.
He stumbled onto the idea when he learned about a heroin bust. To make the story more real for his audience, he wanted to get a sense of what the drug does to a person.
So he walked into the local police station and asked them to give him a shot in the arm. They agreed.
“I knew a lot of police officers,” Rather said in 2012. “They said they had arrested these people for heroin. I had no idea what it was . . . [The police] described it to me as best as they knew from what people told them. So I said it would be a good story to get some heroin — I had no idea how to get it — and then describe how you feel. And so I did that with the help of the police in the police station. Hard to imagine these days, but I knew these guys pretty well.”
Rather’s First-Hand Account of Heroin
If Dowd was going in for a moral lesson about the hidden dangers of legal cannabis, Rather chased the dragon like a real journalist, in search of only the facts. He wanted to give listeners a first-hand account of a drug almost none of them had ever seen or tried.
“They injected me at the police station, and I made notes as best as I could have, of what the effects were,” Rather said. “And we produced a series of ‘this is what heroin is, this is why people take it, this is what you experience while you’re under the influence, this is why it’s dangerous.’”
A Storied History of Journalists on Drugs
Reporters on drugs on deadline actually have a long history. Dowd may be the most hysterical of the bunch, but her paranoid trip on edible weed is just the latest in a long line of journalists who got in the trenches for their drug-related assignments.
There were a few who sampled acid, including Tom Wolfe and Ken Kesey in the 1960s, and Lewis Lapham of the San Francisco Examiner in 1959. Lapham tripped with beat poet Allen Ginsburg at the Stanford Research Institute, seven years before LSD was outlawed in California.
The Downside of Drug Assignments
At least one journalist, a photographer named Lanre Fehintola, became addicted after trying a drug for his work. Like Rather, he covered subjects hooked on heroin, and decided he should experience their world. He fought the addiction for years.
However traumatized Dowd may be from her unpleasant high, she probably won’t walk away from the assignment with a drug habit. She does, however, join the ranks of storied journalists who have taken drugs they don’t understand with little or no preparation. That’s usually a recipe for disaster – or hilarity.
As for Rather, he decided immediately never to try smack again.
“It gave me a hell of a headache,” he said.