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Crime fiction has its storytelling conventions, and so does reporting of crime fact. Drug crime supports a particularly rich set of narrative habits, which have not changed much since Reefer Madness warned in 1936 about "the new drug menace which is destroying the youth of America." Drug reporting has trouble separating itself from the language of moral panic, especially the portrayal of some drug or other as a scourge racing through passive society like an endemic virus.

This is how journalist Roberto Saviano, author of the 2006 Neapolitan crime exposé Gomorrah, begins ZeroZeroZero, his new book about the international cocaine trade: "The people closest to you use coke. If it's not your mother or father, if it's not your brother, then it's your son. And if your son doesn't use it, your boss does. Or your boss's secretary, but only on Saturdays, for fun. And if your boss doesn't, his wife does …" and so on in the same manner for several pages, through a daisy chain of practically everyone you might encounter in an average week or month.

Flashback to 1981, when Time magazine published a cover story called Middle-Class High. "Coke is the drug of choice for perhaps millions of solid, conventional and often upwardly mobile citizens," the article says, " – lawyers, businessmen, students, government bureaucrats, politicians, policemen, secretaries, bankers, mechanics, real estate brokers, waitresses. Largely unchecked by law enforcement, a veritable blizzard of the white powder is blowing through the American middle class."

The hyperbolic trope is the same, and we know it's hyperbole in Saviano's case, because cocaine use has been falling for years. In Europe, cocaine is used by only 1 per cent of the population, or less than 2 per cent of those aged 15 to 34. The numbers are similar in Canada and in the United States, where cocaine use has dropped by at least a third over the past decade.

Time's expanding legions of solid, conventional cokeheads in 1981 were also oversold: Use of the drug had plateaued in the late 1970s. But the media's addiction to sensational tales of what a Look article called "the mounting menace of drug use" kept growing through the mid-1980s, when Time announced that crack was "rapidly becoming a scourge."

Drug scares have also gone the other way. Media coverage of LSD reached overdose proportions in 1968, Stephen Siff reports in his recent book Acid Hype: American News Media and the Psychedelic Experience, though use of the drug continued to increase through the mid-1970s. By that time, Siff says, the story was felt to be stale, though the phenomenon continued to grow.

News magazines such as Time and Newsweek had been particularly hooked on LSD stories, Siff writes, because it allowed them "to experiment with rich description, first-person, stream-of-consciousness writing, trick photography, and photo manipulation to explain experiences considered beyond the usual capacity of language to describe." Newspapers and television offered no real competition in psychedelic storytelling.

"Often, journalists sensationalized the benefits and dangers of LSD in the same article," Siff writes. Before the drug was criminalized, they sometimes sent an enterprising reporter to try it out. In 1953, Maclean's magazine ran a piece called My Twelve Hours as a Madman, an account of "the torments of hell and the ecstasies of heaven" experienced during an acid trip at Saskatchewan Weyburn Mental Hospital, where LSD research was led by Humphry Osmond, the British psychiatrist who coined the term "psychedelic."

An added bonus in the early LSD years was that acid had vocal supporters among high-status celebrities, including Cary Grant, Aldous Huxley and Henry Luce, publisher of Time, whose gaga coverage of LSD was quite unlike its later treatment of cocaine. The equivalent yea-sayers these days are clustered around "medical" marijuana. But most writing about recreational drugs since LSD has focused on the hell side of the experience, for the individual and especially for society.

Saviano's focus in ZeroZeroZero is not so much on the experience as on the industry that enables it. He's particularly keen to show links between the familiar well-known Colombian and Mexican cartels and more obscure criminal networks in Russia, Italy and Africa. The book is bursting with unsettling facts and lurid anecdotes, many of them gathered through an obsessive investigative method that Saviano describes as an addiction in itself. His descriptions of how urban users prompt a complex international relay of money and drugs have a feverish, cinematic flavour.

Cocaine is the right drug for a writer of Saviano's style and temperament, because its distribution flows through updated versions of old-school crime rackets, with all the violence and omerta they entail.

More Canadians use pharmaceuticals to get high than cocaine, according to a 2012 Health Canada survey, and most of what they use is acquired legally and passed on. There are no reliable figures on how many use psychoactive compounds available on the "Dark Web" – hundreds of websites sheltered by layers of software designed to preserve anonymity.

A recent report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction says that 101 new psychoactives appeared on the Dark Web in 2013. More are "analogue" drugs – small chemical variations on known illegal drugs, such as MDMA (ecstasy). They are "legal highs" – just different enough from the mimicked substance to evade the reach of many anti-drug laws. Most come from labs in India and China, and are paid for in crypto-currencies such as Bitcoin, through distribution chains that are much more difficult to trace than Saviano's international coke trade.

In the U.K., where 3 per cent of the population uses cocaine (the highest rate in the EU), the same proportion of people under 24 tried legal highs in 2013, the EMCDDA reports. Nine per cent of emergency-room treatments for bad drugs in the EU were related to new psychoactives, which by definition are untested, except by other anonymous users posting to sites such as Bluelight and Erowid.

"The fact that manufacturers, suppliers, retailers, website-hosting and payment processing services may all be based in different countries makes online drug markets particularly difficult to control," the EMCDDA says. As soon as one website is shut down, others spring up. British journalist Mike Power's 2013 book Drugs 2.0, which is to legal highs what Saviano's book is to cocaine, devotes most of a chapter to Silk Road, a leading "anonymous marketplace" on the Dark Web. Silk Road was closed and its founder arrested by the FBI six months after Power's book appeared, but was quickly replaced by Agora Marketplace and other smaller sites.

At this point in my story, I'm entitled by journalistic custom to describe the new drugs coursing through the Dark Web as a scourge and a menace racing unchecked through society. But the number of people capable of buying drugs on the Dark Web is still small, and anyone who in-gests a substance they bought from an anonymous retailer on the basis of an anonymous tip probably has a primary addiction to risk. Something bad may happen to them, but the industry that supports their habit is not wreaking nearly the kind of social havoc seen in places where drug cartels run the show.

Plus, the "war on drugs" that began in 1968 and picked up steam in the mid-1980s has been denounced as a failure by the leaders of several countries most affected. Prohibition, harsher law enforcement and longer prison sentences are not the simple cure for moral panic they once seemed.

Maybe the answer is for drug reporting to kick the moral-panic habit and stop trading in fear. If we can all calm down and look clearly at drugs and addiction, we may have a better chance of defining what our drug problem really is.