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The Politics of America's Latest Drug Scare PDF Print E-mail
Articles - International & national drug policy
Written by Harry Levine   
Tuesday, 05 January 2010 23:30

The Politics of America's Latest Drug Scare

Harry G. Levine and Craig Reinarman

Chapter 17 of Freedom at Risk: Secrecy, Censorship, and Repression in the 1980s
Edited by Richard O. Curry, ©1988 Temple University Press

In 1986 American politicians and news media went through an extraordinary antidrug frenzy. Every major newspaper, newsmagazine, and TV network carried lurid, exaggerated stories alleging that cocaine and other drug use was "taking over" cities and suburbs alike. We were told that America's youth, economic competitiveness, and even our very national security are all gravely threatened by drugs. In March, Newsweek's cover story, "Kids and Cocaine," used the words "plague" and "epidemic," despite noting later that the percentage of high school seniors reporting that they had tried cocaine had increased from 16% in 1981 to only 17% in 1986. In May, NBC News told its millions of viewers that crack, a risky new crystalline form of cocaine that is smoked, "has become America's drug of choice." In fact, there is no evidence that any substantial proportion of the 22 million Americans who have tried cocaine use it in its crack form, or that crack is widely used at all outside major cities. Readers' Digest took out full-page ads in the New York Times and other major newspapers with the banner headline, "FROM MIDDLE AMERICA COME REPORTS OF TEEN PARTIES WHERE COCAINE IS SPRINKLED ON THE POPCORN." Cocaine users across America must have laughed aloud. Even if cocaine use were half as prevalent as the alarmists claimed, few if any users would waste such an expensive drug by using it in a way that would not only ruin its intended effects but make the popcorn taste terrible to boot.
School administrators in Hawkins, Texas, inspired by the hype and by the recommendations of Education Secretary William Bennett, announced plans to spend twenty-two dollars per student for schoolwide drug testing—four times more per pupil than Hawkins spends for library books. In October, President and Nancy Reagan hosted an antidrug television special in which they informed viewers, "This epidemic has our children's names written on it." They claimed that because drugs were "terrorizing" the country, the war on drugs was nothing less than "another war for our freedom." Presumably it was in the name of this "freedom" that his administration proposed massive urinalysis testing that would invade the privacy and encroach upon the civil rights of millions of workers and students, and subject tens of thousands of freeway travelers of certain ages and races to searches by police and, soon, by armed services personnel.
As election day approached, candidates challenged each other to urinate into specimen cups to provide chemical proof of their moral purity, clean urine presumably being a measure of fitness for high office. In a show of good faith, President Reagan and Vice President Bush led the way to the toilet, with many high-level staffers in tow. Some observers called the whole episode "jar wars." The White House drug advisor, Carlton Turner, went so far as to tell Newsweek that marijuana use causes homosexuality. Capping this off, Congress passed the wishfully named "Drug Free America Act." The new law provides a remarkable panoply of new drug controls, including mandatory life sentences to twenty-one-year-olds who sell a gram of cocaine to twenty-year-old friends, and gives most of its nearly two-billion-dollar appropriation to law enforcement and military agencies to wage yet another futile "war on drugs." It was quite a year.
Buried in the blizzard of drug scare stories, there were critical and dissenting reports. Articles in the Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, The New Republic, and a fine one in TV Guide ("Is TV News Musing America's Cocaine Problem?") suggested that the extent of new and current drug abuse had been seriously exaggerated. Even Time magazine, in an issue with a typical scare cover, included a graph showing drug use had not risen appreciably for six years. Time quoted the head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse as saying: "The trend since 1979 is that people are backing off. In almost all classes of drugs, abuse among younger people has diminished." Gradually it became clear that the epidemic was one of media and political attention and not of drug abuse.
Little more than a decade ago the political climate about drugs was very different. In the early 1970s President Nixon's hand-picked National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse recommended decriminalization as a policy alternative that should be considered seriously. Many states and localities eased penalties on marijuana use, without experiencing any of the horrendous increases in drug problems that were predicted. In 1976 President Carter still spoke of decriminalization as a rational policy. How, then, did we find ourselves confronted in 1986 with a wave of antidrug hysteria?
Drug scares are a recurring theme in American history. just as red scares scapegoat leftists, accusing them of undermining the foundations of America, drug scares blame all kinds of social problems on the use of one chemical substance or another. The first and most commonly scapegoated drug was alcohol. Throughout the nineteenth century the American temperance movement persuaded tens of millions of people that alcohol was a demonic substance. Temperance leaders said that alcoholic drink was responsible for most of the poverty, crime, violence, mental illness, moral degeneracy, broken families, lost productivity, and individual failure in industrializing America. In the early twentieth century, prohibitionists promised that constitutional prohibition would be a panacea that would literally empty the prisons and mental hospitals and ensure lasting economic prosperity and moral well-being.
The claims first made against alcohol were reapplied with racist imagery in subsequent drug scares. In the 1870s California passed the first law against smoking opium after a campaign that raised the spectre of Chinese men drugging white women into sexual slavery. The law in effect enhanced police and employer control over immigrant Chinese workers, and was only one of many such laws supported by white workers in a political-economic context of recession, unemployment, and xenophobia. During the first cocaine scare, in another tight labor market just after the turn of the century, some southern sheriffs claimed they had switched from.22 to.38 caliber pistols because their old guns could not stop the "coke-crazed" black man. Such racist fears were used by moral entrepreneurs to overcome the resistance of Southern "states' rights" congressmen to the first federal law against cocaine and opiates.
In the depression of the 1930s, alcohol prohibition had been repealed and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics had succeeded in criminalizing both opiate use and medical treatment of addiction. They soon faced budget cuts and needed a new villain, so the bureau began a crusade to popularize an image of marijuana as a "killer weed" that made smokers, especially Mexicans, violent. By the 1970s, however, a new generation of drug warriors reversed field and claimed that marijuana was the "drop-out drug" that was destroying the motivation and patriotism of middle-class youth (the same generation nowadays derided as overly ambitious and conservative yuppies).
There has often been an economic dimension to drug scares. Many large employers in the early twentieth century supported antialcohol crusades in order to increase worker productivity. Today, nearly half the Fortune 500 companies use blood or urine tests to screen employees and job applicants for illicit drug use (far fewer look at the more prevalent problems created by licit drugs like alcohol, Valium, and tobacco). Corporations justify the tests on the grounds of efficiency and competitiveness. However, although many corporations claim they must use drug tests for cocaine to stop America's falling rate of productivity, there is clearly more to the story than that. Productivity rates began to fall in the late 1960s, long before the use of cocaine became widespread. Despite the tendency for many businesses to blame drugs for their problems, most business journals have demonstrated that falling productivity has to do with disinvestment, capital flight, poor management, obsession with short-term profitability, and the tendency to invest in mergers rather than productivity-enhancing plants and equipment. It also must be noted that such tests intimidate workers and give management surveillance over their employees' private lives. Although often construed as concern for employee welfare, many corporate approaches to drug problems also serve as means of controlling workers and giving managers an additional weapon in their battles with unions.
In January 1986, President Reagan ordered drug testing for over one million federal employees. The most optimistic and self-serving estimates of the testing industry claim "only" a 2 percent or 3 percent rate of "false positives." That means that perhaps 30,000 federal employees who do not use illicit drugs will be erroneously declared guilty, threatening their reputations and livelihoods. Everyone forced to go through the degradation of supervised urine tests will have lost their constitutional rights to privacy, to the presumption of innocence, against self-incrimination, and against unreasonable searches. The drug tests should have been instantly discredited as unconstitutional, insanely expensive, and impossibly inaccurate. Instead, they are going forward. In December 1986, news reports explained that even high-level justice Department officials were opposed to the tests but were unwilling to speak out for fear of being branded "soft on drugs." Unions and civil libertarians who are trying to stop the tests have won most court cases thus far, but there are other battles to come. Perhaps the major obstacle faced by opponents of the drug tests is the irrational environment of public opinion created by politicians and the media.
There is a long tradition of fascination with drug horror stories in the American media. William Randolph Hearst's "yellow journalism" empire was built in part on sensationalistic tales of ruin and redemption at the hands of this or that consciousness-altering chemical. Although American journalism has in many respects made great progress since those days, the media's willingness to knowingly distort and exaggerate the nature and consequences of drug abuse in the name of circulation, "dramatic footage," and higher ratings remains intact. A classic case of this occurred in 1980 when a young reporter for the Washington Post won a Pulitzer Prize for her story of an eight-year-old heroin addict whose mother's boyfriend was injecting him. The story flew past the Post's legendary editors and the distinguished Pulitzer jurors before being exposed as concocted. An embarrassed retraction was printed and journalism's highest prize was returned. What is most telling about this sad story was that it succeeded precisely because it fit all the preconceived biases we have about evil junkies. Ironically, any junkie could have told the editors the story was a phony. What addict in his right mind would give precious "junk" to a child even if he were vile enough to want to do so?
In addition to racism, bureaucratic self-interest, economics, and mongering by the media, drug scares always have deeper political facets as well. The increased power and legitimacy of political and cultural conservatism in the Reagan era have contributed significantly to the making of the current drug scare. The right wing has long been attracted to the issue of illicit drug use because it focuses political attention on individual deviance and immorality and away from structural social ills like economic inequality, injustice, and lack of meaningful roles for young people. A crusade against drug use allows conservative politicians to be law-and-order minded; it also permits them to give the appearance of caring about social ills without committing them to do or spend very much to help people. In the last ten years, New Rightists and other cultural conservatives have championed a life-style politics that is antihomosexual, antiabortion, antisex out of wedlock, antidrugs, and even anti-rock and roll. Politicians opposed to the agendas of the right have often felt obliged to give lip service to some conservative moral issues in order to retain their own political legitimacy.
Participation in the antidrug crusade of 1986 gave Democrats a way to take a strong stand on something without opposing a then very popular president. Being against illegal drugs has always been a safe issue for politicians because there are no large, powerful corporate opponents with wealthy and influential lobbies, as there are for tobacco, alcohol, pharmaceuticals, firearms, automobiles, and other dangerous products. In fact, for some Democrats, allocating more money for a war on drugs than even Reagan asked for seemed ideal; it deprived conservatives of one of their issues, and gave liberals a way of appearing more middle-of-the-road. Spending money on the drug war even gave politicians a way of saying they were doing something about minority and inner-city problems after most of them had pushed for or acquiesced in six years of crippling cuts in social programs for the poor.
By offering this critique of the latest drug scare we do not want to imply that there are no drug problems, or that all new concerns have sprung out of thin air. The percentage of people who have used cocaine once or more increased substantially from 1970 to 1980, although it has remained relatively stable since. Many people certainly abuse drugs and do lasting physical or psychological damage to themselves or others. Daily use of cocaine is a very bad idea indeed: It can damage physical and mental health, ruin careers, strain personal relationships, and, except for the wealthy, exhaust personal finances. In the last two years a purer, more powerful, crystallized form of cocaine called "freebase" or "crack" has been packaged in smaller, less expensive units and sold on the street. This has made cocaine affordable for the first time for those with little money (for instance, vulnerable populations such as young people and the poor). Freebase or crack is smoked rather than snorted, thus getting more of the drug into the body more rapidly. This is an unusually risky way to use cocaine because it greatly speeds up the heart and provides an orgasmic "rush" that hastens the user's desire to repeat the experience, thus increasing the risk of psychological dependence. Everyone agrees that cocaine can be abused easily and that crack is an especially dangerous way to use it.
What is not often mentioned, though it is known by many people, is that with cocaine and marijuana, as with alcohol and Valium, there are lots of users and only a relatively small proportion of abusers. Although most users will admit that cocaine is a seductive drug and that they have known people who have seriously abused it, they will also attest to the fact that use does not inevitably lead to abuse. In fact, with cocaine as with other drugs, nonabusive, controlled, and "recreational" patterns of drug use are the dominant ones. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, some 22 million Americans have used cocaine at least once, and at least 4 or 5 million use it more regularly. As many as 60 million Americans have tried marijuana, with 30 to 40 million using it at least once a year, and 20 million of them smoking more frequently. Over 100 million people use alcohol. None of these three substances is inherently or automatically addicting. Although no one knows the percentage of users who abuse cocaine, we have a decade's worth of data making it clear that the vast majority of people who try it do not become addicts, end up in emergency rooms, or sell their mother's TV set for a fix. Conservatives and other antidrug warriors tend to hold that the very notion of "controlled" or "recreational" use of illicit drugs is an oxymoron. But that claim is an ideological rather than an empirical one.
A sense of perspective and proportion is missing from current discussions about drug problems. Last year there were nearly 600 deaths related to cocaine use. While this loss of life is tragic enough, it is useful to remember that almost the exact number have died since 1982 using all-terrain vehicles (three-wheeled motorized dirt bikes, which are often used by children). More important, the physical, psychological, and economic damage done by legal drugs still dwarfs the damage done by illicit drugs. For example, in 1985, for every one cocaine-related death, there were 500 tobacco-related deaths. Alcohol is the direct medical or physiological cause of more than 18,000 deaths a year and is a contributing factor in perhaps twice that number of fatal accidents in homes and cars. The point is not to minimize the dangers of illegal drugs; it is simply to note that the amount of physical, psychological, and economic loss associated with a drug bears absolutely no relationship to how it is categorized or controlled by American government.
Since drugs are dangerously abused by some people, and since enough families really have suffered, it is fair to ask, what is the harm in a little hysteria about drug abuse? Reasonable people may wonder, if all the sturm und drang against drugs saves just a few young people from the tragedies that might befall them, then is antidrug propaganda such a bad idea? The answer is twofold. First, drug scares are counterproductive even on their own terms. Exaggerated warnings that do not correspond with users' own experiences lead them to disregard all warnings. This happened in the 1960s when propagandistic warnings about marijuana and hallucinogens were so clearly contradicted by countless firsthand experiences with those drugs. It is likely that some current cocaine abuse developed precisely because users no longer trusted official scare stories. In public health warnings, the truth is usually scary enough and is always the best policy. In fact, sensationalist accounts of drug abuse may actually stimulate the behavior they pretend to prevent. The New England Journal of Medicine recently reported research showing that the incidence of teenage suicide increased after news stories about them. Similarly, studies of drug use in the late 1960s found that the incidence of bad trips on LSD rose after the appearance of sensationalistic news reports about them. This pattern is especially likely when new and exotic drugs like crack are tried by young, inexperienced users who have not had the benefit of a user folklore that teaches them what to expect and what to watch out for. So, if there was any historical evidence that drug scares actuallyworked, really did prevent drug problems, then all the alarms might have some justification. As it stands, they not only do not help but may actually hurt.
Second, drug scares not only fail as public health policy, they divert the nation's attention and resources from more serious problems. Obscured or forgotten in all the political rhetoric and media coverage of crack use among inner-city and minority youth are the intractable social and economic problems that underlie drug abuse, and which are much more widespread—poverty, unemployment, and the prospects of life in the permanent underclass. Dealing drugs, after all, is often quite accurately perceived by poor city kids as the highest-paying job they will ever get. Liberal Democrats correctly denounced the Reagan administration's hypocrisy in declaring war on drugs and then cutting drug-education budgets. The more important point, however, is that the "just say no" administration had at every opportunity just said no to virtually every social program aimed at creating alternatives for inner-city young people. Unfortunately, these kids cannot 'Just say no to poverty and unemployment. Like "Communists," or "outside agitators," "drug abuse" has been used as a chemical bogeyman, to be blamed for crime, rebellious youth, falling productivity, broken families, urban poverty, and lots of other social problems that have little to do with drugs and a lot to do with how our society is structured. Such public discourse is an abdication of analysis. It is, quite simply, scapegoating.
Drug scares have never been merely about drug problems, serious though they are. They are about blaming drugs for all sorts of problems people fear and fret over but cannot do much about without disturbing the underlying structural features of our society that give rise to them. This is never done, of course, because to do something about the sources of drug problems would entail tampering with aspects of our social order from which we benefit. The current scare, drawing upon old, ugly traditions in American culture and politics, is a reflection of a very conservative moment. Church and state, family and corporation seem to be out to reaffirm the symbolic order of some real or imagined moral ancien régime, which they imagine would make people behave in ways that better suit the powers-that-be in such master institutions. Perhaps the one good thing that may come out of all this hysteria over cocaine is the realization that a serious problem is being manipulated rather than addressed. There is a limit to how far hype and hyperbole can go without drawing critical attention to itself With the legitimacy of Reaganism eroded, it may be possible to return to a public-policy discussion about drugs that is more humane, honest, and effective. What we had in 1986 was largely drug-abuse abuse.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 28 December 2010 17:08

Our valuable member Harry Levine has been with us since Sunday, 19 December 2010.

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