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Cocaine, crack and base
Written by Craig Reinarman   
Tuesday, 04 October 1988 00:00

Craig Reinarman/Harry G. Levine


"America discovered crack and overdosed on oratory." New York Times Editorial (10/4/88)1

In the Spring of 1986 American politicians and news media embarked upon an extraordinary anti-drug frenzy. Newspapers, magazines, and television networks regularly carried lurid stories alleging that an "epidemic" or "plague" of drug use, crack cocaine in particular, was literally destroying American society. Politicians from both parties made increasingly strident calls for a "War on Drugs" and even challenged each other to take urine tests to provide chemical proof of their moral purity and fitness for high office. However serious America's drug problems are, we suggest that the period from 1986 through 1992 was characterized by a high level of anti drug hysteria. We do not use the term "hysteria" as hyperbole. In this period the passions engendered by the fear of drugs lead to anti-drug extremism.

We use the term "drug scare" to designate periods when anti drug crusades have achieved great prominence and legitimacy. Drugs scares are phenomena in their own right quite apart from drug use and drug problems. 2 Drug scares have recurred throughout American history independent of actual increases in drug use or drug problems. During "red scares," like the McCarthy period in the 1950s, leftists were said to be seriously threatening to destroy the American way of life. Similarly, during drug scares all kinds of social problems have been blamed on one chemical substance or another. Dominant elite's have typically linked a scape-goated drug with a subordinate group they perceive as a threat - working-class immigrants, racial or ethnic minorities, rebellious youth. This latest drug scare - the "crack scare" - tied cocaine, especially its derivative "crack," with inner-city African-American and Latino young people.

The crack scare that began in 1986 waned somewhat in the non-election year of 1987. But in 1988 drugs returned to the national stage as stories about the "crack epidemic" again appeared regularly on front pages and TV screens (Reeves and Campbell, 1994). One politician after another re-enlisted in the War on Drugs. In that election year, as in 1986, overwhelming majorities of both houses of Congress voted for new anti-drug laws with long mandatory prison terms, death sentences, and large increases in funding for police and prisons. This started a surge in the annual federal budget for antidrug efforts from less than $ 2 billion in 1981 to more than $ 12 billion in 1993. The Bush administration alone spent $45 billion - more than all other Presidents since Nixon combined - mostly for law enforcement (Office of National Drug Control Policy, 1992; Horgan, 1993). The budget for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) quadrupled between 1981 and 1992 (Massing, 1993).3

The drug war continued throughout 1989 and heated up again in the Fall when another major new federal anti-drug bill to further increase drug war funding (S-1233) began winding its way through Congress. In September President Bush's "Drug Czar," William Bennett, unveiled his comprehensive battle plan, the National Drug Control Strategy. His Introduction asks, "What ... accounts for the intensifying drug-related chaos that we see every day in our newspapers and on television? One word explains much of it That word is crack.... Crack is responsible for the fact that vast patches of the American urban landscape are rapidly deteriorating" (The White House, 1989, p. 3; original emphasis). The plan proposed yet another S 2.2 billion increase in drug war spending, 70% of which was to be allocated to police and prisons, a percentage unchanged since the Nixon administration (New York Times, 9/6/89, Al l). This new funding would be used to nearly double prison capacity so that even casual users as well as dealers could be incarcerated. The plan also proposed the sale of drug war bonds (reminiscent of World War II) as a means of financing the $7.9 billion first-year costs.

On September 5, 1989, President Bush himself announced this plan for achieving "victory over drugs" in a major prime-time address to the nation, broadcast on all three national television networks. We want to focus on this incident as an example of way politicians and the media systematically misinformed and deceived the public in order to promote the War on Drugs. According to the New York Times (9/6/89, p. A1), Bush had returned to Washington early from summer vacation at his estate on the Maine coast to rehearse with his media advisers. He spoke to the TV cameras from the presidential desk in the Oval Office. During the address Bush used what the Times termed "a dramatic device" - holding up to the cameras a clear plastic bag of crack labeled "EVIDENCE. " He announced that it was "seized a few days ago in a park across the street from the White House" (Washington Post, 9/22//89, p. A1). It's contents, Bush said, were "turning our cities into battle zones and murdering our children." The President proclaimed that because of crack and other drugs he would "more than double Federal assistance to state and local law enforcement (New York Times, 916189, All). The next morning, the picture of the President holding a large bag of crack was on the front pages of newspapers across America.

On September 22, 1989, the Washington Post, and then National Public Radio and other newspapers, broke the story of how the President of the United States had obtained his bag of crack. According to White House and Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) officials, "the idea of the President holding up crack was first included in some drafts" of his speech. Bush enthusiastically approved. A White House Aid told the Post that the President "liked the prop....It. drove the point home. " Bush and his advisors also decided that the crack should be seized in Lafayette Park across from the White House, or somewhere else nearby, so that the President could say that crack had become so pervasive that men were "selling drugs in front of the White House " (Isikoff, 1989, A1).

This decision set up a complex chain of events. White House communications director David Demarst asked Cabinet affairs secretary David Bates to instruct the Justice Department "to find some crack that fit the description in the speech. " Bates called Richard Weatherbee, a special assistant to Attorney General Dick Thornburghy. Weatherbee in turn called James Millford, the executive assistant to the head of the Drug Enforcement Agency. Finally, he phoned William McMullen, the special agent in charge of the DEA's Washington Office, and told him to arrange an undercover crack buy near the White House because "evidently, the President wants to show it could be bought anywhere" (Isikoff, 1989, A1).

Despite their best efforts, the top Federal drug agents were not been able to find anyone selling crack (or any other drug) either in Lafayette Park, or anywhere else in the vicinity of the White House. Therefore, in order to carry out their assignment, DEA agents had to entice someone to come to the Park to make the sale. Apparently, the only person the DEA could convince was Keith Jackson, an 18 year-old African-American high school senior. McMullan reported that it was difficult to do because Jackson "did not even know where the White House was." The DEA's secret tape recording of the conversation revealed that the teenager seemed baffled by the request: "Where the [expletive deleted] is the White House?" he asked. Therefore, McMullan told the Post, "we had to manipulate him to get him down there. It wasn't easy" (Isikoff, 1989, A1).

After it was reported that the U.S. government had lured someone to come to the White House to sell crack, National Public Radio's All Things Considered news show interviewed men from Washington D.C. then in prison on drug-selling charges. All agreed that, of course, nobody would sell crack in Layafette Park because, among other reasons, there would be no customers. The crack-using population was in Washington's impoverished neighborhoods some distance from the White House. Finally, The Washington Post and other papers reported that the undercover Drug Enforcement Agents had not, after all, actually seized the crack, as Bush had claimed in his speech. Rather, the DEA agents had purchased it from Jackson for $2,400 dollars and then had let him go.4

This entire incident is a perfect example of the way in which what we call a "drug scare" distorts and perverts public knowledge and policy. The idea of claiming that crack was threatening every neighborhood in America first appeared in the minds and speech drafts of Bush's advisers. Then, when they found that reality did not match the script, a series of high-level officials instructed federal drug agents to create a reality that would fit the script. Finally the President of the United States displayed the procured prop on national TV, announced its "seizure" as a victory, and suggested to the citizenry that the wholly manufactured event was typical and common. In the end, when all of this was revealed, none of it seem to cause politicians or the media to question either the President's policies or his claims about crack's persuasiveness.

As a result of Bush's performance, and of all the other drug war publicity and propaganda, in 1988 and 1989 the drug war commanded more public attention than any other issue. And the media and political anti-drug crusade succeeded in making many Americans even more fearful of crack and other illicit drugs. A New York Times/CBS News Poll has periodically asked Americans to identify "the most important problem facing this country today." In January, 1985, 23 percent answered war or nuclear war; less than 1 percent believed the most important problem was drugs. In September 1989, shortly after the President's speech and the blizzard of media stories about drugs which followed, 64 percent of those polled believed that drugs were now the most important problem and only 1 percent thought that war or nuclear war was most important. Even the New York Times declared in a lead editorial that this reversal was "incredible" and gently suggested that problems like war, "homelessness and the need to give poor children a chance in life" should perhaps be given more attention (9128189, A26). A year later during a lull in anti drug speeches and coverage, the percentage citing "drugs" as the nation's top problem had dropped to 10%. Noting this "precipitous fall from a remarkable height," the Times noted that "the alliance of Presidents and news directors" shaped public opinion about drugs. Indeed, once the White House let it be known that the President would be giving a prime-time address on the subject, all three networks tripled their coverage of drugs in the two weeks prior to his speech and quadrupled it for a week afterward (New York Times, 916190, A11). And, as we will show in the next section, all this occurred as nearly every index of drug use had been dropping.

The crack scare continued in 1990 and 1991, although with somewhat less media and political attention. By the beginning of 1992 - in the last year of the Bush administration - the War on Drugs in general, and the crack scare in particular, had begun to decline significantly in prominence and importance. However, even as the drug war was receiving less notice from politicians and the media, it remained institutionalized, bureaucratically powerful, and extremely well funded (especially police, military, and education/propaganda activities).

In this chapter we first briefly review the birth and spread of crack in the mid 1980s. We trace the media coverage of "the crisis" and summarize the core claims made about the destructiveness of the cocaine and crack "plague." Second, we contrast these claims with the primary U.S. government data on which they were purportedly based. We show that a gap existed between the official statistical evidence 5 and the prevalence claims of the media and politicians. We maintain that the media and politicians misrepresented or ignored the evidence and instead provided propaganda for the drug war. Further, we suggest that all of the attention and hype - the crack scare - raced well ahead of both crack use and problems related to it. The crack scare, in other words, was not merely a rational response to a new threat to public health and public order. It possessed its own causes and logic. By analyzing the scare on its own terms, we do not wish to deny the fact that crack use had terrible medical, psychological, social, and economic consequences on some users and in some inner-city neighborhoods. Rather, our ultimate focus in this chapter is on why, from 1986 to 1992, so much attention was given to drugs and why so many claims about drugs - exaggerated or not - achieved such prominence.6

Third, to lay the groundwork for exploring this question we review the history of drug scares in America We note the way political elite's, moral entrepreneurs, and sometimes social movements have linked drug use with subordinate groups, and have blamed a variety of long-standing social problems on a drug and a group of alleged users (see, e.g., Szasz, 1974; Helmer, 1975). We suggest that much the same process of scape-goating has been at work in this drug scare: crack has become central to public discourse about many social problems which existed decades before crack appeared, and which have continued unabated since crack has declined in prominence as a public issue.

Finally, we return to the historically-specific social and political context of this drug scare to show the political utility of the drug issue - for Democrats as well as Republicans - in a conservative political context. Politicians and the media, we suggest, have promoted the drug scare for political and economic purposes only remotely related to drug problems. We conclude by suggesting some of the problematic consequences of this drug scare, especially: 1) that the demonization of one drug diverts attention and resources from more fundamental problems underlying crack and other drug use; and 2) that the scare ran the risk of raising curiosity about crack and investing it with an allure that may have increased the actual use of crack.

Cocaine and Crack in the Public Eye

The use of cocaine in powdered form by affluent people in music, film, and sports had been common since the 1970s. According to surveys by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), by 1985 more than 22 million Americans in all social classes and occupations had reported at least trying cocaine. Cocaine smoking originated with "freebasing," which was already increasing by the late 1970s (see Siegle, 1982; Inciardi 1987). Then (as now) most cocaine users bought cocaine hydrochloride (powder) for intranasal use (snorting). But by the end of the 1970s some users had begun to "cook" powder cocaine down to crystalline or "base" form for smoking. All phases of this form of cocaine use, from selling to smoking, tended to take place in the privacy of homes and offices of middle-class or well-to-do users. They typically purchased cocaine in units of a gram or more costing $80 to $100 a gram. These relatively affluent "basers" had been discovering the dangers of smoking cocaine for several years before the term "crack" was coined. But most such users had a stake in conventional life; they had valuable things to lose if they got into trouble with cocaine, and they also had the incentives and the resources to cut down, quit, get private treatment, or otherwise control and conceal their use.

The orgy of media and political attention did not begin in the late 1970s when the prevalence of cocaine use jumped sharply, or even after middle- class and upper-class users began to experience trouble, especially with freebasing. Rather, the scare began when smokable cocaine, in the form of crack, made its appearance in a few poor urban neighborhoods. Like basers, crack users found that this mode of ingesting cocaine produced a much more intense and far shorter "high" because it delivered more pure cocaine into the brain far more directly and rapidly than by snorting. Many crack users found that crack's intense, brutally brief "orgasmic rush," combined with the painful "low" or "down" which immediately followed, produced a powerful desire to immediately repeat use - to binge (see Waldorf, Reinarman, and Murphy, 1991). This pattern of an immediate, intense, and brief high followed quickly by painful low is the pharmacological source of the short-term bingeing that is characteristic of much crack use (Morgan and Zimmer, forthcoming). However, crack's pharmacological power alone does not explain the attention it received.

Politicians and the media focused on crack not because the cocaine was ingested in a more direct, dangerous manner. Cocaine freebase, the precursor of crack, had been smoked in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the problems of freebasers were well known. But these people tended to be white and middle-class or affluent. At this point in history, the only movement in drug policy seemed to be the proliferation of for-profit treatment programs. Crack, on the other hand, attracted the attention of politicians and the media because of its downward mobility to and increased visibility in ghettos and barrios. The new users had a different social class, race, and status (see Duster, 1970; Washton and Gold, 1987). Crack was sold in smaller, cheaper, precooked units, on ghetto streets, to poorer, younger buyers who were already seen as a threat (e.g., New York Times, Aug. 30, 1987; Newsweek, Nov. 23, 1987; Boston Globe, May 18, 1988). Crack spread cocaine smoking into poor populations already beset with a cornucopia of troubles (see Wilson, 1987). These people tended to have fewer bonds to conventional society, less to lose, and far fewer resources to cope with or shield themselves from drug-related problems.

Thus, the latest drug scare began in earnest when crack use became visible among this "dangerous" group. The earliest mass media reference to the new form of cocaine may have been a Los Angeles Times article in late 1984 (11/25/84:cc 1) on the use of cocaine "rocks" in ghettos and barrios in Los Angeles. By late 1985, the New York Times made the first specific reference to "crack" in the national media in a story about three teenagers seeking treatment for cocaine abuse (ll/17/85:B12). At the start of 1986 crack was known only in a few impoverished neighborhoods in Los Angeles, New York, Miami, and perhaps a few other large cities.

When two celebrity athletes died in what news stories called "crack-related deaths" in the Spring of 1986, the media seemed to sense a potential bonanza "Dramatic footage" of black and Latino men being carted off in chains, or of police breaking down crack house doors, became a near nightly news event. Coverage skyrocketed and crack became widely known. In July 1986 alone the three major TV networks offered 74 evening news segments on drugs, half of these about crack (Diamond et al., 1987; Reeves and Campbell, 1994). In the months leading up to the November elections, a handful of national newspapers and magazines produced roughly 1,000 stories discussing crack (see Inciardi, 1987:481; Trebach, 1987:6-16). Like the TV networks, leading news magazines like Time and Newsweek seemed determined not to be out-done; each devoted five cover stories to crack and the "drug crisis" in 1986 alone.

In the fall of 1986, the CBS News show 48 Hours aired a heavily promoted documentary called "48 Hours on Crack Street" which Dan Rather previewed on his Evening News show: "Tonight, CBS News takes you to the streets, to the war zone, for an unusual two hours of hands-on horror." Among the many shots from hidden cameras was one of New York Senator Alphonse D'Amato, in cognito, purchasing a vial of crack in order to dramatize the brazenness of streetcorner sales in the ghetto. All this was good business for CBS: the program earned the highest Nielsen rating of any similar news show in the previous five years - 15 million viewers (Diamond et al., 1987:10). Three years later, after 48 Hours was nearly killed by poor ratings, the series kicked off its 1989 season with a 3-hour special, "Return to Crack Street.

The intense media competition for audience share and advertising dollars spawned many similar shows. Three days after "48 Hours on Crack Street," NBC followed with its own prime-time special, "Cocaine Country," which asserted that cocaine and crack use had gone beyond epidemic to become pandemic. This was one of over 400 separate stories on crack and cocaine produced by NBC alone - an unprecedented 15 hours of air time - in the seven months leading up to the 1986 elections (see Diamond et al., 1987; Hoffman, 1987). By mid-1986, Newsweek claimed that crack was the biggest story since Vietnam and Watergate (6116186: 15), and Time soon followed by calling crack "the Issue of the Year" (9122186:25). The words "plague," "epidemic," and "crisis" had become routine (see Appendix). The New York Times, for example, did a 3-part, front-page series called "The Crack Plague" (6124188:A1).

This media frenzy continued into 1989, with even the nation's best newspapers joining in. During the 12 months between October 1988 and October 1989, for example, the Washington Post alone ran 1565 stories - 28,476 column inches - about the drug crisis. Even Richard Harwood, the Washington Post's own internal ombudsman editorialized against what he called the loss of "a proper sense of perspective" due to such a "hyperbole epidemic." At a time when almost every form of drug use was declining, Harwood (1989) wrote, "the press and the politicians are doing a number on people's heads."

President and Nancy Reagan were only the most prominent of politicians to join in asserting that drugs, especially crack, were "tearing our country apart" and "killing ... a whole generation [of] ... our children" (Time, Sept 22, 1986:25). The latter claim was repeated as recently as February of 1994 by a prominent New York Times journalist who wrote that "An entire generation is being sacrificed to [crack]" (Staples, 1994). In the 1988 presidential primaries more and more politicians again claimed that crack was destroying American youth and causing much of the crime, violence, prostitution, and child abuse in the nation. Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives alike called repeatedly for an "all-out War on Drugs."

An April, 1988 ABC News "Special Report" again termed crack "a plague" that was "eating away at the fabric of America." This documentary, like others before and since, made a long series of provocative claims: that Americans spend "twenty billion a year on cocaine:" that American businesses lose "sixty billion" dollars a year in productivity because their workers use drugs; that "the educational system is being undermined" by student drug use; and that "the family" was "disintegrating" in the face of this "epidemic." In 48 minutes of airtime, millions of viewers again were given a powerful vocabulary of attribution: "drugs," especially crack, were destroying virtually every institution in American life - jobs, schools, families, national sovereignty, community, law enforcement, and business

From the opening shots in 1986 to this 1988 television show and President Bush's national address in 1989, and through all the stories about "crack babies" in 1990 and 1991, crack cocaine was defined as supremely evil - the most important cause of America's problems. As in previous drug scares since the l9th-century crusade against alcohol, one of the core features of drug war discourse was what we call the routinization of caricature - worst cases framed as typical cases, the episodic rhetorically recrafted into the epidemic, and the epidemic into the pandemic.

Official Government Evidence

On those rare occasions when politicians and journalists cited any evidence to support their prevalence claims, they relied on two basic sources, both funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). One source was the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), a monitoring project set up to survey hospitals, crisis and treatment centers, and coroners across the country about drug-related emergencies and deaths. The other was NIDA's national surveys on drug use among general population households and among young people. Other data sources existed, but these usually were either anecdotal, specific to a particular location, or based on a skewed sample.7 Therefore, we will review what these two NIDA data sources had to say about crack because they were and remain the only national data and because they were and are considered by experts and claims-makers the most reliable form of evidence available.8

The Drug Abuse Warning Network DAWN collects data on a whole series of drugs - from amphetamine to aspirin - that are thought to be present in emergencies or fatalities. This data takes the form of "mentions." A drug "mention" is produced when a patient, or someone with a patient, tells attending medical personnel that the patient recently used the drug, or occasionally if a blood test shows the presence of the drug.

These data provided perhaps the only piece of statistical support for the crack scare. They indicated that cocaine was "mentioned" in an increasing number of emergency room episodes throughout the 1980s. During 1986, as the scare moved into full swing, there were an estimated 51,600 emergency room episodes in which cocaine was "mentioned" (NIDA, 1993a). In subsequent years the estimated number of such "mentions" continued to rise, providing clear cause for concern. By 1989, for example, the estimated number of emergency room episodes in which cocaine was "mentioned" had more than doubled to 110,000. Although the estimate dropped sharply in 1990 to 80,400, by 1992 it had risen again to 119,800 (NIDA, 1993a).

Unfortunately, the meaning of a "mention" is ambiguous. In many of these cases the cocaine use was probably incidental. Such episodes included many cases in which people went to emergency rooms after being injured in home or auto accidents. Moreover, in most cases, cocaine was only one of the drugs in the person's system; most people had also been drinking alcohol. Finally, the DAWN data does not include information about pre-existing medical or mental health conditions that make any form of drug use, legal or illegal, more risky. For all these reasons one can not properly infer direct cause from the estimates of "emergency room mentions." Cocaine did play a causal role in some cases, but no one knows how many or what proportion of the total they were.

The DAWN data on deaths in which cocaine was "mentioned" by medical examiners also must be closely examined. When the crack scare got underway in 1986, coroners coded 1,092 deaths as "cocaine-related" (NIDA, 1986b), and as crack spread this number, too, increased substantially. In 1989 the Secretary of Health and Human Services reported a 20% decline in both deaths and emergency room episodes in which cocaine was mentioned,9 but both indices rose again in l991 and 1992. The 1992 DAWN figures showed 3,020 deaths in which cocaine was "mentioned" (NIDA, 1992).

But, again, cocaine alone was "mentioned" only in a fraction of these deaths (e.g., 18.9% in 1986 [NIDA, 1986b]). In most of these cases cocaine had been used with other drugs, again, most often alcohol. Although any death is tragic, cocaine's role in such fatalities remains ambiguous. "Cocaine-related" is not the same as "cocaine-caused," and "cocaine-related deaths" does not mean "deaths due to cocaine." There is little doubt that cocaine contributes to some significant (but unknown) percentage of such deaths, but it is worth noting that media accounts and political rhetoric never acknowledge the ambiguities in the data. Nor do they ever provide any comparative perspective by noting, for example, that for every one cocaine-related death in the U.S., there have been approximately 200 tobacco-related deaths and 50 alcohol-related deaths. Seen in this light cocaine's role in mortality and morbidity was somewhat less dramatic than media and political accounts suggested.

More serious interpretive and empirical difficulties appeared when the DAWN data was used to support claims about crack. Despite all the media and political attention to the crack "plague," at the moment when crack was allegedly "killing a whole generation," the DAWN data contained no specific information on crack (as distinct from cocaine). In fact, the DAWN data show that in the vast majority of both emergencies and deaths in which cocaine received a "mention," the mode of ingestion of cocaine was not "smoking" and therefore could not have been caused by crack. Thus, while it is likely that crack played a role in some of the emergencies and deaths in which cocaine was "mentioned," the data necessary to accurately attribute them to crack did not exist.

NIDA Surveys

The NIDA surveys of drug use produce the data which are the statistical basis of all estimates of the prevalence of cocaine use. One of the core claims in the crack scare was that drug use among teenagers and young adults was already high and that it was growing at an alarming rate. While politicians and the media often referred to teen drug use as an "epidemic" or "plague," the best official evidence available at the time did not support such claims.

NIDA's national surveys of over 8,000 randomly selected households showed that the number of Americans who had used any illegal drug in the previous month began to decline in 1979 and continued to plunge by more than one-third, cocaine most sharply of all, in the early years of the scare (New York Times, 9124189:A1; Newsweek, 2/19/90:74). In the 1988 survey, the number of respondents who reported having used cocaine in the previous week - presumably the group including crack addicts - was 44 out of 8,814, about one half of 1%. Lifetime prevalence of cocaine use among young people (the percentage of those 12-25 years-old who had "ever" tried it) had peaked in 1982, four years before the scare began, and continued to decline after that (NIDA, 1990:14). The sharpest rise in lifetime prevalence among young adults had taken place between 1972 and 1979 and produced almost no claims of an "epidemic" by politicians and journalists (NIDA, 1986a; cf. Johnston et al., 1988).

In February of 1987 NIDA released the results of its annual survey of high school seniors for 1986. The New York Times' handling of the story shows how even the most respectable media institutions sometimes skew facts about drug use to fit a story line. In its "lead," the Times announced a rise in the percentage of high school seniors reporting "daily" use of cocaine. Only later did readers learn that it had risen very slightly and, more important for evaluating claims of a "plague," that daily use among seniors had now reached four tenths of one percent. For the youth in this fraction of one-percent, such daily use was surely worrisome, although hardly grounds for the claims made. Still later in the story the Times presented a table showing other facts even less supportive of claims of a new plague: the lifetime prevalence figures for young adults from the house-hold survey as well as the last-month prevalence of cocaine use by high school seniors had declined just as the scare was being launched. Indeed, as the Times noted toward the end of its piece, virtually all forms of teenage drug use (including marijuana, LSD, and heroin) had declined - as they had in previous years (New York Times, Feb. 24, 1987:A21; cf. Johnston et al., 1988; NIDA, 1990).

When the findings of the high school senior survey for 1987 were released, the director of the surveys, Dr. Lloyd Johnston, reported that "the most important" finding was that cocaine had again "showed a significant drop in use." He even reported a decline in the use of crack - at precisely the moment when the crack scare was at its height (Johnston et al., 1988). This reported decline in cocaine use was in keeping with the general downward trend in drug use. In the early 1980s, according to the NIDA surveys, about one in six young Americans had tried cocaine powder. But just when the scare was building momentum, the proportion of both high school seniors and young adults who had used cocaine in any form in the previous year dropped by 20% (Johnston et al., 1988). Perhaps more telling, twothirds of those who had ever tried cocaine had not used it in the previous month. This suggests that all the claims about a "plague" or "epidemic" were greatly exaggerated; although a significant minority of young people had tried cocaine powder at some point, the great majority of them did not continue.

This is not to say there were no signs of increasing cocaine use. The proportion of youngsters who reported using cocaine at least once in the previous month had increased slightly over the years, although it never exceeded 2 percent of all teens in the seven national household surveys between 1972 and 1985. In the 1988 household survey there was an increase in the number of daily users of cocaine, suggesting the existence of a hard core of abusers, probably of crack (NIDA, 1988). But here, too, this group constituted only about 1.3% of those who had ever used cocaine.

By almost all measures and in almost every other category of drug use, the trends in official drug use statistics had been down even before the scare began. Prevalence figures for cocaine in particular were dropping sharply just as crisis claims were reaching a crescendo, and had dropped still further precisely when the Bush/Bennett battle plan was being announced with such fanfare in 1989. Indeed, as White House officials anonymously admitted a few weeks after the President's "bag of crack" speech, the new plan's "true goals" were far more modest than its rhetoric: the Bush plan was "simply to move the nation 'a little bit' beyond where current trends would put it anyway" (New York Times, 9124189, A1).


Tom Brokaw reported on NBC Nightly News in 1986 (May 23) that crack was "flooding America," and that it had become "America's drug of choice." His colleagues at the other networks and in the print media had made similar claims. An ordinarily competent news consumer might well have gathered the impression that crack could be found in the lockers of most high school students. Yet, at the time of these reports, there were no prevalence statistics at all on crack, and no evidence of any sort showing that smoking crack had come to be even the preferred mode of cocaine use, much less of drug use.

When NIDA released the first official data on crack a few months later, it still did not support claims about widespread crack use. On the contrary, the NIDA survey found that most cocaine use could not have been crack because the preferred mode of use for 90% of cocaine users was "sniffing" rather than smoking (NIDA, 1986b; see also Inciardi, 1987). An all-but-ignored Drug Enforcement Administration press release issued at the first peak of the scare in August, 1986 sought to correct the misperception that crack use was now the major drug problem in America The DEA then noted that while "Crack is currently the subject of considerable media attention .... The result has been a distortion of the public perception of the extent of crack use as compared to the use of other drugs" and that crack "presently appears to be a secondary rather than primary problem in most areas" (Drug Enforcement Administration; cited in Diamond et al.. 1987:10; and in Inciardi, 1987:482).1ø

The first measures of the prevalence of teenage crack were in NIDA's 1986 high school survey; it found that 4.1 % had used crack at least once in the previous year. As the scare was gaining momentum in 1987, this figure had dropped slightly to 3.9%. By 1988 the figure had dropped to 3.1%, a 25% decline, which continued even as the scare grew in size and intensity (National Report on Substance Abuse, 1994:3; Johnston et al., 1988). This means that at the peak of the crack "crisis," 96% of America's high school seniors had not even used crack once in the past year, much less gone on to more regular use, abuse, or addiction. Any drug use among the young is certainly worth worrying about, particularly when in such a powerful form as crack. However, in the midst of the crusade to save "a whole generation" of our children from death-by-crack in the Spring of 1986, the latest official data showed a national total of eight "cocaine-related" deaths of young people 18 and under for the preceding year (Trebach, 1987:11). There was no way to determine whether any of these deaths involved crack use, or even if cocaine was in fact the direct cause.

In general, the NIDA surveys indicate that a substantial minority of teenagers and young adults experiment with drugs. But as with other forms teenagers and young adults experiment with drugs. But as with other forms of youthful deviance, most tend to abandon such behavior as they assume adult roles. Politicians, the media, and anti-drug advertisements said that cocaine is inevitably addicting but that crack is still worse because it is "instantaneously addicting." However, according to the NIDA surveys, two-thirds of Americans in all age groups who had ever tried cocaine had not used it in the past thirty days. It is clear that the vast majority of the more than 22 million Americans who have tried cocaine do not use it in crack form, do not escalate to daily use, and do not end up addicted.

The 1992 household survey found that even among the age groups in which crack is most widely used (18-34 years-old), only about 3% of the population had "ever used" it (NIDA, 1993b:37). Moreover, only about one-third of those who had ever used crack reported having used it in the previous year (.9-1.1%), and only about one-third of these (.4%) said they had used it in the past month. In short, NIDA's general household surveys indicated that the lifetime prevalence of crack use began low and declined thereafter. And, despite all the claims that it is "instantaneously addicting," a clear majority of those who did try it did not continue to use it.

The high school surveys similarly showed that the annual prevalence of crack use had declined steadily from 4.1% in 1987 to 1.5% for 1991, 1992, and 1993. Indeed, when the findings from the 1993 survey of 50,000 students were announced (211/94), the six pages of text in the press release did not even mention cocaine or crack (University of Michigan, 1994). An appended graph showed that there had been no significant change in the low prevalence of cocaine use, but the prevalence of crack use, apparently, was too small even to register on the graph. Yet, rather than note that the crack "plague" had not materialized after all, the researchers began their report by exclaiming that "Drug use among American young people has been making a clear comeback" (p. 1). They were referring primarily to a "three or four percentage point" rise (p. 2) in the number who had used marijuana at least once in the previous year. After years of alarm over the crack "plague" "killing" an "entire generation," the researchers might have interpreted this trend away from cocaine and crack toward marijuana as a clear sign of the good sense of America's youth.

In sum, the official evidence on cocaine and crack available during the crack scare gave a rather different picture than we received from the media and politicians. The sharp rise in "mentions" of cocaine in emergency room episodes and coroners' reports did offer some cause for concern. But the best official evidence did not support the claims about an "epidemic" or "plague" throughout America, or about "instantaneous addiction." Moreover, as media attention to crack was burgeoning, the actual extent of crack use was virtually unknown and most other official measures of cocaine use were actually decreasing. Once crack use was actually measured, its prevalence turned out to be low to start with and to have declined throughout the scare (National Report on Substance Abuse, 1994:3).

If the many claims about an "epidemic" or "plague" endangering "a whole generation" of youth were at odds with the best official data, then we are left with the question of what else was animating the new War on Drugs.ll We will suggest in what follows that the answer to this question does not hinge on the emergence of a dangerous new form of drug use alone. The crack "crisis," like previous drug scares, was in part the product of the association of "dangerous drugs" with a "dangerous class" which was refracted through magnifying lens of the media in a peculiarly fertile political context.

Drug Scares in Historical Perspective

Even if all the exaggerated claims about crack were true, this would not explain all the attention given it. Poverty, homelessness, auto accidents, hand gun deaths, and environmental hazards are also widespread, costly, even deadly, but most politicians and journalists never speak of them in terms of "crisis" or "plague." Indeed, far more people are injured and killed every year by "domestic violence" than by illicit drugs, but one would never know this from media reports or political speeches. The existence of government studies suggesting that crack contributes to the deaths of a small proportion of its users, that an unknown but somewhat larger minority of users become addicted to it, that its use is "related" to some forms of crime, and so on, are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for all the attention it has received (see Spector and Kitsuse, 1977; Gusfield, 1981).

American history has had more than its share of drug scares and anti-drug crusades, and the history of such episodes suggests that much more is involved in our "drug problems" than problems having to do with the use of drugs. During the 19th century, the temperance movement claimed that alcohol was responsible for most of the nation's poverty, crime, violence, mental illness, moral degeneracy, "broken" families, and individual and business failure. Temperance ideology appealed to a broad middle class seeking explanations for the pressing problems of industrializing America. Millions of Americans came to believe that alcohol was a demonic substance and made it the scapegoat for many problems whose sources lay in broader political and economic conditions (see, Levine, 1984, 1993, Gusfield, 1963).

Just as we have not claimed that crack is harmless, we do not suggest that 19th-century Americans drank only in moderation. Industrialization drew men out of the orbit of family drinking norms and into mining and lumber camps, factories and cities, subjecting them to harsh working conditions and long hours. In the process, it put wages in their pockets and saloons in their path. Male saloon drinking did generate alcohol abuse. However, drink was never the direct "cause" of the huge array of problems for which temperance crusaders blamed it.

In the first two decades of the 20th century America's business and corporate elite increasingly joined with the middle class supporters of prohibitionism. The period between 1900 and 1920 was one of the most tumultuous in American history and was riddled with class, racial, cultural, and political conflict having little to do with drinking problems. Industrialization brought to America a European immigrant working class with different cultural, religious, and drinking practices - and with proletarian politics. Prohibitionists promised that a Constitutional amendment banning alcohol would empty prisons and asylums, lower taxes, and ensure permanent prosperity. Many corporate supporters of prohibition argued that traditional working-class drinking interfered with the rhythms of the modern factory and thus with productivity and profits. To earlier fears of the bar room as a breeding ground of immorality was added the idea of the saloon as alien and subversive. Prohibitionists argued that saloons were where unions organized, where socialists and anarchists found new recruits. For the corporate and political elite, and for much of the old business middle class and the new professional middle class, clamping down on drinking and saloons was part of a much broader strategy of social control - a quest for "order" at a moment when industrialization was transforming American life (Levine, 1984, 1985, 1986; Rumbarger, 1989).

Other drug scares emerged under similar conditions. The first law against opium smoking in the U.S. was much more the result of anti-Chinese agitation in California in the 1870s than it was of troublesome opium smoking. Chinese immigrants had been brought in as "coolies" to help build the railroad and work the mines. Some brought the practice of opium smoking with them. But when the railroad was completed and the gold ran out, recession set in. White workers found themselves competing with lower-paid Chinese workers for scarce jobs, and viewed the Chinese as an economic threat. The campaign against smoking opium (but not against other, non-Chinese uses of opiates) included lurid, fictional newspaper accusations of Chinese men drugging White women into sexual slavery. The law against opium smoking was only one of several repressive laws designed, at least in part, to control the Chinese minority and thus assuage the economic cum xenophobic anxieties of Whites (Sandmeyer, 1939; Musto, 1973; Morgan, 1978).

Broader political and racial issues were also factors in the earliest cocaine scare that led to the first federal drug law, the Harrison Act of 1914. Just as the current scare blossomed only after the practice of cocaine smoking spread to lower class, inner-city Blacks and Hispanics - so did class and racial fears fuel the first cocaine scare. At the turn of the century, the opiate addict population was shifting from White, middle-class, middle-aged women to younger, working-class men and other "disreputable" groups (Duster, 1970). Sensationalistic press accounts linked drug use with Blacks, prostitutes, criminals and transient workers.

There was no evidence that Black Americans used even as much cocaine as Whites (Musto, 1973), and the actual number of opiate addicts was probably diminishing when the Harrison Act was being debated. Nonetheless, White politicians used race to incite public reaction against opiates and cocaine, at least in part for political purposes. For example, in an effort to overcome the objections of southern Congressmen to a federal drug law that might infringe on "states' rights," anti-drug crusaders spread unsubstantiated suspicions that cocaine induced Black men to rape White women (Musto, 1973:6-10, 67-68). Some Southern sheriffs even switched from .32 to .38 caliber pistols because they claimed that their old guns could not stop the "cocaine-crazed" Negro. As medical historian David Musto has shown, this first cocaine scare was not primarily a response to cocaine use or opiate addiction, or to any drug-related crime wave; rather, says Musto, it was animated by "white alarm" about "black rebellion" against segregation and oppression (Musto, 1973:7).

Nearly a quarter century later, in 1937, Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act. This first federal law against marijuana was the result of a marijuana scare orchestrated by the quintessential moral entrepreneur Harry Anslinger, a former Treasury agent who had enforced alcohol Prohibition but who was appointed Chief of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics after repeal of prohibition. Before the scare began, there was no evidence of widespread marijuana use (Grinspoon and Bakalar, 1993:9), almost no coverage of marijuana in the press (Becker, 1963), and little agitation for a clamp down. However, in the midst of the Great Depression, the Bureau had endured four straight years of budget cuts (Dickson 1968), and with opiates and cocaine already outlawed, Anslinger felt he needed a new villain to justify the Bureau's existence. Anslinger circulated to newspapers across the nation an unsubstantiated tale of a Florida youth who had murdered his entire family, allegedly under the influence of the "killer weed." After Anslinger got this and other such stories printed in newspapers, he held up the clippings before Congress as evidence of the need for a new federal law. This scare too tapped racial fears: the "killer weed," it was said, made Mexicans in particular violent (cf. Becker, 1963; Dickson, 1968).

In the 1960s and 1970s a new generation of drug warriors made marijuana the focus of a much broader crusade - not because it made users aggressive and violent buts in a curious way, because it didn't. These new crusaders did not view marijuana as the "killer weed," but rather as the "drop-out drug," which they claimed was "causing" youth to lose the achievement ethic and to become unpatriotic (for example, by opposing the war in Vietnam [see Himmelstein, 1983]). In this case drug crusaders regarded marijuana as a threat not because it was used by a "dangerous class," but because they believed it was turning an entire class of youth in a direction that dominant groups defined as "dangerous." In contrast to Anslinger's crusade thirty years earlier, this time there was substantial evidence of the widespread use of marijuana. However, virtually none of the claims about the horrid consequences of marijuana use were supported by evidence then or now (see the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, 1972; National Research Council, 1982). Nor was evidence of ill-effects the real issue. Here, too, a drug provided a useful symbol in an essentially political conflict between cultures and generations.

The Political Context of the "Crack Crisis"

Like other sociologists, historians, and students of drug law and public policy, we are suggesting that understanding anti-drug campaigns requires more than evidence of drug abuse and drug-related problems, which can be found in almost any period. It requires interpreting these crusades and scares as phenomena in their own right, and understanding the broader social, political and economic circumstances under which they occur (see, e.g., Gusfield, 1963; Lindesmith, 1965; Duster, 1970; Brecher, 1972; Musto, 1973; Grinspoon and Bakalar, 1976; Morgan, 1978; Bakalar and Grinspoon, 1987, Rumbarger, 1988).

The crack scare also must be understood in terms of its political context and its appeal to important groups within American society. The mass media and politicians, however, did not talk about drugs this way. Rather, they decontextualized the drama, making it appear as if the story had no authors aside from dealers and addicts. The crack drama has kept abusers, dealers, crimes and casualties under spotlights while other important factors have remained hidden in shadows. We suggest that over and above the real difficulties people experienced with crack, the rise of the New Right and the competition between political parties in a conservative context contributed significantly to the making of the current drug scare.

The New Right and its Moral Ideology

During the post-Watergate rebuilding of the Republican Party, extreme right-wing political organizations and fundamentalist christian groups set about to impose what they called "traditional family values" on public policy and philosophy. This self-proclaimed "New Right" felt increasingly threatened by the diffusion of modemist values, behaviors, and cultural practices - particularly by what they perceived to be the interconnected forms of 1960s hedonism involved in sex outside (heterosexual) marriage and consciousness alteration with (illicit) drugs. The New Right formed a core constituency for Ronald Reagan, an extreme conservative who had come to prominence as Governor of California in part by taking a hard line against the new political movements and cultural practices of the 1960s.

Once he was elected President in 1980, Reagan and his appointees attempted to restructure public policy according to a radically conservative ideology Through the lens of this ideology, most social problems appeared to be simply the consequences of individual moral choices (see Ryan, 1976). Programs and research that had for many years been directed at the social and structural sources of social problems were systematically de-funded in budgets and delegitimated in discourse. Unemployment, poverty, urban decay, school crises, crime, and all their attendant forms of human troubles were spoken of and acted upon as if they were the result of individual deviance, immorality, or weakness. The most basic premise of social science - that individual choices are influenced by social circumstances - was rejected as left-wing ideology. Reagan and the New Right constricted the apenure of attribution for America's ills so that only the lone deviant came into focus. People in trouble were reconceptualized as people who make trouble (Gusfield, 1985); social control replaced social welfare as the organizing axis of public policy (see Reinarman, 1988).

Drug problems fit neatly into this ideological agenda and allowed conservatives to engage in what we call sociological denial. For the New Right, people did not abuse drugs because they were jobless, homeless, poor, depressed, or alienated; they were jobless, homeless, poor, depressed, or alienated because they were weak, immoral or foolish enough to use the wrong drugs. For the right-wing, American business productivity was not lagging because investors spent their capital on mergers and stock speculation instead of on new plants and equipment; rather, economic conservatives claimed that businesses had difficulty competing partly because many workers were using drugs.

In this view, U.S. education was in trouble not because it had suffered years of demoralizing budget cuts, but because a "generation" of students were "on drugs" and their teachers did not "get tough" with them. The new drug warriors did not see crime plaguing the ghettos and barrios for all the reasons it always has, but because of the influence of a new chemical bogeyman.

In a word, the spread of cocaine and crack was a godsend to the Right. They used "drugs" as an ideological fig leaf to place over the unsightly urban ills which had increased markedly under Reagan administration social and fiscal policies. "The drug problem" served conservative politicians as an all-purpose scapegoat. They could blame an array of problems on the deviant individuals, and then expand the nets of social control and incarceration to punish those people for causing the problems.

The crack crisis had other, more specific political uses. Nancy Reagan was a highly visible anti-drug crusader, crisscrossing the nation to urge school children to "Just Say No" to drugs. Mrs. Reagan's crusade began in 1983 (well before crack came into existence) when her "p.r.-conscious operatives," as Time magazine called them, convinced her that "serious-minded displays" of "social consciousness" would "make her appear more caring and less frivolous." Such a public relations strategy was important to Mrs. Reagan because she had been criticized often in the press for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on new china for the White House, lavish galas for wealthy friends, and high-fashion evening gowns at a time when her husband's economic policies had induced a sharp recession, raised joblessness to Depression-era levels, and cut funding for virtually all programs for the poor. Time explained that "the timing and destinations of her antidrug excursions last year were coordinated with the Reagan-Bush campaign officials to satisfy their particular political needs" (Time, 1/14/85:30).

For the Reagans and the New Right, America's drug problems functioned as opportunities for the imposition of an old moral agenda and the appearance of a new social concern. Moreover, the remedies that followed from this view were in perfect harmony with "traditional family values" - individual moral discipline and abstinence, combined with police and prisons for those who indulged. Such "solutions" avoided all questions about the economic and political sources of and solutions to America's social problems. The Reagan administration preached this ideology from the highest platforms in the land, and transformed public policy in its image. This made for a most hospitable context for a new drug scare.

Political Party Competition

The primary political task facing liberals in the 1980s was to recapture some of the electorate that had gone over to the Right. Reagan's shrewdness in symbolically colonizing "middle American" fears had put Democrats on the defensive. Most Democrats responded by moving to the right and pouncing upon the drug issue. Part of the early energy for the drug scare in the Spring and Summer of 1986 came from Democratic candidates trading charges with their Republican opponents about being "soft on drugs."

Many candidates challenged each other to take urine tests - a symbol of their commitment to a "drug-free America." One Southern politician even proposed that candidates' spouses be tested. The media dutifully displayed President Reagan and Vice President Bush proudly leading the way into the White House toilets to provide urine samples after they had proposed drug testing two million federal employees. California senatorial candidate Ed Zschau charged his opponent, Alan Cranston, with being "a noncombatant in the war on drugs" (San Francisco Chronicle, Aug. 12, 1986:9). By the Fall of 1986, increasingly strident calls for a Drug War became so much a part of candidates' standard stump speeches that even conservative columnist William Safire complained of anti-drug "hysteria" and "narcomania" (New York Times, Sept. 11, 1986:A27). Politicians demanded everything from death penalties in North America to bombing raids in South America.

Crack cocaine could not have appeared at a more opportune political moment. After years of dull debates on budget balancing, a "hot" issue had arrived just in time for a crucial election. In an age of fiscal constraint, when most problems were seen as intractable and most solutions costly, the crack crisis was the one "safe" issue on which all politicians could take "tough stands" without losing a single vote or campaign contribution.

The legislative results of the competition to "get tough" included a two-billion dollar law in 1986, the so-called "Drug-Free America Act," which whizzed through the House (392 to 16) just in time for members of Congress to go home and tell their constituents about it. In the heat of the preelection, anti-drug hysteria, the symbolic value of such spending seemed to dwarf the deficit worries that had hamstrung other legislation. According to Newsweek, what occurred was "a can-you-top-this competition" among "election-bound members of both parties" seeking tough anti-drug amendments. The 1986 drug bill, as Representative David McCurdy (D-Okla) put it, was "out of control," adding through a wry smile, "but of course I'm for it" (9/22186:39).l2

The prominence of the drug issue dropped sharply in both political speeches and media coverage after the 1986 election, but returned during the 1988 primaries. Once again the crack issue had political utility. One common observation about the 1988 Presidential election campaigns was that there were no domestic or foreign policy crises looming on which the two parties could differentiate themselves. As a New York Times headline put it: "Drugs as 1988 Issue: Filling a Vacuum" (5/24188:A 14).

In the 1988 primary season, candidates of both parties moved to fill this vacuum in part by drug-baiting their opponents, attacking them as "soft on drugs." In the fall, Democrats Dukakis and Bentsen, and Republicans Bush and Ouayle, claimed that their opponents' anti-drug commitment was weak and phoney while asserting that their side would wage a "real War on Drugs." And, just as they did before the 1986 election, the members of Congress from both parties overwhelmingly passed a new, even more strict and costly anti-drug bill. In the fall of 1989 Congress finalized yet another major anti-drug bill costing more than the other two combined. According to research by the Government Accounting Office, the federal government spent more than $23 billion on the drug war during the Reagan era, three-fourths of which for law enforcement (Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Week, 1989:3).

The anti-drug speeches favoring such expenditures became increasingly transparent as posturing, even to many of the speakers. For example, Senator Christopher Dodd (D-Conn) called the flurry of anti-drug amendments a "feeding frenzy" (New York Times, 5/22/88:E 4). An aide to another Senator admitted that "everybody was scrambling to get a piece of the action" (New York Times, 5/24/88:A 14). Even President Reagan's spokesperson, Marlin Fitzwater, told the White House press corps that "everybody wants to out-drug each other in terms of political rhetoric" (Boston Globe, 5/18/88:4). But however transparent, such election-year posturing - magnified by a media hungry for the readers and ratings that dramatic drug stories bring - enhanced the viability of claims about the menace of crack far more than any available empirical evidence could.

In opinion polls in 1986, 1988 and 1989 more people picked "drugs" as the "most important problem facing the country" than any other public issue. Politicians and the press frequently cited such poll results as the reason for their speeches and stories. For example, one New York Times story on this was titled, "The People's Concern: Illegal Drugs Are an Issue No Politician Can Resist" (5/22/88:E4). That title got it half right; politicians couldn't resist playing the drug issue, but the drug issue wasn't so much "the People's Concern" until they did. The reporter rightly noted that the 1988 election campaign would "resemble a shoving match" over "who can take a tougher line on drugs," and that "those who counsel reason are vulnerable to accusations of being 'soft."' But then he falsely attributed this phenomenon to the citizenry: "The politicians were reflecting the concerns of their constituents." He also quoted an aide to then-Vice President Bush saying the same thing: "Voters have made this an issue."

Politicians and the media were forging, not following, public opinion. The speeches and stories led the oft-cited poll results, not the other way around. In 1987, between elections - when drug problems persisted in the ghettos and barrios but when the drug scare was not so enflamed by election rhetoric and media coverage - only 3 to 5% of those surveyed picked drugs as our most important problem (New York Times, 5/24/88:A14). But then again in 1989, immediately following President Bush's speech escalating the drug war, nearly twothirds of the people polled identified drugs as America's most important problem. When the media and politicians invoked "public opinion" as the driving force behind their actions against crack, they inverted the actual causal sequence (see Edelman, 1964:172).

We argued in the previous section that the New Right found ideological utility in the crack scare. In this section we have suggested that conservatives were not the only political group in America who helped foment and benefited from it. Liberals and Democrats, too, found in crack and "drugs" a means of recapturing Democratic defectors by appearing more conservative, and also a convenient scapegoat for worsening conditions in the inner cities. All this happened at a historical moment when the liberals' traditional solutions to the problems of the poor were successfully stigmatized by the Right as ineffective and costly. Thus, in addition to the political capital to be gained by waging the war, the new chemical bogeyman afforded politicians across the ideological spectrum both an explanation for pressing public problems and an excuse for not proposing the unpopular taxing, spending, or redistributing needed to do something about them.

In the 1980s, the conservative drive to reduce social spending exacerbated the enduring problems of impoverished African-American and Latino city residents. In turn, their growing numbers, visibility, and desperation made them appear more and more menacing to the white middle-class majority. Inner-city churches, community organizations, and parent groups tried to defend their children and neighborhoods from drug dealing on the one hand and budget cutting on the other. Unfortunately, the crack scare did not inspire politicians to address the worsening conditions and growing needs of the inner-city poor and working class or to launch a "Marshall Plan for cities." Meanwhile, a minority of the young urban poor turned either to crack sales as their best shot at the American Dream and/or to the crack high as their best shot at a fleeting moment of pleasure.

All this gave federal and local authorities justification for widening the nets of social control. Of course, the new drug squads did not reduce the crime and scariness of impoverished urban neighborhoods. But the crack scare did increase criminal justice system supervision of the underclass: By 1992, one in four young African-American males were in jail or prison, or on probation or parole - more than were in higher education (Duster, forthcoming). In the years of the crack scare, the prison population more than doubled, giving the U.S. the highest rate of incarceration in the world (see Currie, 1985; Irwin and Ausdn, 1994).


Crack is an especially dangerous way to use an already risky drug, and de- spite all the exaggeration it has made life more difficult for many people, especially the poor. If we agree that too many families have been touched by drug-related tragedies, why do we bother criticizing the crack scare and the War on Drugs? If even a few people are saved from crack addiction, why should we care if this latest drug scare was in some measure concocted by the press, politicians, and moral entrepreneurs to serve their other agendas? Given the damage that drugs can do, what's the harm in a little hysteria? We suggest two answers to such questions.

First, drug scares have routinely blamed individual immorality and personal behavior for endemic social and structural problems. In so doing, they have diverted attention and resources away from the underlying sources of drug abuse and an array of other social ills. Historically, a necessary condition for the emergence of a drug scare was the linking of drug use with racial minorities, the poor, or wayward youth. In the logic of the scare, whatever economic and social troubles such groups suffered was due in large part to their drug use. Obscured or forgotten at the height of the crack scare and since were all the social and economic problems that increased the likelihood - and accounted for the class- and race-specific concentration of - crack use and sales. Dealing drugs, after all, is still accurately perceived by many poor city kids as the highest-paying job they are likely to get.

Democrats denounced the Reagan and Bush administration's hypocrisy in waging war on drugs and then cutting the budgets for treatment, prevention, and research. However, the Democrats usually neglected the more important development in which many of them were complicit: The "just say no" administration had, with the help of a majority in Congress, just said "no" to virtually every social program aimed at creating alternatives for and improving the lawful life chances of the inner-city youth among whom crack use was highest. While most such youth have always steered clear of drugs, they could not "just say no" to poverty, unemployment, and the prospects of life in a permanent underclass. Thus, there is harm in drug scares, first, for how they pervert public understanding of the sources of drug problems and constrain the social policies that might reduce them. Second, we strongly suspect that drug scares do not work very well to reduce drug problems and that they may well promote the behavior they claim to be preventing. For all the repression successive drug wars have wrought (almost exclusively upon the poor and the powerless), they have yet to make a measurable dent in our drug problems. For example, prompted by the crack crisis and inspired by the success of patriotic propaganda in World War II, the Media-Advertising Partnership for a Drug- Free America has spent over a billion dollars since 1987 in a massive, multi-media advertising campaign to "unsell drugs." They claim to have had a "measurable impact" by "accelerating intolerance" to drugs and drug users. They claim they "can legitimately take some of the credit for the 25% decline in illicit drug usage since our program was launched" (Hedrick, 1990).

However, the association between the Partnership's anti-drug advertising and the declines in drug use appears to be spurious.

Drug use was declining well before the Partnership was even founded; taking credit for what was already happening is a bit like jumping in front of a parade and then claiming to have been leading it all along. More important, drug problem indicators continued to rise throughout their campaign. Furthermore, probably because alcohol and tobacco companies spend billions each year on advertising in the media, Partnership ads have scrupulously avoided any mention of the two forms of drug use most prevalent among youth, smoking and drinking. Surely public health education is important, but there is no evidence that selective anti-drug propaganda and scare tactics have reduced drug use, much less drug-related harm in the U.S.

More than simply not succeeding, there is the risk that all of the exaggerated claims made to mobilize the population for war actually can arouse interest in drug use. The New England Journal of Medicine reported that the frequency of teenage suicides increases after news reports and TV shows about them (Gould and Shaffer, 1986; Phillips and Carstensen, 1986). Drug abuse, especially of new and exotic drugs like crack, may work the same way. In his classic chapter, "How to Launch a Nation Wide Drug Menace," Brecher (1972) shows how exaggerated newspaper reports of dramatic police raids in 1960 functioned as advertising for glue sniffing. The arrests of a handful of sniffers led to anti-glue sniffing hysteria which actually spread this hitherto unknown practice across America.

From 1986 to 1992, the media's desire for dramatic drug stories interacted with politicians' desire for partisan advantage and safe election-year issues so that news about crack spread to every nook and cranny of the nation far faster than dealers spread word on the street. This much attention entails the risk of raising awareness and curiosity about crack. And the crusade to condemn crack may have given it the allure of the forbidden fruit, which, if history is any guide, has tempted many young people. In order to claim, as literally thousands of media reports and political speeches did, that crack is "the most addictive substance known to man," there was some common sense obligation to explain why. Therefore, alongside all the statements about "instant addiction" the media also re ported some very intriguing things about crack: "intense rush," "whole body orgasm," "better than sex," and "cheaper than cocaine." For those people apt to be experimenting with various consciousness-altering substances anyway, such claims, so often and so prominently made, may well have functioned as a massive advertising campaign for crack.

After being bombarded with such accounts, perhaps the question is not why four percent of America's young people tried crack, but rather why many more of the other 96% didn't. One college student who had some modest experience with drugs offered a telling anecdote along these lines. After reading a story on crack in Newsweek in which the Editor-in-Chief likened crack to medieval plagues and the attack on Pearl Harbor, the student said, "I had never heard of it until then, but when I read that it was better than sex and that it was cheaper than cocaine and that it was an epidemic, I wondered what I was missing. I questioned why I seemed to be the only one not doing the drug. The next day I asked some friends if they knew where to get some." (Trebach, 1987:7)l3

Appendix: A Note on Crack Use as an "Epidemic" and "Plague"

The empirical evidence on crack use suggests that politicians and journalists have routinely used the words "epidemic" and "plague" imprecisely and rhetorically. These words are, nonetheless, worth examination. Like most other drug researchers and epidemiologists, we have concluded that crack use has never been anything but relatively rare across the great middle strata of the U.S. population. Among the urban poor, however, especially African-American and Latino youth, crack use has been considerably more common.

If the word "epidemic" is used to mean a disease (or even a disease-like condition) which is "widespread" or "prevalent," then there has never been an epidemic of crack use among the vast majority of Americans. However, an epidemic of crack use could be an appropriate technical term for what has happened among a distinct minority of teenagers and young adults from impoverished neighborhoods. Many more people use tobacco and alcohol heavily than use cocaine in any form. Alcoholism and nicotine addiction are far more widespread and kill far more people than all forms of cocaine and heroin use combined. But politicians and the media have not talked about heavy alcohol and tobacco use as epidemics or plagues.

The word "epidemic" also can mean a rapidly spreading disease. In this precise sense as well, in inner-city neighborhoods crack use may have been epidemic between 1985 and 1990 among poverty-stricken African- American and Latino teenagers and young adults. However, crack use was never spreading fast or far enough among the general population to be termed an epidemic there.

"Plague" is even a stronger word than epidemic. Plague can mean a "deadly contagious disease," an epidemic "with great mortality," or it can refer to a "pestilence," an "infestation of a pest [for example] a plague of caterpillars." Crack is a stimulant If used continuously and frequently, it often burns people out and does substantial psychological and physical harm. Most of the time, however, it does not kill the users. In this sense crack use is not a plague. One could say that drug dealers were infesting urban poverty neighborhoods - that they were plaguing specific urban areas; but that is not what "crack plague" usually suggested. When evaluating whether the extent and dangers of crack use match the claims of politicians and the media, it is instructive to compare how other drug use patterns are discussed. For example, an unusually balanced New York Times story (10/7189, p.26) compared crack and alcohol use among suburban teenagers and focused on the middle-class. The Times reported that except for a few "urban pockets" in suburban counties, suburban "educators, law enforcement officials, and young people say crack and most other narcotics are rarely seen in the suburbs, whether modest or wealthy." As the Times explained: Unlike crack, which is confined mainly to poor urban neighborhoods, alcohol seems to cut across Westchester's socio-economic lines Westchester is not unusual. Across the United States, alcohol eclipses all other drugs tried by high school students. According to a survey by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, 64 percent of 16,300 high school seniors surveyed in 1988 had drunk alcohol in the last month, compared with 18 percent who had smoked marijuana and 1.6 percent who had smoked crack. The Times also reported that high school seniors were out-drinking the general adult population. Compared to the 64 percent of teenage current drinkers, NIDA found that only 55 percent of adults aged 26 and over were current drinkers (drank in the last month). Furthermore, teenagers have been drinking more than adults since at least 1972 when the surveys began. Even more significant is the kind of drinking teenagers do - "excessive 'binge' drinking" as the Times call it: "More than a third of the high school seniors had said that in the last two weeks they had had five or more drinks in a row" (emphasis added). Drinking is, of course, the number one form of illicit drug use among high school students. As the Times explained, on the weekend, "practically every town has at least one underage party, indoors or out." Suburban students meet at parks and beaches, in the woods or at someone's house. "Fake identification cards, older siblings, friends, and even parents all help teenagers obtain" alcohol. The point we wish to emphasize is that even though illicit alcohol use was far more prevalent than cocaine or crack use, and even though it held substantial risk for alcohol dependence, addiction, drinking-driving deaths, and other sorts of alcohol problems, the media and politicians have not carried on a campaign about teen drunkenness. Used as a descriptive term meaning "prevalent," the word "epidemic" fits this teenage drinking far better than it does teenage crack use. As the Times noted, many organizations have campaigned against drinking and driving by teenagers; but the politicians and media, including that article, have not called attention to illicit teenage drinking and drunkenness by using terms like "epidemic" or "plague" even though it is far more widespread than crack use. Unlike the Times' articles on crack, which almost always make the front page, this article on teen drunkenness was placed in the second section and run on a Saturday. Finally, it is worth noting the unintentionally ironic mixing of metaphors, or of diagnoses and remedies, when advocates for the War on Drugs described crack use as an "epidemic" or "plague." Although disease terminology has been used to call attention to the consequences of crack use, most of the federal government's domestic responses have centered on using police to arrest users. Treatment and prevention have always received a far smaller proportion of total federal anti-drug funding than police and prisons do as a means of handling the "epidemic." If crack use is primarily a crime problem, then terms like "wave" (as in crime wave) would be more fitting. But if this truly is an "epidemic" - a widespread disease - then police and prisons are the wrong remedy and the victims of the epidemic should be offered treatment, public health programs, and social services.


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Parts of this chapter were presented at the 37th Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Social Problems, Chicago, 1987. Earlier versions of it were published as "The Crack Attack: Politics and Media in America's Latest Drug Scare," in J. Best, Ed., Images of Issues: Typifying Contemporary Social Problems (Aldine de Gruyter, 1989) and "Crack in Context" in Contemporaxy Drug Problems 16 (1989). Our work has been inspired by the courageous research of Alfred Lindesmith, Howard Becker, Edward Brecher, Norman Zinberg, Troy Duster, Arnold Trebach, Lester Grinspoon, James Bakalar, Dan Waldorf, and Andrew Weil. We thank Joel Best, John Brown Childs, John Kitsuse, Sheigla Murphy, Ethan Nadelmann, Marsha Rosenbaum, Joseph Schneider, and Dan Waldorf for helpful comments on earlier versions.


1 This New York Times editorial had a certain ironic ring for "America's paper of record" itself has long been been one of the leading orators, supplying a steady stream of the sluff on which the nation had, as they put it, overdosed. Irony aside, the editorial hit the mark.

2 One reason for examining scares as phenomena in their own right is that hey have not been limited to communists and drugs. For example, in 1920, there was a ouija board scare of several months duration which shared some characteristics with the crack scare. Newspapers spoke of "a wave of insanity" caused by ouija boards that had grown to "national prominence." A typical front-page article in the San Fsrancisco Chronicle read, "Breaking into a house at El Cerrito, ... police officers yesterday took into custody seven persons who had become insane from playing with ouija boards." n seems a 15 year old girl ad used the board to "induce unknown power" over the others (3/4120:1). Two days later in another raid, other "victims," including a policeman, were found to have been transformed "from a state of normality to that of madness" under its influence. In a fit of policeman "knocked down two guards," escaped, hijacked a car, and "dashed into the Central National Bank in a nude condition" (3/6/20:1). Before the ouija board scare had run its course, many others had been arrested and jailed or placed in asylums, and "experts" held serious discussions about "abolishing 'seances"' ( San Francisco, Examiner ,3/7/20:1).

3 These successive increases in drug war funding were so great that the money could not be effectively spent. Even the "Drug Czar" admitted in 1990 that less than half of the fund earmarked for police and prisons from 19S7 to 1990 had been spent (Washington Post 1/2/91:al3).

4 Keith Jackson was soon arrested but his trial for selling drugs in Lafayette Park ended in a hung jury.A few months later he was convicted of selling drugs to a DEA agent and was sentenced to ten years in prison.

5 We use the word "official" here because: I) We are referring to data produced by federal government agencies whose task is to define and document a particular form of deviance (See Kitsuse and Circourel, 1963); 2) it is data considered by experts to provide the "best" (i.e. systematically collected from representative national samples) estimates of the prevalence of drug use; and 3) it is explicitly gathered to provide policy makers with a society-wide database as a foundation for policy-making.

6 We understand this work as a case study in the social construction of drug problems. We focus not just on cocaine and crack per se, but the claims made by individuals and institutions with the power to define social problems, and on the popular understandings and public policies employing those definitions (cf. Spector and Kitsuse, 1977; Schneider and Kitsuse, 1984).

7 There are several reasons why local police statistics are problematic for assessing the pervasiveness of crack use. Most obvious is tbe fact that tbey deal witb only tbose users who are apprehended. ice statistics in several major U.S. cities clearly show that cocaine and crack use are pervasive among arrestees. It is also true that crack users now comprise a growing share of those eeking treatment. But just as treatment samples, by definition, tell us little about the much larger population of users who do not seek treatment, arrest figures cannot tell us much about tbe central question of societal prevalence, even tbough claims makers routinely use them tbat way. erhaps more important is tbe fact tbat police statistics often reflect crisis claims (see Kijtsuse and Cicourel, 1963). In New York City, for example, then Mayor Koch, Harlem Congressman Charles Rangel, and the editors of the New York Times played leading roles as moral entrepreneurs in drawing attention to crack use. As a consequence, a variety of New York City agencies, including law enforcement, were politically mobilized, and the number of police assigned to special crack units tripled. This mobilization is one reason why crack users have loomed so large in arrest statistics. Similarly, crack arrestees were treated far more harshly by the city's criminal justice system than comparable cocaine arrestees, according to studies by the New York City Criminal Justice agency. In their comparative analysis of 4,321 crack arrestees and 9,975 earlier cocaine arrestees, the agency found that crack users were twice as likely to be charged with felonies, four times more likely to be detained for arraignment, less likely to be released on recognizance or fined, and more likely to be sentenced to jail terms even though the crack arrestees had a lower mean number of prior arrests tban the cocaine arrestees. The authors concluded, "that crack arrests are being treated more seriously than other comparable drug cases," and that tbis was "apparently [due to] more stringent charging decisions ... [which] may reflect political pressure" (Belenko and Fagan, 1987:15-17). A second difficulty with police data is tbeir apparent unreliability with respect to what substances were involved in such arrests. according to a technical study by tbe same agency, New York Police Department arrest records coded as "crack arrests" frequently did not specify that crack was indeed tbe substance that was tbe basis for the arrest or that crack was confiscated as evidence. For example of 471 so-called crack arrests, 21 % mentioned only "cocaine"; 31 % mentioned only "controlled substance"; and 42% mentioned no drug at all (Fagan and Chin, 1988). It is at best difficult on the basis of such statistics to make accurate estimates of the number of "crack arrests," much less determine how extensive or problematic crack use is.

8 A variety of questions might be raised about this evidence. It is, for example, the product of organizations whose job it is to define and document deviance, and is thus as likely to reflect this organizational mandate as it is accurately to describe some "objective" empirical reality (see Kitsuse and Cicourel, 1963, on the important distinction between "rate-producing processes" and "behavior-producing processes"). Both DAWN and the NIDA surveys were explicitly set up to allow policy makm to make claims about the prevalence and the dangm presumed to follow from it aa of "illicit drug abuse." Mere "yes" responses regarding use in the past year or even in one's lifetime are typically taken as indices of abuse. On the other hand, some critics claim that the NIDA high school surveys miss the very dropouts who are most prone to drug abuse, or that the household surveys sample only one household member. e focus only on the inferences that have been made on the basis of this "best" "official" evidence. We will assume for the sake of argument that these data are reasonable measures of something "real" and ask 1) how well they support the many claims of mass destruction purportedly based on them, and 2) irrespective of evidence, why such claims have achieved such prominence.

9 New York Times, "Medical Emergencies for Addickts Are Said to Have Dropped by 20%," 5/15/90, sec. A; New York Times " Cocaine Epidemic Has Peaked, Some Suggest, " 7/1/90, sec. A; New York Times, " U.S. Says Hospital Statistics Show Use in Cocaine May Have Peaked: Cocaine-Related Hospital Visits Drop Again, 2 9/1/90, sec. L.

10 The DEA later took a very different view. Since that memo, the agency has regularly reponed that crack use has spread far and wide with terrible consequences. ur point in citing this early memo is to show that the crack scare has had a momentum of its own, racing ahead of DEA experts and other official evidence upon which it was purportedly based.

11 Even if we accept hyperbole as a "normal" means of attracting readers, viewers, and voters, it is still not possible to explain the development and character of the crack scare in temis of simple exaggerations of official evidence. Joumalists consistently caricatured crack use and usm and routinely employedrhetoric which is rare in other types of news stories. They also did not hesitate o make claims for which there was no evidence to "stretch."

12 See "Reagan Call for Cut in Drug Fight Ignites The Anger of Both Parties" New York Times 118/87: Al).

13 This drug scare has produced a growing number of drug research, treatment, and policy professionals appalled at the gap between realities and rhetoric, between what works and what is being done, between what the U. S. does and what other comparable industrial democracies do. Led by Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, there has been a growing chorus of voices advocating a national debate on altematives to the war on drugs, including decriminalization. Prominent conservatives like William F. Buckley Jr., fommer Reagan Administration Secretary of State George Schultz, and Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Freedom have urged Republicans to consider drug decmninalization. An increasing number of judges and police officials have also said that the drug war should be stopped and decriminalization considered. To be fair to the media, we note that ABC's Nightline, and National Public Radio's All Things Considered and Business Update have given decriminalization advocates a chance to present their views. Although the New York Times news department has generally ignored all such opposition voices, Times columnists Russell Baker and Anthony Lewis have written positively about altematives, and some space in the op-ed and lettm pages has been given to drug war critics. In short, largely in response to the failures and negative consequences of the War on Drugs, there has been a growing antidrug prohibition movement in the U.S. In the U.S., the institutional center for such activities is the Drug Policy Foundation (4455 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. 20016).

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