At any given time, we face a limitless array of threats and possible harms. For instance, right now, we could worry about terrorism, climate change, gun violence, unemployment, immigration, food security or any number of other concerns. Yet public concern over these issues is neither constant nor necessarily linked with the actual level of threat.
What turns a potential threat or harm into a full-blown social problem? How does what the foreign-born work force is smoking become a national crisis, worthy of repressive action, as it has here repeatedly? And how does a few hundred thousand people smoking crack in the 1980s translate into a solid majority of Americans saying drugs were the number one problem in the country in the fall of 1989?
Social constructionists say, in short, that we define such panics into existence. For a phenomenon to become a social problem, the theory goes, someone—a claims maker—must define it as a problem and convince others that it is one.
When it comes to drugs, both interest groups and moral entrepreneurs have been leading claims makers. Moral entrepreneurs seek to claim that a given social phenomenon is a social problem, that they have the solution, and that they deserve the resources to deal with it. Interest groups that benefit by claiming a stake in the definition of drug use as problematic include law enforcement, the medical community (i.e. drug treatment providers), lobbyists for corporate (typically pharmaceutical) interests, community groups, and religious leaders among others.
Every social problem needs to have deviant groups orr individuals, people who aren't "like us" but who are the problem and who should be feared. This process allows us to unpack primal fears—about sex, race, and the Other—and use those fears to mobilize a social response. These appeals to fear are a powerful tool, and moral entrepreneurs and interest groups know it.
If moral entrepreneurs and interest groups manage to whip up enough fear and anxiety, they can create a full-blown moral panic, the widespread sense that the moral condition of society is deteriorating at a rapid pace, which can be conveniently used to distract from underlying, status quo-threatening social problems and exert social control over the working class or other rebellious sectors of society.
The problem is that policy made on the basis of the fear, emotionalism, and hyperbole that typifies moral panics is not good policy. Yet we manage to scare ourselves to death over and over again, with the same dire results and unintended consequences. Here are four classic moral panics over drugs:
The Yellow Peril
By the second half of the 19th century, Americans were well acquainted with opium. Its use as a medicine for middle-aged, middle-class white women and as a soothing agent for distraught infants was well-known and not especially controversial. But that changed with the arrival of Chinese coolie labor in the 1860s and 1870s, and the first great drug panic of American history was about to get underway.
The Chinese brought with them their opium habits and opium dens, and the establishments soon began popping up in the segregated Chinatowns where the laborers lived. Within a few short years, a combination of racism, sexual insecurity, and labor hostility ("they're taking our jobs!) had been whipped by moral entrepreneurs, interested parties, and their willing handmaidens in the press into a crisis that demanded a strong, resolute response.
When America toppled over into economic recession in 1874, who better to blame than the Chinese coolies? They had taken jobs—dangerous, ill-paid ones—and they were demonstrably foreign, and they had different vices. Fanned by the Hearst newspapers and lurid penny dreadfuls, anti-Chinese sentiment festered in the West, and that moral panic over opium became a cover for it. It wasn't just the gutter press.
White orphans and kidnap victims were being held captive in Chinese laundries, "tiny lost souls, forced to yield up their virgin bodies to their maniacal yellow captors," warned labor leader Samuel Gompers. "What other crimes are being committed in these dark fetid places when these little innocent victims of the Chinaman's wiles were under the influence of opium is too horrible to imagine. There are hundreds, aye thousands, of our American boys and girls who have acquired this deadly habit and are doomed, hopelessly doomed, beyond redemption."
San Francisco physician Dr. Winslow Anderson was also aghast. "It is a sickening sight…young white girls…lying undressed or half-dressed on the floor or on couches, smoking with their Oriental 'lovers,' men and women, in those Chinese smoking houses," he wrote.
America's first anti-drug law, an 1875 law targeting opium in its smoked form and outlawing public opium dens, was clearly aimed at one specific group: the Chinese in America. Although anti-opium mania continued, over time it became clear that it was racist xenophobia that drove the propaganda.
Four years later, California amended its constitution to bar the employment of Chinese by private business and local government, and when the Chinese responding by opening their own businesses, the state threw up whatever obstacles it could to snuff them. And three years after that, the US Congress passed the Anti-Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, barring new immigration from China for 10 years and barring Chinese already in the country from becoming naturalized citizens, thus blocking their participation in the country's political process.
The "yellow peril" continued to sell newspapers for Hearst, and was a favorite theme of the pulp press well into the next century. The cover of Chas. E. Blaney's 1906 effort, "King of the Opium Den," is a classic of the genre: A white woman lies supine and unconscious on a settee, an opium pipe beside her outstretched hand, as a leering, pig-tailed and Fu Manchu-mustached Chinaman leers over her, while his coolie assistants fend off an American sailor desperate to rescue her. "She sleeps!" the Chinaman crows. "My hour of triumph has come!"
America's first "anti-drug" campaign showed that by demonizing a racial group's use of a substance, you could target that group indirectly by targeting the drug it used. It would be a lesson well-learned.
Bullet-Proof Buck Negroes on Cocaine Raping Our White Women
At the turn of the 20th century, drug prohibition didn't exist (unless you were Chinese). Heroin and cocaine were legal, and sold as nostrums, potions, and patent medicines, as well as being offered doctors and pharmacies. Cocaine famously added zip to Coca-Cola, and for a nickel, anyone, of any color could get the buzz.
That was about to change. The Andean white powder first hit America in 1884, and as cocaine use surged amidst the social turmoil of the late 19th century, it crystallized latent fears of "the dangerous classes"—late arriving European immigrants in the Northeast, blacks in the South.
Under pressure from white Southerners concerned it was contributing to drug use among black, Coca-Cola abandoned cocaine in 1903, replacing it with more caffeine and sugar. And no wonder people were nervous—Southern newspapers at the time were full of accounts of "negro cocaine fiends" impervious to lawmen's bullets and busily raping white women.
It wasn't just redneck sheriffs and provincial broadsheets making overheated, frightening claims that demanded a tough response. Frightfully bigoted rhetoric flowed from the pens of high US government officials and the pages of medical journals and elite media such as the New York Times alike.
There was no real evidence of a "cocaine problem" with American blacks in the first decade of the century, and the surge in cocaine use seemed to subside with the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, which saw coca leaf imports fall by half in the first year. But that didn't stop the crusaders.
"The use of cocaine by the negroes of the South is one of the most elusive and troublesome questions which confront the enforcement of the law … often the direct incentive to the crime of rape by the negroes," Dr. Hamilton Wright, the US State Department's point man on narcotics, reported in 1910. Wright, who by then had already instigated the first international conference paving the way to global drug prohibition, would go on to do the same here at home.
"The negro who has become a cocaine-doper is a constant menace to his community. His whole nature is changed for the worse … timid negroes develop a degree of 'Dutch courage' which is sometimes almost incredible," wrote Dr. Edward Williams in the Medical Standard in 1914.
Williams was at it again in the Times later that same year. "Negro Cocaine 'Fiends' New Southern Menace," was the title of his piece. "Murder and Insanity Increasing Among Lower Class Because They Have Taken to 'Sniffing' Since Being Deprived of Whisky by Prohibition," the subhead elaborated.
Williams spent most of his time in the piece recounting the story of an Asheville, North Carolina, police chief who reported having to shoot a coke-crazed black guy twice and then beat him dead with his club—and then went out and bought a bigger gun. "And many other officers in the South; who appreciate the increased vitality of the cocaine-crazed negroes, have made a similar exchange for guns of greater shocking power for the express purpose of combating the 'fiend' when he runs amok," the good doctor credulously related.
The campaign worked. Thanks in large part to Dr. Wright, and to a lesser degree to sensation-seeking newspapers and credentialed-but-crackpot "experts" like Dr. Williams, both cocaine and heroin became effectively illegal with passage of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914. From that point on, America was firmly on the path to drug prohibition. A century and a year later, we've just begun to turn in a different direction.
Reefer Madness bubbled up mainly in Western states a little more than a century ago, and like most drug panics, it was a potent mix of fear-mongering, race-baiting, moral entrepreneurship, and bureaucratic empire-building. This time the villainous outsiders were Mexican—more than half a million of whom entering the country between 1915 and 1920 to work here as the Mexican Revolution raged–bringing the devil's weed north across the Rio Grande to get all messed up and, yes, entice our white women.
Replete with apocryphal tales of crazed Mexicans high on locoweed, the pot panic percolated out West in the 1910s and 1920s as state after Western state passed marijuana prohibition laws—often after legislative debates that mainly demonstrated lawmakers didn't have a clue. This excerpt from The Montana Standard's coverage of the marijuana prohibition debate there in 1929 shows just how seriously legislators took their duties:
There was fun in the House Health Committee this week as the Marijuana Bill came up for consideration. Marijuana is Mexican opium, a plant cultivated by Indians and used by Mexicans. "When some beet field peon takes a puff of this stuff," explained Dr. Fred Fulsher of Mineral County, "he thinks he has just been elected president of Mexico and he starts out to execute all his political enemies."…Everybody laughed, and the bill was recommended for passage.
But it was the quintessential 20th-century American drug warrior, Bureau of Narcotics head Harry Anslinger, who took pot prohibition nationwide, ushering in the dark period from which we are only now emerging. Although nearly every state west of the Mississippi had criminalized the weed by 1930, the issue did not weigh large on the national consciousness.
Finally deciding to push for a federal ban in 1932, Anslinger unleashed an astoundingly successful media campaign against the "killer narcotic" and its users. The diligent department head collected newspaper clippings of particularly gruesome murders, then attributed them to marijuana use even when it was achingly obvious there were other causes. Marijuana use led to violence, insanity, degradation, and death, he warned, and the Hearst newspapers once again played their role as the protectors of national virtue and propagandists of drug prohibition.
It wasn't just the Hearst papers. This was the period of Reefer Madness, the movie, with its dope-addled, frantic, bug-eyed piano pounding and good girls turned wanton hussies. And it wasn't the only one. The pulps also did their part in creating a new menace, cranking out title after hot-selling title like "Marijuana Girl: Joyce Taylor would try anything if it promised a thrill. She fell pretty to the foulest of rackets," and "Reefer Club: The girl was the slave of marijuana—yet was she wholly bad?"
By 1937, Anslinger had his ducks in a row. He took the Marijuana Tax Act to Congress, pushed it through the largely compliant chambers, and ran roughshod over the testimony of the American Medical Association representative, who said he opposed the bill. Anslinger turned that testimony on its head, claiming the AMA supported the bill. And federal marijuana prohibition was ensconced.
Since then, tens of millions of Americans have been arrested and jailed for use of the "killer weed." But the old propaganda is thread-bare. Pot smokers are no longer accused of becoming psycho killers or "narcotic addicts;" now, the best the propagandists can come up with is it might make you stupid or drive carelessly.
Crack Cocaine, Crack Babies, and Super Predators
It's the new heroin! That's one of the sillier over-hyped claims about this smokeable form of cocaine. It's a particularly odd claim since the two drugs have completely different biopharmaceutical properties; one is a stimulant and the other is a central nervous system depressant.
The fast-acting, compulsion-creating form of cocaine emerged in the early 1980s and quickly generated massive, obsessive media coverage, most famously with Dan Rather's "48 Hours on Crack Street. But that was only one example. Countless media outlets spent countless hours and column inches decrying the way crack was ravaging the inner city. (That inspired comedian Eddy Murphy to remark rather sardonically that, "Yeah, crack has really ruined the ghetto.")
Crack was blamed for an increase in inner city violence—although studies of crack-related homicides in New York City found the vast majority of them were related to turf wars over selling a prohibited substance, and that crack users were more likely to be victims of murder than perpetrators of it.
The crack panic, in the form of massive media attention, managed the remarkable feat of pushing drug abuse into the top tier of social problems facing the country. By the time George Bush the Elder waved a bag of crack around on national TV in September 1989, a whopping 64% of Americans polled said that drug abuse was the most serious problem facing the country.
The crack panic resulted in national legislation in 1986 setting notably harsher penalties for federal crack offenses—it took a hundred times as much powder cocaine to generate a mandatory minimum prison sentences as it did with crack—with that response being mirrored at the state level. Since then, tens of thousands of people—almost all of them black—have been sentenced to harsh prison terms on the basis of non-scientifically justified crack laws. That's starting to turn around now, but in the meantime, a generation of black Americans was lost.
Speaking of a "lost generation," that is exactly how many observers described "crack babies," those infants born of mothers who used the drug and who were supposedly doomed to lives of misery because of the damage done them in utero. Beginning in 1985, and based on a very small-scale study of pregnant women who used cocaine, "crack babies" exploded into a media frenzy, long on emotion and anecdote, but very, very short on backing evidence or careful science.
"A cohort of babies is now being born whose future is closed to them from day one. Theirs will be a life of certain suffering, of probable deviance, of permanent inferiority. At best, a menial life of severe deprivation. And all this is biologically determined from birth," warned Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post in 1989.
And even worse, those crack babies could grow up to be Super Predators! These "elementary school youngsters who pack guns instead of lunches" are "radically impulsive, brutally remorseless" and "have absolutely no respect for human life," the purveyors of the scary, often racially coded messages warned.
Fortunately for all of us, the super predators turned out to be as mythical as the crack babies. The epidemic of crack-addled kids never happened, the cited effects of maternal crack use turned out to be more related to overall lifestyle than drugs, and maternal crack use turned out to be less damaging than maternal alcohol use.
The myths have been debunked, but the damage has been done. Not only have tens of thousands, almost entirely people of color, been imprisoned under draconian crack laws, but the legitimacy of the criminal justice system has been further eroded. And even though it's now thoroughly debunked, the crack baby panic has led to the widespread drug testing and criminalization of poor women who use drugs.
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