DRCNet Homepage | Sign on to DRCNet

DRCNet Library | Search the Library

Schaffer Library


Own your ow legal marijuana business
Your guide to making money in the multi-billion dollar marijuana industry
Special Collections of Documents
The Rufus King Collection

  The American Drug Panic of the 1980s

    Erich Goode & Nachman Ben-Yehuda

        Chapter 12 of Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance
          1994 by the authors, published by Blackwell.
          This book is available for purchase, please use this link to order from Amazon.com



Over the decades of the twentieth century, drug use has gone through cycles of intense public awareness and concern and relative indifference. For some of these decades, reformers, the public, the media, or legislators focus on a specific drug which stands in for or represents the drug problem generally. The late 1980s witnessed a drug "panic," "crisis," or "scare" (Levine and Reinarman, 1988, 1987; Reinarman and Levine, 1989; Goode, 1990). Public concern about drug use, although it had been building throughout the 1980s, fairly exploded late in 1985 and early in 1986. And the drug that was the special target of public concern was cocaine, more specifically, crack, a cocaine derivative. Drug use generally came to be seen as a—some say the—social problem of the decade. Drug use, abuse, and misuse emerged into the limelight as perhaps never before. It is possible that in no other decade has the issue of drugs occupied such a huge and troubling space in the public consciousness. And it is possible that no specific drug has dominated center stage in this concern as crack cocaine did between 1986 and, roughly, late 1989 to early 1990.
    In many ways, the drug panic of the late 1980s is interesting because it was so unexpected. The 1970s represented something of a high water mark in both the use and the pubic acceptance and tolerance of illegal drugs. Consider that:
  • During the decade of the 1970s, eleven states, encompassing one-third of the population of the United States, decriminalized small-quantity marijuana possession.
  • In 1978, only a third (35 percent) of American high school seniors believed that people who smoked marijuana regularly risked harming themselves (Johnston, O'Malley, and Bachman, 1989, p. 129).
  • Only a quarter (25 percent) of high school seniors said that private use of marijuana should be against the law (p. 141).
  • In 1979, six out of ten American high school seniors (60 percent) had used marijuana at least once during their lifetimes (p. 48).
  • Half (51 percent) had used it during the previous month (p. 49).
  • Over a third (37 percent) had used it during the previous month (p. 50).
  • One out of ten used marijuana every day (p. 51).
  • In 1979, one quarter of Americans aged 12 to 17 (24 percent), nearly half of 18 to 25 year olds (47 percent), and nearly one in ten of those age 26 and older (9 percent), had used marijuana at least once during the previous year (NIDA, 1989).
  • Tolerance and use of a number of the other illegal drugs, while not nearly so widespread as with marijuana, were at unprecedented levels.

 

The Decade of the 1980s: Measures of Public Concern

Something began happening in 1980 or thereabouts—for some indicators, give or take a year or so—that reversed this trend. Beginning roughly in the first year of the decade of the 1980s, public tolerance of the use of illegal drug use declined, belief that the use of illegal drugs is harmful increased, belief that use, possession, and sale of the currently illegal drugs should be decriminalized or legalized declined, and the use of these illegal drugs declined.
    Periodically, the Gallup poll asks a sample of Americans the question, "What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?" Drug abuse declined among the most important problems named by the public in Gallup polls between the early 1970s (February 1973, 20 percent) and the late 1970s (February, May, and October 1979, no mention at all), a period, ironically, as we saw, when drug use among the American public was at an all-time high. This set of circumstances represents a constructionist's dream: a condition that increased markedly in objective seriousness was one which manifested a decreasing measure of social concern. Between 1979 and 1984, drug use and abuse did not appear at all in the Gallup polls among the most often mentioned problems facing the country, indicating a relatively and consistently low level of concern about the issue.
    This changed in the mid 1980s. In January, May, and October of 1985, the proportion of those polled mentioning drug abuse as the nation's number one problem fluctuated from 2 to 6 to 3 percent. In July 1986, this figure increased to 8 percent, which placed it fourth among major American social problems. In a set of parallel polls, conducted by the New York Times and CBS News in April 1986, only 2 percent named drug abuse as the nation's number one problem; by August, the figure had increased to 13 percent (Clymer, 1986; Jensen, Gerber, and Babcock, 1991). The figure continued to grow through nearly the remainder of the 1980s until, in September 1989, a whopping 64 percent of the respondents in the New York Times/CBS News poll said that drug abuse represented the most important problem facing the country; this response is one of the most intense preoccupations by the American public on any issue in polling history. The concern at that time had been fueled by a barrage of network news programs on drug abuse and a major speech by President George Bush declaring a "war on drugs" (Kagay, 1990; Oreskes, 1990). In short, by the late 1980s, drug abuse had attained what Hilgartner and Bosk refer to as a "celebrity" status (1988, p. 57).
    The social construction of social concern and therefore, from a constructionist perspective, social problems, is revealed as much by the rise as the demise of drug abuse as the nation's number one problem. The 64 percent figure for September 1989 proved to be the apex of public concern about drugs; it is unlikely that a figure of such magnitude will be achieved for drug abuse again. After that, said one media expert, intense public concern simply "went away" (Oreskes, 1990). By November 1989, again, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll, the figure had slipped to 38 percent; in April 1990, it was 30 percent; in July 1990, 18 percent; and in August 1990, only 10 percent (Kagay, 1990; Oreskes, 1990; Shenon, 1990). After that, according to the Gallup polls that continued into the 1990s, the figure remained in the 8 to 12 percent range. Why? There is something of a social problems marketplace (Hilgartner and Bosk, 1988; Best, 1990, pp. 15-16), in which different issues must compete for public attention and concern; there is something of a "carrying capacity" or saturation point of public attention: Only so many issues can rank near the top, and, obviously, only one can be number one. Late in 1989 and into the early 1990s, two additional problems overshadowed the drug issue in the public consciousness—the economic recession and the crisis and war in the Persian Gulf. By the early 1990s, "other issues [aside from drugs] came in. The media stopped covering it [the drug story], and the public stopped thinking about it as much" (Oreskes, 1990). Just as social problems can be constructed, they can also be "deconstructed"!
    Another concrete measure of how certain conditions or phenomena are perceived as burning issues at a particular time is the focus of the media on them, one specific and concrete indicator of which is the number of articles published on those subjects in magazines and newspapers. The Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature indexes all the articles that appear each year in the United States and Canada. In 1979 to 1980 (March to February), only 15 articles were published nationally on the subjects of "Drug Abuse," "Drugs and Youth," "Drugs and Sports," "Drugs and Employment," "Drugs and Celebrities," "Drugs and Musicians," and "Drug Education." (New topics in addition to these continue to appear over the years in the Reader's Guide under the general topic of drugs; these were selected as indicative of the total volume of drug-related articles.) In 1980-1, the tally was 37; in 19812, 29; in 1982-3, 38; in 1983-4, 48; and in 1984-5, 76. In 1985, the Reader's Guide changed the time period include in the count to coincide with the calendar year; in that full year, there were 103 articles devoted to the above-mentioned drug-related topics. In 1986, the number of articles published on these subjects totaled 280—between a two- and a threefold increase in only a year, and a six-fold increase in less than three years. But in 1987, drug use received strikingly less attention in national magazines: Only 116 articles were listed in the Reader's Guide on these drug-related topics. In 1988, 133 articles appeared; and in 1989, there was something of a rebound of interest in the subject: 222 articles on these drug subjects were listed in the Reader's Guide. But in 1990, only 128 articles on these topics appeared. It seems that the early 1990s (as with the public opinion polls) witnessed a diminution of interest in the drug problem.
    As we saw, not only is media attention to a given condition one measure of the moral panic—relative to its threat—but exaggerations of the seriousness of the condition by media or movement representatives can also be taken as an indicator of whether a society is in the throes of a moral panic. As Best says, the media and movement representatives "tend to use big numbers when estimating the scope of a social problem"—after all, they reason, "big numbers are better than little numbers" (1990, p. 147, 1989b, pp. 21, 32). The same applies, with even greater force, to moral panics. Orcutt and Turner (1993) demonstrate how, through "shocking numbers" and "graphic accounts," newspaper and magazine articles distorted the extend of drug abuse in the United States in the 1980s by making it appear to be considerably more extensive than it actually was. By truncating the bottom of his graph and squeezing the Y-axis into a tighter, narrower space, the graphic artist who designed the layout of a major Newsweek article "transformed statistically nonsignificant [year-by-year] fluctuations" in a high school survey "into striking peaks and valleys" (p. 194). In this way, seeming increases in the yearly use figures were transfigured "into a tangible and threatening social fact" (p. 195). Other articles presented estimates of lifetime prevalence—or use by age 27—implying that they covered the period of use during high school (p. 198). These graphic and statistical techniques contributed to the media "feeding frenzy" that characterized the drug panic of the mid to late 1980s.
    Another indication or measure of the degree of felt concern about an issue is the legislation proposed to deal with a given condition, phenomenon, or problem—both seriously and rhetorically—by politicians and lawmakers. In June 1986, Ed Koch, then mayor of New York City, urged the death penalty for any drug dealer convicted of possessing at least a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of either cocaine or heroin. Two months later, Mario Cuomo, governor of New York State, regarded as a more temperate politician than Koch, called for a life sentence for anyone convicted of selling three vials of crack—at that time, a quantity of the drug which sold on the street for $50. In September, during the debates over a new federal drug bill, Claude Pepper, a Florida representative (now deceased) said cynically, "Right now, you could put an amendment through to hang, draw, and quarter" drug dealers. "That's what happens when you get an emotional issue like this," he added (Kerr, 1986).
    In a series of speeches between June and September, 1986, President Ronald Reagan called for a "nationwide crusade against drugs, a sustained, relentless effort to rid America of this scourge." His proposed legislation first added then, strangely, partly rescinded) $2 billion in federal monies to fight the problem, including $56 million for drug testing for federal employees. In many ways, Reagan's speeches were not only a measure of concern over drugs—they also played on and exacerbated that concern. In September 1986, the House of Representatives approved, by the overwhelming vote of 393 to 16, a package of drug enforcement, stiffer federal sentences, increased spending for education, treatment programs, and penalties against drug-producing countries which do not cooperate in US-sponsored drug eradication programs. Approved by the Senate in October, the drug bill, ultimately costing $ 1.7 billion, was signed into law by President Reagan. In it, a death penalty provision (unlikely ever to be carried out) was included for drug kingpins. Although legislation that had been enacted in 1984 included some anti-drug provisions, the 1986 legislation represented the first effort by Congress in 15 years to enact a major anti-drug law (Stolz, 1990, p. 8). In short, in 1986, the drug question preoccupied numerous politicians and lawmakers at the municipal, state, and federal levels, all "scrambling to put their imprint on the issue." For all, "politics have become as important as the [objective harm of the] substance" (Fuerbringer, 1986).
    But by the early 1990s, the issue had cooled down among politicians. Reports emanating from Washington indicated that by 1993, the administration of Bill Clinton (elected President in 1992) had downscaled the war on drugs from "one of three top [national] priorities to Number 29 on a list of 29" priorities (Schneider, 1993, p. 1). One indicator of this scaling down of priorities: in 1993, Clinton's director of national drug control policy (the so-called drug "czar"), Lee Brown, headed a staff of 24 aides, compared with 146 who worked in George Bush's drug office. In short, from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, fear of drug abuse ceased to be a moral panic; as a social problem, drug abuse lost its "celebrity" status. In that respect, it was similar to an even more extreme case, global warming (Ungar, 1992, p. 493), which, within a matter of less than a year in the late 1980s, moved from being a "celebrity" social problem to one that generated relatively little concern in the public and was rarely mentioned any longer by officials.
    Other indicators, measures, or manifestations of the intense concern felt in the United States about the drug issue on a wide range of fronts include the following:
  • During the 1970s, as we saw, 11 states decriminalized small-quantity marijuana possession. During the 1980s, the marijuana decriminalization initiative ground to a complete standstill; not one state decriminalized marijuana possession, and in the late 1980s and early 1990, as a result of popular referenda, two states—Oregon and Alaska—recriminalized the possession of small quantities of marijuana.
  • Drug testing emerged as a major issue; by 1988, a majority of the Fortune 500 corporations required drug testing for their employees (Anonymous, 1987). In the armed services, where drug use became cause for dismissal for all officers for the first offense, and cause for compulsory treatment for enlisted men and women, the proportion testing positive dropped from 27 in 1980 to 3 percent in 1986 (Halloran, 1987).
  • Celebrities such as the First Lady Nancy Reagan, comedian Bob Hope, and politician Jesse Jackson, acted as moral entrepreneurs, joining forces in "speaking out against drugs." Nancy Reagan claimed that every casual recreational drug user was an "accomplice to murder," that "Drug use is a repudiation of everything America is."
  • Anti-drug propaganda proliferated. The slogan for the 1980s (issuing from the First Lady's office) became "Just say no," that is, say "no" to drug use. "Don't even try it," we were warned. "If you're going to die for something," a spokesperson for an anti-drug campaign said, "this [meaning drugs] sure ain't it." One ad suggested that taking drugs has the same effect on one's brain as frying does on an egg. Another claimed that snorting cocaine is equivalent to putting a revolver up one's nose and pulling the trigger.
  • Organizations designed to deal with drug abuse sprang up in great profusion as well, with names such as College Challenge, World Youth Against Drug Abuse, the Just Say No Club, PRIDE, STOPP, Responsible Adolescents Can Help, Youth to Youth, and partnership for a Drug-Free America. (It should come as no surprise that most of these organizations have since folded.) Pamphlets, books, newsletters, and videotapes were offered for sale to concerned parents, teachers, and youth organizers who wanted to put a stop to drug use and abuse in their schools and communities. We were warned of glassy-eyed zombies high on marijuana, of cocaine sprinkled into popcorn at teen parties, of junkies nodding out on every street corner, crack addicts invading every neighborhood en masse. Every drug user "is a scourge and a bum," declared one police officer in an op-ed piece in a major newspaper (Williams, 1986), and a chorus of concerned citizens nodded in approval.

    In short, the 1980s witnessed an enormous increase in public concern about drug use and abuse; all the actors in Stanley Cohen's drama of the moral panic—the public, the media, politicians and lawmakers, action groups, and law enforcement—expressed strikingly and measurably greater concern about the issue between 1986 and 1989 than they had previously and than they did afterward. By nearly every conceivable subjective criterion, drug use and abuse emerged as a major social problem—perhaps the major social problem—during the late 1980s. So intense and widespread was this concern, it would seem safe to say, the United States was experiencing something of a drug "panic" at that time.

 

Why the Drug Panic?

The question is, Why? What generated such intense public concern about drug abuse between 1986 and 1989? Did this issue emerge as a consequence of objective factors—that is, did changes take place late in 1985 or early in 1986 to make drug use even more threatening, dangerous, or damaging than it had been prior to that period? Had even more dangerous drugs emerged and come to be used more frequently in the mid to late 1980s than was true in the late 1970s and early 1980s? Were they used via more damaging and dangerous methods or routes of administration? Were more people dying during the "panic" period than before and after?
    Or, on the other hand, was this concern solely a consequence of subjective factors—an illusory issue, perhaps, generated by politicians to get elected in the 1986 campaigns? If so, why in 1986, but not in 1984 or 1982? As we saw with the Renaissance witch craze and the Israeli drug panic of 1982, an investigation of moral panic entails investigating the question of its timing. Did the panic erupt as a result of a few moral entrepreneurs who wished to condemn and eliminate an activity they deemed immoral and damaging? Or a product of the schemes of organizational empire-builders who wished to create or expand their realm of supposed expertise? Who, exactly, was involved in the "claims-making activities" that held drug use and abuse to be a major social problem? What was it, exactly, that generated the extremely widespread and intense public concern over drug use that emerged, even erupted, in the mid 1980s?
    Kerr (1986) falls just short of declaring the intense concern over drug abuse which had begun building throughout the first half of the 1980s, and fairly exploded in 1986, "all hype." "Why now?" he asks. After all, levels of drug use fell in the United States throughout the 1980s; why was drug use seen as a problem when it was at practically a decade-long low? Some form of social construction can only account for the concern, Kerr argues.
    Levine and Reinarman (1987, 1988; Reinarman and Levine, 1989) take the argument a step further and claim that in the late 1980s, America was "in the throes of a drug scare... [that] takes a kernel of truth and distorts and exaggerates the facts for political, bureaucratic, or financial purposes. During a drug scare all kinds of social problems are blamed on the use of one chemical substance or another—problems which have little to do with the drug" (1987, p. 1). Citing the surveys conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which show tens of millions of Americans to have used illegal drugs once or more, they argue that the "vast majority" of individuals who try drugs "do not become addicts—they do not end up in emergency rooms, or on the streets selling their mother's TV for a fix" (p. 10). They conclude that there are many problems that are objectively far more important than the illegal use of drugs. The "just say no" administration, Levine and Reinarman argue, "has just said no to virtually every social program aimed at creating alternatives for inner city youth." The drug scares of the twentieth century, they conclude, "do not aid public health; they may actually hurt it, and they give a very distorted sense of priorities and problems. This drug scare, like the others before it, is drug-abuse abuse" (Levine and Reinarman, 1987, p. 10; see also Levine and Reinarman, 1988).
    Again, the question is, Why? Why a scare about a virtually nonexistent threat—or, more precisely, why a scare about a threat whose current and potential damage is less than other, far more serious, conditions? And, presumably, which causes significantly fewer deaths than it did a decade earlier, when drug use was at a strikingly higher level?
    The "latest drug scare," Levine and Reinarman say, "has been concocted by the press, politicians, and moral entrepreneurs to serve other agendas" (Reinarman and Levine, 1989, p. 127); it is, "quite simply, scapegoating" (Levine and Reinarman, 1988, p. 258). It appeals to "racism, bureaucratic self-interest, economics, and mongering by the media." In addition, "the issue of illicit drug use... focuses attention away from structural ills like economic inequality, injustice, and lack of meaningful roles for young people. A crusade against drug use allows conservative politicians to be law-and-order minded; it also permits them to give the appearance of caring about social ills without committing them to do or spend very much to help people" (Levine and Reinarman, 1988, p. 255). The social construction of drug abuse as a major problem in the late 1980s, Levine and Reinarman argue, serves a political agenda for the powers that be (including the media): maintain the status quo and profit from doing it.
    Some additional factors that have been cited by others as contributing to the construction of drug abuse as the major social problem in the mid to late 1980s include:

 

The Explosion of Crack Cocaine Use

At the beginning of 1985, crack, a potent crystalline form of cocaine, was practically an unknown—and unused—drug in the United States. By late 1985, the drug was beginning to be used extensively in urban areas, and the press accorded prominent coverage to it. Its previous obscurity, the seeming suddenness of its widespread use—although it had been used on a smaller scale since the early 1980s—and the degree to which it caught on in some neighborhoods made the crack story newsworthy and gave the public the impression that a major drug crisis had erupted practically overnight. Actually, the drug was and is used in large numbers only in some urban areas and, in those, only in certain neighborhoods. The 1986 national high school senior study asked a question about crack cocaine for the first time; about 4 percent in the study said that they had used the drug at least once (Johnston, O'Malley, and Bachman, 1987, pp. 16-17, 45). Thus, it was not simply the greater danger than new patterns of crack used posed but the drama of a new, previously almost unknown, and potentially destructive, drug type on the drug abuse stage that helped generate the panic.

 

The Death of Athletes from Cocaine Abuse

In June 1986, barely a week apart, two popular young athletes died of a cocaine overdose—on June 19, University of Maryland basketball forward Len Bias, and on June 27, Cleveland Browns' defensive back Don Rogers. Bias's death was felt to be especially devastating, to some degree, because of the proximity of Maryland's campus to the nation's capital. Said one member of the House of Representatives, "Congress is predominantly male and very sports-minded." With Bias's death, he said, "you were hit with a devastating blow" (Kerr, 1986, p. B6). More generally, a nation, such as the United States, that glorifies sports figures is one which will tend to treat the death of a famous athlete as not only a catastrophe, but will see the source of that athlete's death as more common and representative than it actually is.

 

The Role of the Media

The drug-related events or developments mentioned above, which would have received a great deal of media attention in any case, were even more nationally prominent because they occurred in close proximity to major media centers—Bias's death in the Washington area, and the emergence of crack cocaine use specifically in neighborhoods in New York City and Los Angeles, "only blocks from the offices of major national news organizations" (Kerr, 1986, p. B6).

 

The General Political Climate

Although not specific only to the 1986-9 period, one factor that helped to highlight the drug issue as a major social problem was the generally conservative political climate of the 1980s. Whether a cause or a consequence of this climate, the election of Ronald Reagan as President of the United States in 1980 set the tone for much of what was to follow throughout the decade, especially in the areas of sex, family, abortion, pornography, homosexuality, civil rights and civil liberties, and, of course, drugs. We have mentioned several of these developments on the drug front—the emergence of drug testing as a major issue, the cessation of the marijuana decriminalization movement (and the recriminalization of small-quantity marijuana possession in two states), the "just say no" campaign, the emergence of scores of antidrug organizations, and so on. In short, "it was in this general setting of conservativism that drugs could emerge as the leading social problem" facing the country in the 1980s (Jensen, Gerber, and Babcock, 1991, p. 657).

 

The 1986 Congressional Election

The 1986 elections must be counted as a source of heightened concern about the drug issue (Kerr, 1986; Jensen, Gerber, and Babcock, 1991), and the 1988 election, too, must be mentioned as a factor stirring up end-of-the-decade concerns as well. There is something of a dialectic or give-and-take relationship between public concern and attention by politicians to a given issue. On the one hand, we see a "bandwagon" effect here: politicians sense that public concern about and interest in a given topic are growing and they exploit this—in other words, "Congress smells an issue... When the media started talking about it, it lit a fire... Senators, once they started talking, realized they were all hearing similar things from their local officials" (Kerr, 1986, p. B6). On the other hand, while politicians took advantage of an issue that was in the incipient problem stage, once they got on the bandwagon, public concern escalated even further (Jensen, Babcock, and Gerber, 1991, p. 660). We need not accuse politicians of being scheming Machiavellians on the drug issue. It is their job to get elected, and they try to do it the best way they know how. Moreover, they would argue, it is their job to address the needs and concerns of their constituencies; dealing with the drug issue, or seeming to—that is, only in speeches is one way of doing just that. This also does not mean that the drug crisis was "fabricated," "engineered," or "orchestrated" by politicians who stirred up an issue in the face of public indifference. The public is not that gullible, and politicians cannot usually create feverish concern where none previously existed simply by making speeches. Many political campaigns have fallen flat, failing completely to capture the public imagination—witness the stress on the "family values" theme which was unsuccessfully touted by the 1992 election campaign of President Bush. In contrast, the drug issue tapped genuine widespread (though, in large part, erroneously based) concerns on the part of the American public, even though they were helped along by politicians who "smelled an issue."

 

The Role of Prominent Spokespersons

Soon after Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, his wife, Nancy Reagan, began making speeches stressing the anti-drug theme. It was from her office as First Lady that the "Just say no" slogan emerged. Some observers (Beck, 1981) have suggested that Mrs. Reagan chose the issue in part out of public relations considerations. Initially, she had been portrayed by the media as a "cold and insensitive person, whose chief concern seemed to be her wardrobe" (Jensen, Babcock, and Gerber, 1991, p. 657). Her choice of the drug issue could very well have been made to boost her public image, to suggest that she was a compassionate and concerned human being. Regardless of her initial motivation, her campaign, while, again, little more than words, bore fruit some five years after it was launched. The drug crisis of the late 1980s has to be set in the context of Mrs. Reagan's immensely publicized campaign. It was she who took the first steps toward galvanizing public concern and media attention. While other spokespersons, before and since, have "spoken out against drugs," she, possibly more than any single individual, is responsible for the success of the drug panic.

 

Crack Babies: A Panic-driven, Mythical Syndrome?

A specific moral panic arose within the broader panic over drugs, although it peaked at a time when the more general panic had already subsided. This was the scare that arose over crack and cocaine babies. This panic illustrates Stanley Cohen's concept of sensitization, that is, harm is attributed to a specific condition that tends to be ignored if caused by other, more conventional conditions. After 1964, the police were on the lookout for violence committed by Mods and Rockers, and they reacted to extremely minor offenses as if they were a major threat to the security of the community. With crack babies, what we saw was pathological conditions associated with the use of cocaine that was automatically assumed to have been caused by the drug which later, careful research indicated, were in fact caused by very conventional conditions about which there was very little subjective concern.
    Babies are society's future, its most precious and valuable commodity—and they make up its most vulnerable members. Nothing generates more anger and outrage than the physical abuse of tiny, helpless infants. With the emergence of the use of crack cocaine after late 1985, and the upsurge of heavy, chronic cocaine abuse in the late 1980s, speculation arose as to what crack and powdered cocaine do to the offspring of dependent, using, and abusing mothers. If a mother uses either crack or powdered cocaine during pregnancy, what happens to her baby? Does the infant have more medical problems than babies born of mothers who do not use cocaine? If so, how long do these problems persist? For instance, do children entering the first grade suffer medical problems as a consequence of the cocaine use of their mothers more than six years before?
    The findings of the initial studies on babies born to mothers dependent on cocaine were extremely pessimistic. Babies whose mothers were exposed to crack and powdered cocaine were, compared with those whose mothers were not exposed to drugs during pregnancy, more likely to be born premature, have a significantly lower birth weight, have smaller heads, suffer seizures, have genital and urinary tract abnormalities, suffer poor motor ability, have brain lesions, and exhibit behavioral aberrations, such as impulsivity, moodiness, and lower responsiveness (Chasnoff et al., 1989).
    Findings such as these were picked up by the mass media extremely quickly and just as quickly were transmitted to the general public. Soon after a critical mass of articles on the crack-baby syndrome was published, it became an established fact that crack babies make up a major contemporary medical and social problem. William Bennett, then federal drug "czar," claimed that 375,000 crack babies were being born in the United States in the late 1980s—one out of 10 of all births!—a figure that was echoed by respected Washington Post columnist Jack Anderson and New York Times editor A. M. Rosenthal (Gieringer, 1990, p. 4). The medical care of crack babies, stated one of the most widely quoted articles to appear in a mass magazine on the subject, is 13 times as expensive as that of normal newborns (Toufexis, 1991). In New York City, the annual number of children placed in foster care in the early 1990s, compared with the number before the crack epidemic, was said to have increased five times. The New York State comptroller's office estimated that New York City alone will spend three-quarters of a billion dollars over the next decade on special education for crack children. There is fear that these youngsters will become "an unmanageable multitude of disturbed and disruptive youth, fear that they will be a lost generation" (Toufexis, 1991, p. 56).
    A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist describes the crack-baby crisis in the following dramatic, heart-wrenching words: "The bright room is filled with baby misery; babies born months too soon; babies weighing little more than a hardcover book; babies that look like wizened old men in the last stages of a terminal illness, wrinkled skin clinging to chicken bones; babies who do not cry because their mouths are full of tubes... The reason is crack" (Quindlen, 1990). According to common wisdom that sprang up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, cocaine abuse among pregnant mothers causes serious, in all likelihood, irreparable, medical problems in their babies. This condition is extremely widespread, many said, and will be extremely costly to the society.
    The appearance of the crack-babies story in the media was not lost on law enforcement or public attitudes toward law enforcement. In a 15-state survey sponsored by The Atlanta Constitution, over 70 percent of the respondents polled favored criminal penalties for pregnant women whose drug use harmed their babies. Mothers in some 20 states have been arrested for the crime of "transferring" illicit drugs to a minor; that is, because of their own drug use, they caused the passage of said controlled substance through the placenta to the fetus they were carrying (Hoffman, 1990). No question about it: the illicit drug use and more specifically, the crack cocaine use—of pregnant mothers emerged as an important social issue and problem some time in the late 1980s, and it continued to haunt us into the early 1990s.
    Even from the beginning, some experts challenged the validity of the crack-baby syndrome. But it was not until the early 1990s that enough medical evidence was assembled to indicate that the syndrome is, in all likelihood, mythical in nature (Neuspiel et al., 1991; Richardson and Day, 1991; Coles, 1991; Coles, 1992; Richardson, 1992; Day, Richardson, and McGauhey, 1992). The problem with most of the early research of the babies of mothers who used powdered and crack cocaine was that there were no controls. Many of these women also drank alcohol, some heavily- and medical science knows that alcohol abuse is causally linked with at least one in utero medical problem: the fetal alcohol syndrome. In addition, no controls were applied for cigarette smoking (associated with low infant birth weight), nutritional condition, medical condition of the mother, the presence of absence of sexually transmitted disease, medical attention (getting checkups, following the advice of one's physician—or even going to a physician during pregnancy), and so on. In other words, factors that vary with cocaine use are known to determine poorer infant outcomes; mothers who smoke crack and use powdered cocaine are more likely to engage in other behaviors that correlate with poor infant health. Mothers who smoke crack are also more likely to drink; is the condition of their children due to the alcohol or the cocaine? Mothers who smoke crack are also more likely to suffer from sexually transmitted diseases; Such mothers are also less likely to eat a nutritious, balanced diet, get regular checkups, and so on. Was it these other factors, or was it the independent effect of the cocaine itself, that produced the negative outcomes?
    When the influence of these other factors is held constant, "it becomes clear that cocaine use per se does not affect infant outcomes. Rather, the lifestyle and covariates of cocaine use combine to affect the infant's status" (Richardson, 1992, pp. 11-12). While much more study is needed before a definitive conclusion can be reached, current medical opinion is leaning toward the view that "the effects of prenatal cocaine exposure that have been reported to date reflect the impact of polydrug use and a disadvantaged lifestyle, rather than the effects of cocaine" (pp. 11-12). In short, it is entirely possible that the crack-babies issue will turn out to be a "hysteria-driven" rather than a "fact-driven" syndrome. While, in the late 1 980s and the early 1990s, the public, the media, and even the medical profession, were sensitized to the possible harmful effects of cocaine abuse in babies, the more conventional factors were normalized, that is, their possible influence was ignored. Such processes are characteristic of the moral panic.
    Interestingly, while the media were quick to pick up on and publicize the early research that seemed to show that powdered and crack cocaine caused medical harm in newborns, infants, and even school-age children, very little media attention has been devoted to correcting this—in all likelihood—mistaken view. One rare exception is Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman. Says Goodman, "It turns out that 'crack babies' may be a creature of the imagination as much as medicine, a syndrome seen in the media more often than in medicine" (1992). Dr. Ira Chasnoff, whose work originally pointed in the direction of indicating medical problems for these kids, was quoted by Goodman as saying: "Their average developmental functioning is normal. They are no different from other children growing up." Says Dr. Claire Coles, another researcher cited by Goodman, the myth of the crack baby became a "media hit," in part, because crack is not used by "people like us." "If a child comes to kindergarten with that label [crack baby] they're dead. They are very likely to fulfill the worst prophecy" (Goodman, 1992). It is likely that, because of this sensitization process and because the media rarely correct distorted, sensational stories, much of the public will continue to believe in the "crack-baby" myth for some time to come.

 

Is the Objectivist Perspective Irrelevant?

As we see, the drug panic was constructed for a variety of reasons; a number of these reasons are subjective factors and have little, if anything, to do with the concrete damage or harm inflicted on the society by the use of illegal psychoactive substances. In this sense, the constructionists are correct; the 1986-9 outbreak of concern over drugs was a moral panic. On the other hand, we should not dismiss the objective dimension as completely irrelevant. Simply because a problem or crisis is constructed does not mean that it is imaginary. Because the media, politicians, and the public do not necessarily react to the objective features of a particular condition does not indicate or imply that they do not exist. (Levine and Reinarman [1988, pp. 255-6] make essentially the same point.) As measured by the human toll, drug use was not the most serious condition facing the country in the late 1980s. And recreational illegal drug use was actually declining at the precise period when public hysteria reached an all-time high. These things are true, interesting, and they verify the constructionist's position. At the same time, while occasional recreational drug use declined throughout the 1980s, heavy, frequent, chronic use—specifically of powdered and crack cocaine—during this period actually increased. And it is among heavy users that major medical and social damage is most likely to occur, such as lethal and nonlethal overdoses and violent crime (Goode, 1990).
    The valid insights of the constructionist argument should not blind us to the concrete seriousness that drug use confronts us with. While drug use may not be the number one problem in American society by any conceivable measure—nor, possibly, among the top ten problems—its contribution to the devastation of some neighborhoods and communities, and victimizing behavior of users and dealers cannot be denied. (It is entirely possible, as some critics stress, that criminalization and vigorous enforcement have actually contributed to the harm that drugs do [Nadelmann, 1989], but that is another matter and it is, in principle, an empirical question—one, moreover, that has not yet been demonstrated to the satisfaction of most observers of the drug scene.) Moreover, by any conceivable criterion, the contribution that the use of powdered and crack cocaine made to these problems was growing, not increasing.
    By standardizing overdose measures and keeping the locales from which the data were drawn, the Division of Epidemiology and Prevention Research of the National Institute on Drug Abuse prepared two reports (DAWN, 1987; Adams et al., 1989), focusing on the 1976-85 and 1984-8 periods. These researchers found that between 1979 and 1985, nonlethal cocaine overdose measures in the hospitals studied increased five times, and lethal overdoses increased six times (DAWN, 1987); between 1984 and 1988, the comparable figures were five and two-and-a-half times (Adams, et al., 1989). Thus, it is a serious distortion of the facts to argue that the drug panic was little more than a "scare" hoked up as a consequence of the scapegoating function it served. Something was happening out there; it was concrete, measurable, and objectively real, and it was almost universally regarded as undesirable.
    While we may agree that social problems are "not mere objective givens," that "objective conditions alone do not constitute social problems," that value judgments are a "necessary component" of what social problems are, that social problems are "inherently political phenomena" (Haines, 1979, pp. 119, 120), we may nonetheless acknowledge the role that objective seriousness plays in definitions of and public concern over a given condition. "Claims-making" activities are more successful at defining a condition as a social problem to the extent that that condition is, or, it can be made to seem that that condition is, objectively serious. To put things another way, counting up dead bodies is a resource for the claims-maker. Too often, the radical constructionist implies that social problems can be generated out of thin air with little or no concrete basis whatsoever. While this is occasionally the case (witness the current satanism ritual child abuse scare), such problems or panics are likely to grip only a minority of the public; in any case, this is most decidedly does not characterize what happened with illegal drug use in the United States in the 1980s. As Jones, Gallagher, and McFalls put the matter: "Discarding the objective dimension" in the study of social problems "is analogous to studying the issues exploding in the public mind while deliberately ignoring the weaponry" (1989, pp. 7-8). Ungar (1992, p. 496) makes essentially the same point when he argues that, in overreacting to the errors associated with the objectivist approach to social problems, social constructionists "ignore real-world factors in explaining phenomena." The claims of movement activists can, in Ungar's term, "piggyback" onto "dramatic real-world events" (p. 487); that is, actual events, some (although not all) of them objectively harmful, can dramatize claims and heighten social concern about the general conditions that caused those events. Of course, those events do have to be socially interpreted as such before they can be called "dramatic. "
    However, this is not quite what was happening in the world of drugs circa 1986-9. Note that the overdose figures we've just cited had virtually nothing to do with public or official concern over drug abuse. They are not an explanation or even a factor in the drug panic. Essentially, they are irrelevant to the question of why this concern exploded during the 1986-9 period. These figures do show that any argument based on the declining objective seriousness of the drug problem between the mid to late 1980s has to be false, since the data show that, objectively speaking, the problem was not declining in seriousness in the first place. In this sense, they are relevant to the drug panic: they address the issue of disproportionality. However, they do not address the question of why the panic came about. It is one thing for the scholar or researcher to be aware of the fact that a given objective level of a certain condition exists. The question of whether or not that level of seriousness is recognized or acknowledged by the various parties involved is quite another matter.
    To judge by the fact that anti-drug crusaders in the late 1980s made almost no use of the overdose statistics cited above, it is entirely likely that they were not even aware of their existence. Why was more attention not paid to this research when it affirmed what these crusaders were saying all along—that drug abuse is extremely dangerous and increasing in seriousness? Were the data too obscure and esoteric? Were these crusaders only interested in dissuading middle-class recreational users from drug abuse and non-users from experimentation and not at all in the use, abuse, and addiction of heavy, chronic street heroin and cocaine-dependent abusers? These are questions for which we do not have a ready answer. What the lack of focus of anti-drug activists on data that would have made their case in a convincing fashion does indicate is that crusades do not always make the best case they can, they do not always make use of information that is available. Moreover, it means that the issue of disproportionality is more than an abstract exercise; that is, the answer to the question of the discrepancy between concern and condition may exist on at least two levels—what the available information shows and what actors in the drama of the moral panic are aware of or take to be true. These two levels may be quite different from each other. In a moral panic, activists and crusaders assemble their arguments about the seriousness of the conditions they denounce with any arguments, claims, or supposed facts at their disposal. They may either not have definitive facts at hand to demonstrate their case, or they may not even be attuned to the same sorts of arguments or evidence that experts use to demonstrate a case.

 

1986-1989: A Moral Panic over Drug Abuse?

Was the concern generated by illegal drug use, especially crack, in the United States in the late 1980s a moral panic? Our answer to that question has to be a qualified yes. In the sense that an increase in this concern actually was accompanied by an increase in measurable harm (caused in part by an increase in heavy, chronic use), this concern cannot be referred to as a panic. On the other hand, crusaders and activists did not make a sober or systematic assessment of the facts; the concern over drugs in the late 1980s was a panic in the sense that claims-makers made use of arguments and facts that were, in fact, in excess of the available facts. (An example: the famous "This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?" ad campaign.) The fact that overdoses increased during this period, while relevant to the drama of the drug panic, was irrelevant to whether or not the concern constituted a moral panic, since the data to demonstrate that fact were ignored by major claims-makers in this drama. Moreover, this increase did not cause the concern—indeed, had nothing to do with it—because, again, key actors seemed to be unaware of their existence (or relevance to their arguments). They were not reacting to simple matters of body count and overdoses but to the usual array of constructionist factors discussed earlier—the novelty of crack, its seeming powers of enslavement, the overdoses of a few prominent athletes, the role of prominent moral entrepreneurs, and so on. Thus, the fact that some measures of concrete harm rose in concert does not deny the existence of a moral panic over drugs in the United States in the late 1980s. Indeed, a close inspection of its dynamics emphasizes its panic-like quality.
    Moreover, in the sense that drug use skyrocketed to become the number one problem in the country, as measured by public opinion polls, while the actual harm it caused was very far down on the list of harmful conditions, this concern most decidedly can be referred to as a panic. In addition—and this is a matter for debate, not one of clearly verified fact—it is entirely possible that both a law enforcement crackdown and the crisis mentality that such concern generates may actually have contributed to the seriousness of the problem, rather than alleviated it (Levine and Reinarman, 1988, pp. 257-8). In this sense, too, we observed a drug panic between 1986 and 1989. And in the sense that the concern was so volatile—that it was pushed off center-stage among the country's major problems in the short span of time between September 1989 and early 1990—likewise, indicates its panic status. Illegal drug abuse is still regarded as a major American social problem, but its precipitous fall from the problem of the decade to one problem among many, likewise, indicates that factors other than an objective assessment of the harm that it caused were at work. While the American drug panic of the late 1980s was not a classic or perfect case of a moral panic, it was a moral panic nonetheless.

References

Adams, Edgar H., Ann J. Blanken, Lorraine D. Ferguson, and Andrea Kopstein. 1989. "Overview of selected drug trends." Rockville, MD: The Division of Epidemiology and Prevention Research, National Institute on Drug Abuse, unpublished paper.

Anonymous. 1987. "Graduates face drug tests in joining job market." The New York Times, June 21, p. 29.

Beck, Melinda, with Gerald Lubenow and Martin Kasindorf. 1981. "Nancy: searching for a role." Newsweek, February 22, p. 54.

Best, Joel. 1989b. "Dark figures and child victims: statistical claims about missing children." In Joel Best (ed.), Images of Issues: Typifying Contemporary Social Problems. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, pp. 21-7.

---. 1990. Threatened Children: Rhetoric and Concern about Child-Victims. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Chasnoff, Ira J., et al. 1989. "Temporary patterns of cocaine use in pregnancy." Journal of the American Medical Association, 261 (March 24/31): 1741-4.

Clymer, Adam. 1986. "Public found ready to sacrifice in drug fight." New York Times, September 2, pp. A1, D16.

Coles, Claire D. 1991. "Substance abuse in pregnancy: the infant's risk: how great?" Paper presented at the Symposium on Pregnant Drug Abusers: Clinical and Legal Controversy, American Psychiatric Association Annual Meeting, New Orleans, LA, May 15.

---. 1992. "Effects of cocaine and alcohol use in pregnancy on neonatal growth and neurobehavioral status." Neurotoxicology and Teratology, 14 (January-February): 1-1 1.

DAWN (see Drug Abuse Warning Network).

Day, Nancy L., Gale A. Richardson, and Peggy J. McGauhey. 1992. "The effects of prenatal exposure to marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and methadone." In Herbert L. Needleman (ed.), Prenatal Exposure to Pollutants and Development of Infants. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN). 1987. Trends in Drug Abuse Related Hosp*al Emergency Room Episodes and Medical Examiner. Cases for Selected Drugs, DAWN 1976-1985. Rockville, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Fuerbringer, Jonathan. 1986. "Wide bill on drugs pressed in House." New York Tlmes, September 1 1, p. A24.

Gieringer, Dale. 1990. "How many crack babies?" The Drug Policy Letter, II

Goode, Erich. 1990. "The American drug panic of the 1980s: social construction or objective threat?" The International 3rournal of the Addictions, 25(9): 1083-98.

Goodman, Ellen. 1992. "Panic over 'crack babies' conceals real issue: neglect." Boston Globe, January 2, p. 69.

Haines, Herbert H. 1979. "Cognitive claims-making, enclosure, and the depoliticization of social problems." The Sociological Quarterly, 20 (Winter): 119-30.

Halloran, Richard. 1987. "Drug use in military drops: pervasive testing credited." New York Times, April 23, p. A16.

Hilgartner, Stephen, and Charles L. Bosk. 1988. "The rise and fall of social problems: a public arenas model." American Journal of Sociology, 94 (July): 53-78.

Hoffman, Jan. 1990. "Pregnant, addicted---and guilty?" New York Times Magacine, August 19, pp. 33-5, 44, 53, 55, 57.

Jensen, Eric L., Jurg Gerber, and Ginna M. Babcock. 1991. "The new war on drugs: grass roots movement or political construction?" Journal of Drug Issues, 21 (3): 651-67.

Johnston, Lloyd D., Patrick O'Malley, and Jerald G. Bachman. 1987. National Trends in Drug Use and Related Factors Among High School Students and Young Adults, 1975-1986. Rockville, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Kagay, Michael R. 1990. "Deficit raises as much alarm as illegal drugs, a poll finds." New York Times, July 25, p. A9.

Kerr, Peter. 1986. "Anatomy of an issue: drugs, the evidence, the reaction." New York Times, November 17, pp. A1, B6.

Levine, Harry G., and Craig Reinarman. 1987. "The monkey on the public's back." Newsday, January 4, Ideas Section, pp. 1, 10.

---. 1988. "The politics of America's latest drug scare." In R. Curry (ed.), Freedom at Risk: Secrecy, Censorship, and Repression in the 1980s. Philadelphia. Temple University Press, pp. 251-8

Nadelmann, Ethan A. 1989. "Drug prohibition in the United States: costs, consequences, and alternatives." Science, 245 (1 September): 939-47.

National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). 1989. Overview of the 1988 National Survey on Drug Abuse. Rockville, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Neuspiel, D. R., et al. 1991. "Maternal cocaine use and infant Behavior." Neurotoxicology and Teratology, 13 (March-April): 229-33.

Orcutt, James D., and Blake J. Turner. 1993. "Shocking numbers and graphic accounts: quantified images of drug problems in the print media." Social Problems, 40 (May): 190-206.

Oreskes, Michael. 1990. "Drug war underlines fickleness of public." New York Times, September 6, p. A22.

Quindlen, Anna. 1990. "Hearing the cries of crack." New York Times, October 7, p. E19.

Reinarman, Craig, and Harry G. Levine. 1989. "The crack attack: politics and media in America's latest drug scare." In Joel Best (ed.), Images of Issues: Typifying Contemporary Social Problems. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, pp. 115-37.

Richardson, Gale A. 1992. "Prenatal Cocaine Exposure." Unpublished paper, Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, Pittsburgh, PA.

Richardson, Gale A., and Nancy L. Day. 1991. "Maternal and neonatal effects of moderate cocaine use during pregnancy." Neurotoxicology and Teratology, 13 (July-August): 455-60.

Schneider, Andrew. 1993. "Latin America senses retreat as Clinton administration muzzles drug war." Indianapolis Star, February 13, p. 1.

Shenon, Philip. 1990. "War on drugs remains top priority, Bush says." New York Times, September 6, p. A22.

Stolz, Barbara Ann. 1990. "Congress and the War on Drugs: An Exercise in Symbolic Politics." Paper for presentation at the American Society of Criminology, Baltimore, November 9.

Toufexis, Anastasia. 1991. "Innocent victims." Time, May 13, pp. 56-60.

Ungar, Sheldon. 1992. "The rise and (relative) decline of global warming as a social problem." The Sociological Quarterly, 33(4): 483-501.

Williams, Hubert. 1986. "Every Narcotics User Is a Scourge and a Bum." Newsday, November 9, Ideas Section, p. 11.


DRCNet Homepage | Sign on to DRCNet

DRCNet Library | Search the Library

Schaffer Library