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 asome say thesocial 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.
- 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
The Decade of the 1980s: Measures of Public Concern
Something began happening in 1980 or thereaboutsfor some indicators,
give or take a year or sothat 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 consciousnessthe
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 280between
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 panicrelative to its threatbut 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 prevalenceor use by age 27implying
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 problemboth seriously and rhetoricallyby
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 crackat 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 drugsthey
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 statesOregon and Alaskarecriminalized
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 panicthe public, the media, politicians and lawmakers,
action groups, and law enforcementexpressed 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 problemperhaps the major
social problemduring 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
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 factorsthat 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 factorsan 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
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,
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 anotherproblems 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
addictsthey 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,
Again, the question is, Why? Why a scare about a virtually nonexistent
threator, 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
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 unknownand unuseddrug 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
usealthough it had been used on a smaller scale since the early
1980sand 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 overdoseon 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
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 centersBias'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 frontthe
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.
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 thisin 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 tothat 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 imaginationwitness
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
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 commodityand
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
1980sone 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 useof 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 physicianor 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
thisin all likelihoodmistaken 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
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 usespecifically of powdered and crack cocaineduring
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 measurenor, possibly, among the
top ten problemsits 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 questionone, 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,
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 alongthat 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 levelswhat 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 concernindeed,
had nothing to do with itbecause, 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 earlierthe
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 additionand this is a matter for
debate, not one of clearly verified factit 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 volatilethat it was pushed off center-stage
among the country's major problems in the short span of time between
September 1989 and early 1990likewise, 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
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