The Journal of
Cognitive Liberties

This article is from Vol. 1, Issue No. 3 pages 7-28 (Fall 2000)
All rights reserved worldwide.  ISSN: 1527-3946



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Ecstasy and Synthetic Panics

By Philip Jenkins

I should begin by explaining why I claim to be able to speak about a topic of this kind, seeing as I have no formal training either in medicine, chemistry or pharmacology. I have, however, spent many years applying historical and social scientific methods to the study of social problems in the US. Over the last decade, I have published books on topics like serial murder (Using Murder 1992), child abuse (Moral Panic 1998), and cults (Mystics and Messiahs 2000). My major scholarly interest throughout is in seeking to understand the social reaction to issues, basically how things come to be seen as problems demanding an official response. Historical perspective is particularly important here, because it allows us to benefit from studying the mistakes of the past. I stress that my basic approach to panics and the construction of problems is not something quirky that I invented myself; rather, it is a mainstream idea in contemporary sociology and criminology, where it is known by the name “social constructionism.”

Sometimes, the reaction to issues is massively out of proportion to the phenomenon at hand, and in those cases, social scientists use the term “moral panic.” In such instances, people are reacting less to the matter at hand (say, a particular drug) than to its cultural or social associations.

People may latch on to a particular issue because it is an acceptable way of attacking some perceived threat that cannot be addressed openly. The panic might thus conceal tensions over age, race or gender. In addition, panics might be exploited by bureaucratic agencies who stand to gain new resources on the strength of public fears. Moral panics are socially damaging because they divert resources from more serious dangers, and also because they can result in over-sweeping laws which threaten to ruin the lives of countless relatively harmless individuals.

Often, scares and exaggerated fears arise over drugs. In my 1999 book Synthetic Panics (New York University Press), I described some of the ways of recognizing when a panic is arising, and applying these criteria, I am worried by current claims about the drug MDMA or “Ecstasy.” Though the substance has been around for a long time (since 1912, in fact), within the last few years we have heard a series of far reaching claims about the effects of Ecstasy use, particularly in the rave scene. I want to argue that the current wave of concern, which seems to be peaking right now, looks like it is becoming a classic moral panic, based on exaggerated fears and misused evidence.

I am absolutely not making a plea for MDMA to be legalized, in the sense of freely available on the streets: like most pharmaceuticals, it can easily cause harm in the wrong hands, and medical supervision is appropriate and necessary. Having said this, I will suggest alternative ways of looking at the evidence presented about the drug’s effects, and ask whether most or all of the problems reportedly caused by Ecstasy result from problems with the drug itself, or rather with its current status under the law. If the latter, then adding new legal restrictions is almost certain to make the situation worse, not better. I propose that our emphasis should be on harm-reduction, not further repression, and still less in opening a new front in the drug war.

How Did Ecstasy Come To Be Criminalized?

Ecstasy is more properly known as MDMA (3,4, methylene-dioxy-methamphetamine), and as its name suggests, it is yet another derivative of the amphetamine family. It is not obvious why the substance should be illegal. In my book Synthetic Panics, I suggested that this was a relatively harmless and probably beneficial substance which happened to come to public attention at a uniquely unfortunate time, namely in the mid-1980s. At this time, people were obsessed with the dangers of crack cocaine, and had very little tolerance for any drugs associated with pleasure. Moreover, another recent wave of horrible stories in the mass media told of the deadly effects of so-called “designer drugs,” laboratory made chemicals which, at their worst, could kill or paralyze users.

“Designer drug” made people think of names like PCP, MPTP, and fentanyl. Though MDMA has nothing whatever to do with these substances, it suffered from a kind of guilt by association.

MDMA was originally synthesized in 1912 by the Merck Corporation, and was rediscovered by Alexander Shulgin in 1965. Shulgin remarked that “it was not a psychedelic in the visual or interpretive sense, but the lightness and warmth of the psychedelic was present and quite remarkable.” In fact, the drug has some chemical relationship to mescaline and its derivatives.

Open experimentation with human subjects revived in the early 1970s, and from about 1976, largely under Shulgin’s advocacy, the drug was increasingly used by therapists, who found it valuable in creating a psychologically safe environment in which patients could explore traumatic feelings or memories. In essence, it offered the advantages of the hallucinogens without the potential loss of control, and the resulting catastrophe of a bad trip. To quote novelist Douglas Rushkoff, “You get the insight without the pain. You see how things are but, unlike with acid, the knowledge doesn’t spin you into the drug’s control. The only way to have a bad E trip is to be afraid to look. You can’t shut down the process.”

Shulgin himself comments that “MDMA allows you to be totally in control, while getting a really good look at does away with…the fear barrier, the fear people have of seeing what’s going on inside them, who they are.” It was “penicillin for the soul, and you don’t give up penicillin, once you’ve seen what it can do.”

MDMA now played a central role in what was termed the neuroconsciousness movement. One psychologist “spent his time training people, mostly therapists, in the use of MDMA. He’s introduced several thousands of them across the country to this drug, teaching them how to use it properly, for themselves and their patients.” Under the nickname Adam, the drug gained an enthusiastic following among spiritual seekers and New Agers, who explored the analogies between these chemically induced states and the mystical conditions described by traditional religions. MDMA thus had a respectable following, and its use in controlled and discreet settings meant that it was unlikely to attract attention from law enforcement agencies. Through such means, perhaps half a million doses of the drug were distributed in a decade.

Matters changed fundamentally during the early 1980s, as the drug acquired a politically damaging reputation for giving pleasure. Entrepreneurial drug-makers in Texas marketed the chemical as a party-drug, choosing the brand name of Ecstasy, or XTC. It found its way into the upscale party and dance-club scene of Dallas and Austin, where Ecstasy was sold openly over bar counters as a “yuppie psychedelic,” and it was a smash success in clubs in New York and Chicago. The media reported that the drug was gaining popularity at an alarming rate, and it was portrayed as the new drug of choice for the young and affluent. Of course, the more sensational the press reports, the better the advertising for the drug, as would-be yuppies across the nation asked themselves what pleasures they were missing.

Many users were apparently attracted to MDMA as a safe alternative to cocaine, which was then attracting such awful publicity following tales of severe addiction and celebrity deaths. At this time, MDMA was not subject to the increasingly severe criminal penalties prescribed for cocaine.

In the atmosphere of the burgeoning drug war, Ecstasy was condemned as much by its name as by its cultural connotations. As a therapeutic aid, MDMA had most of the positive features and few of the drawbacks of other commonly used drugs of the 1970s and 1980s, but the name Ecstasy suggested a link with the discredited cultures of the 1970s: we might ask whether it would have aroused official outrage if it had been given its first intended name, of Empathy, or even retained its nickname of Adam. Further, the drug was attacked following studies purporting to show that it caused brain damage, and the media presented a familiar series of scares about the drug threatening to ravage the entire nation.

The DEA undertook an emergency reclassification of the drug, placing it in the prohibitive Schedule I, on a par with heroin, and thus in an even more restrictive category than cocaine or morphine. The scheduling decision was immediately attacked, and contentious administrative law hearings followed during early 1985.

The federal judge who initially reviewed the evidence recommended placing the drug in the permissive schedule III, permitting use through medical prescription. Many medical experts and therapists were prepared to testify about the drug’s positive properties. However, the times were wrong for such an enlightened approach, and the emergency scheduling decision was confirmed in July on that year. The absolute suppression of Ecstasy in the mid-1980s epitomizes the anti-drug movement at its worst, using panic over-reaction to combat a questionable menace, at the cost of potential gains in medical research.

Ecstasy was condemned on such slight evidence because it was labeled as a designer drug. The parallels between Ecstasy, fentanyl, and MPTP were slim indeed, and all they really had in common was that all were basically laboratory products used to produce some kind of chemical high, but in the fevered atmosphere of mid-1980s anti-drug politics, all were equally blameworthy. “PCP, Ecstasy and fentanyl” were discriminately bracketed together in discussions of the new menace.

Ecstasy and Prozac®

That the boundary between licit and illicit drugs depends upon their symbolic associations was indicated yet again in exactly the years that Ecstasy was under such devastating assault. At just this time, another designer drug with somewhat similar effects was beginning a brilliantly successful career as a universal panacea, and consequently, a commercial triumph.

In 1987, following the approved range of official trials, the Eli Lilly Corporation marketed its anti-depressant Prozac®, which like Ecstasy, alters an individual’s mood by manipulating levels of neurotransmitter chemicals in the brain. Both drugs inhibit the re-uptake of serotonin, raising levels of that chemical in the brain and thereby making users feel calmer and more confident. Prozac offered much the same range of wonder-drug accomplishments that had recently been claimed for MDMA. And like Ecstasy, Prozac’s effects on some lives were so profound as to lead users to describe it as the foundation of a new spirituality.

By the mid-nineties, Prozac was being prescribed to an estimated twenty million users worldwide, with five million regular consumers in the US alone, and annual sales hit $4 billion by 2000. The drug’s usage swelled through a kind of bracket creep, as the conditions it was intended to treat expanded steadily, from depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder to panic disorders, premenstrual tension, chronic back-pain and, in short, to any personal malaise.

As with Ecstasy, or indeed any effective medication, Prozac had its down side—see now Joseph Glenmullen’s book Prozac Backlash. Users might experience nausea, diarrhea or sexual dysfunction, and must take great care to avoid a potentially fatal combination with some other drugs, like MAO-Inhibitors. From the drug’s earliest days, controversial claims were also made about its possible links with violent behavior, charges of a sort which, incidentally, were never made against MDMA. Lilly came under pressure in the early 1990s to warn users of possible outbreaks of suicidal behavior, and the company was sued by individuals who claimed that their violent acts were Prozac-inspired. Particularly bad publicity followed incidents in which mass killers were found to have used Prozac® shortly before committing their crimes: in one such case in 1989, a Louisville man who had used the drug killed eight people in a murder rampage, and in 1998, a teenage Prozac® user carried out a high school shooting spree in Oregon.

Partly because of the feared side-effects, some advanced countries have shied away from Prozac®, preferring instead herbal-based remedies like St. John’s Wort. In response, defenders of Prozac note that excessive claims about side-effects are inevitable in a society as litigious as the contemporary US, and the drug’s precise effects remain open to debate: the “Prozac Defense” has consistently failed in American courts. On the other hand, if effects of this sort were only alleged (with however weak a foundation) against an illicit drug, we can be certain that they would be trumpeted widely and uncritically, and would justify ferocious measures of suppression. And analogies to illicit drugs can be extended further.

Prozac’s defenders argue, fairly, that just because an individual has been using a particular drug does not necessarily imply that it directly caused a given act of violence, and that the violence might well have occurred regardless of the drug usage—a position which could equally be extended to users of illegal drugs like methamphetamine or PCP.

Prozac is a worthwhile pharmaceutical breakthrough, which has caused much good in many lives. Even so, the question arises whether anything more than chance explains why this drug went on to glory, while Ecstasy found itself in the company of chemical outlaws like fentanyl and MPTP. The main reason was that one drug arose through approved corporate channels, while the other did not. We can only imagine how Prozac would be regarded if the drug had been popularized through unofficial networks of therapists, and had developed a reputation among non-specialists for its pleasurable effects.

Still worse, what if it had attracted a playful nickname like Feelgood? It would assuredly have been classified alongside Ecstasy and the other prohibited designer drugs.

How Harmful is Ecstasy?

All drugs and medicines can have harmful or fatal effects, including perfectly legal medications that are properly prescribed by qualified medical personnel. If we look at the substances that account for the largest number of emergency room visits in the US, we might be surprised to find that among the leading substances, alongside heroin and cocaine, are benevolent items such as acetaminophen (Tylenol®), diazepam (Valium®) and codeine: all are also implicated in deaths.

The scale of such adverse reactions is amazingly high. According to a survey published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1998, perhaps a hundred thousand Americans die each year from the effects of legal synthetic drugs administered in hospitals, and over two million more (seven percent of all hospital patients) suffer non-lethal adverse reactions. Worse, this survey only tracked adverse reactions in hospital settings, and did not include lethal effects which might have occurred at home. The unintentional consequences of legally supplied synthetics amount to perhaps the fourth leading cause of death for Americans. In contrast to the situation with illegal synthetics, medical authorities vastly understate the damage caused by these prescribed drugs, so that only a tiny proportion of these hospital fatalities are recorded as drug-related. In a typical year, only 3,500 such events are reported to the federal government, less than four percent of the total. The disastrous consequences of legal drugs are understated quite as thoroughly as those of their illegal counterparts are exaggerated.

With that perspective, the charges against Ecstasy are amazingly limited, nothing like as extreme as those directed, for instance, against Prozac.

In assessing the claims made for “Ecstasy-related deaths,” we need to be very cautious about several issues:

(A) Had the deceased individual really been using Ecstasy, pure MDMA, or a pill adulterated with some other, more lethal chemical? We have to know this before we can determine that the particular drug caused death or other psychiatric disturbance. Because Ecstasy is illegal, its quality is not controlled, and people adulterate it with all sorts of harmful chemicals, including methamphetamine, PCP, DXM and other substances. If these cause harm, we should not blame the Ecstasy with which they were packaged.

(B) If a deceased individual shows traces of Ecstasy in his/her system, is there any causal link to injury or death? To put it at its most absurd, if a person is killed by a drunk driver, and happens to show traces of Ecstasy in the bloodstream, that is not by any reasonable standard an “Ecstasy-related death.” This raises the critical and often intractable question of what exactly is meant by a death “related to” this or any drug. Ideally, this phrase should be applied to an event in which a death was directly caused by the substance, but this guideline is not always followed. Instead, the term “Ecstasy-related death” is being employed to describe any suspicious or violent death in which the drug is subsequently found in the victim’s system, so that the question of causation is elided. If we find nicotine in the system of a deceased individual, we do not automatically classify that as a cigarette-related fatality.

(C) Did the person in question die of the direct effects of the drug, or of incidental environmental factors? In the case of Ecstasy, it is well known that the substance raises body temperature and causes dehydration. There is no mystery about how to deal with this: one simply ensures access to adequate water, and proper ventilation. If death results from dehydration or hyperthermia, then it is proper to blame the group or individual responsible for establishing an unhealthy setting, but not the substance as such.

(D) If someone is said to have died from the effects of the drug Ecstasy, is there evidence of multi-drug use? If someone has been using heroin, cocaine, alcohol and Ecstasy (not an impossible combination), and then dies, it is absolutely impermissible to attribute the death to the one drug. In a recent wave of supposedly MDMA-related deaths in Toronto, Canada, it proved on further examination that most incidents resulted from such multiple drug combinations.

(E) Does a supposed rise in the reported number of “Ecstasy-related deaths” reflect no more than the increased awareness of the drug by police and medical examiners?

Is MDMA Dangerous Because it is Illegal?

It will be obvious from the preceding section that I am very skeptical about claims for “Ecstasy-related deaths.” Drugs that become illegal are indeed more dangerous than their legal counterparts, a point that will need no explanation for anyone familiar with alcohol prohibition in the 1920s. Whisky and gin, taken in moderate quantities, do not kill, but the adulterated garbage consumed by desperate Americans in the 1920s did indeed kill and blind people, because of the lack of regulation: you could hardly complain to the Food and Drug Administration about an illegal product. The dreadful bathtub gin of that era was a direct consequence of the illegal status of the substance. Ditto for Al Capone and his like. Alcohol did not cause such figures; rather, they were permitted to arise and flourish solely and entirely because alcohol was illegal. If people want something and are forbidden by law from getting it, then illicit supply networks will arise: it is irrational to blame the “something” itself for that fact.

In the case of Ecstasy, I would like to see a situation where raves operated legally and above ground, under proper regulation, so that promoters would be required to supply proper ventilation and water supplies. The fact that they don’t is a result of the illegal nature of the proceedings under current law. Without regulation, promoters play cynical tricks like shutting off all water supplies, thereby forcing customers to purchase overpriced bottled water, which not everyone can afford in adequate quantities. Injury and death are natural consequences. Worse, people are more reluctant to report emergencies to police when they have occurred in such an illegal setting. If you want more deaths stemming from the use of club drugs, then increase penalties, initiate more active policing, and drive the club scene further underground. We should concentrate on tactics of harm reduction, and not on trying to squeeze ever more people into our already vastly overcrowded prison systems.

The Signs of a New Drug Epidemic

In Synthetic Panics, I tried to suggest the signs of a rising drug panic, and it seems to me that all are being precisely met by the current claims about Ecstasy. I list some of the main themes which arise in the media and public discourse:

“Law Enforcement Experts Claim…”

The first question must involve the source from which claims arise. By definition, agencies whose primary mission is the control or suppression of illegal drugs have a vested interest in portraying those substances as threatening and ubiquitous. The whole raison d’être of anti-drug agencies depends on finding and combating drug abuse, preferably with a regular infusion of issues that are sufficiently new and distinctive to grab the attention of media and political leaders, who face many rival demands for resources. Any statement from such a body must be taken with that agenda in mind. From the nature of bureaucracies, no agency is ever likely to present Congress with a statement asserting that the illegal drug menace is under control or largely defeated, as this would invite either being dismantled or suffering a large reduction of resources.

An English statesman once bemoaned the self-serving nature of expert advice: “If you believe the doctors, nothing is wholesome. If you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent. If you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe” And as he might have added, if you believe the drug warriors, the nation is always either suffering from a drug epidemic, or about to face a new one. When approaching such claims, it is always helpful to bear in mind the question: cui bono? — who benefits?



“The Serial Killer of Drugs…”

A presentation intended for a mass audience will frame the new problem through the use of threatening metaphors and other rhetorical devices. “Rape drugs,” “the serial killer of drugs,” drug users as “zombies,” “the crack of the nineties:” all are wonderful grabbers for media stories, but in what sense, if any, do these phrases correspond with literal reality? A little historical perspective permits us to see a term like “the new drug of choice” as the empty cliché that it is.


The concept of “epidemic” is an example of such a metaphor; however, it often seems to be employed in an objective medical or scientific sense. In fact, the term begs several key questions, not the least of which is the harmful effects of the substance concerned. To speak of an epidemic of drug X automatically assumes that the substance is a health menace comparable to an infectious disease. Medical analogies ipso facto presume that the subject under discussion is pathological, and this impression is reinforced by the use of pseudo-medical language.

And the word epidemic poses other difficulties. In Western society, the most familiar epidemic of recent times is the AIDS outbreak, which began in the early 1980s. In the aftermath of this experience, to speak of a drug epidemic suggests that the behavior observed is likewise a brand-new phenomenon that has seemingly come from nowhere. Claims of a drug epidemic are often made without adequate evidence that the behavior in question has really grown: if we do not know accurately how many people were using a drug ten years ago, and we do not know how many are using it today, then no accurate statement can be made concerning growth or decline of usage.

To speak of an epidemic further assumes that growth in drug usage can be measured accurately on the model familiar from infectious diseases, but in reality, usage itself is effectively invisible. All we can measure is behavior that is either reported or observed, and it is difficult to extrapolate from that in order to judge the actual scale of the drug phenomenon.

Because illegal drug use is a private behavior that can attract severe sanctions, its scale cannot be determined by the usual means devised to judge the popularity of a television program or a type of margarine. That statement may seem obvious, but its implications are easily ignored when we confront claims about the alleged popularity of a given drug. People often fail to respond accurately to surveys, and that difficulty is all the greater when dealing with illegal conduct, so that agencies must resort to techniques of extrapolation that are controversial at best, ludicrous at worst. Estimates of (say) the number of habitual cocaine users in the United States at any given time in the mid-1990s were variously put at 582,000 and 2.2 million, and in fact one government report presented both of these wildly divergent figures within a few pages of each other.

Drug usage can be quantified in terms of persons arrested, amounts of drugs seized, or numbers of laboratories raided; but in all these cases what we are measuring is the intensity of official reaction and not necessarily the changing volume of drug usage. If a state believes that it has a problem with drug X, then its police forces will go looking for it, prosecutors are more likely to press charges concerning it, and medical examiners tend to look keenly for its role in violent incidents; therefore, all the leading indicators will soar, regardless of whether actual usage is rising or falling. Furthermore, a society that grows less tolerant of drugs will have more arrests and seizures, so that higher statistics for official action may in fact coincide with declining drug usage, as occurred nationwide during the late 1980s.

In short, more Ecstasy arrests or seizures do not necessarily say anything about actual usage.

“More Addictive Than Crack Cocaine…”

No less than epidemic, other standard terms in the law enforcement lexicon concerning drugs are deceptive in suggesting an objective scientific quality. In fact, they are malleable and unreliable, and owe more to rhetoric than to objective science. “Designer drugs” itself is such a phrase, as are “hard” and “soft” drugs. In the case of designer drugs, the term is used to cover both potent substances like fentanyl and far milder ones like Ecstasy, both of which were subjected to equal official stigma. “Addiction” is another of these flexible words.

As long ago as 1946, the famous medical writer Paul De Kruif denounced the Federal Bureau of Narcotics’ tendency to conclude that a given drug was addictive or damaging based only on anecdotal evidence, on “the unscientific, uncontrolled reports that flow into the files of governmental bureaus dabbling in science.” Matters have changed little in the last half-century, and most of the science remains mere dabbling. Police forces and drug enforcement agencies like to use scientific-sounding rhetoric concerning drugs, but we should never forget that these statements are political documents, which would not conceivably pass muster if reviewed by neutral medical or social scientific observers.

As used by politicians and law enforcement agencies today, a drug “addict” often becomes synonymous with a user, or even with a person who has had only one or two contacts with the substance in question, and is not addicted by any medical criterion. Whenever claims are made that a given substance is severely addictive, it is crucial to ask how “addiction” is being defined. The nature and severity of chemical dependency is subject to great debate among professionals, and any claim that a substance produces addiction after a single use should be viewed skeptically. Such a claim is so bizarre and improbable that it should raise doubts about any other statements made by the same source.

Over the last decade, highly questionable charges about the nature of addiction have been made in the context of possible effects on babies born to drug users—the infamous crack-baby phenomenon and its later imitators. As in the case of instant addiction, stories of babies born addicted to any given substance should be treated with great skepticism, especially when all possible pathologies and symptoms suffered by the child are attributed to the influence of that drug.

Are we seeing the same sort of distortion with reports of Ecstasy? I quote from a recent Time magazine article (June 5, 2000): “ ‘It appears that the ecstasy problem will eclipse the crack-cocaine problem we experienced in the late 1980s, a cop told the Richmond Time-Dispatch. In April 2000, 60 Minutes II prominently featured an Orlando, Fla., detective dolorously noting that ‘Ecstasy is no different from crack, heroin’.” I quote Yogi Berra: “it’s déja vu all over again.”

“Drug-Related Deaths…”

I reiterate this point because it is so central. One yardstick used to substantiate the seriousness of a drug problem involves the number of deaths associated with a given substance. As a rhetorical tactic, this is an obvious means both of attracting public attention, and of contradicting the view that drugs are a harmless, individual vice. But what is a drug-related death? In a particular case, can any given death plausibly be shown to result from the usage of the drug itself, as opposed to (say) conflicts between traffickers? The fact that an individual died while showing traces of a drug in his or her body does not, of itself, establish causation. The notion of a drug-related death is not implausible in itself, as alcohol, heroin, nicotine and other drugs can certainly cause or contribute to fatalities, but this does not mean that claims about the volume of damage should be accepted without further evaluation.

“Ruined Lives…”

Claims-makers illustrate the harmful nature of a given phenomenon by giving it a human face, providing case-studies of individuals whose lives were devastated by a particular drug. These stories have to be used with caution, especially if, as so often is the case, they concern desperate users in treatment programs, implying that this self-selected sample is representative of every individual who has ever tried the drug. Such accounts fail to acknowledge that users in such programs are often there under court mandate as an alternative to lengthy prison terms, so they have a powerful incentive to present the starkest possible contrast between their previous drug abuse and their recent progress towards sobriety. The drug users whose lives we can observe are not necessarily representative of non-addicted consumers, and we must beware what Craig Reinarman and Harry Levine term “the routinization of caricature—worst cases framed as typical cases, the episodic rhetorically recrafted into the epidemic.” The use of illegal drugs can ruin lives, but often, the harm arises less from qualities intrinsic to the drug itself than from its legal consequences. So much for most of the horror stories surfacing about Ecstasy.

Club Drugs and Racial Panics

Drug prohibitions often represent the restatement of threatened ethnic boundaries, an assertion of the outer boundaries of “us-ness.” Substances are condemned because of their symbolic association with a particular ethnic or racial group, and striking at the substance in question is a means of stigmatizing that particular group. David Musto’s classic account [The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control] argues:

American concern with narcotics is more than a medical or legal problem—it is in the fullest sense a political problem. The energy that has given impetus to drug control and prohibition came from profound tensions among socioeconomic groups, ethnic minorities and generations….

The most passionate support for legal prohibition of narcotics has been associated with fear of a given drug’s effect on a specific minority…. The occasion for legal prohibition of drugs for non-medical purposes appears to come at a time of social crisis between the drug-linked group and the rest of American society.

Historical examples are not hard to find. Joseph Gusfield’s classic study, Symbolic Crusade (1963), explained the Temperance movement in nineteenth century America in terms of underlying conflicts between old-established elite groups, who were mainly Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, and newer Catholic populations, who were German and Irish. As Catholics viewed alcohol consumption more tolerantly than did Protestants, temperance laws became a symbolic means of reasserting WASP power and values. Other writers have suggested ethnic agendas for the campaign to prohibit opium in the 1880s (part of an anti-Chinese movement) and marijuana in the 1930s (stigmatizing a drug associated with African-Americans and Mexicans).

Repeatedly, African-Americans have been the primary targets of such movements, whether the drug in question was cocaine in the progressive era, heroin in mid-century, or crack in the 1980s. During the drug war, which got under way in the 1980s, the crack cocaine favored by black users attracted savage penalties in terms of huge mandatory sentences for dealing and possession, sanctions not similarly inflicted upon the (mainly white) users of the drug in powdered form.

Often, the rhetorical portrayal of a particular drug draws upon the most vicious stereotypes of the racial category with which it is associated. Cocaine was feared in the early Twentieth century because it supposedly drove users to savage violence and wild sexual abandon, exactly the kind of primitive jungle characteristics which were so fundamental to racist caricature. In 1914, at the height of the first national cocaine panic, an article in the Literary Digest alleged, “most of the attacks upon white women of the South are a direct result of a cocaine-crazed Negro brain.” Time and again, anti-drug campaigns warn that such appalling behaviors will cross over into the American mainstream, a barely veiled threat that whites will be infected by the most reprehensible characteristics attributed to blacks. In some periods, such racist alarms are raised quite overtly, as when anti-marijuana activists of the 1930s and 1940s warned of the dangers facing white middle-class youngsters who dabbled in the drug, and thereby risked falling prey to “jungle savagery” themselves. Acute sexual dangers were said to face white girls who abandoned all inhibitions in the marijuana parlors. These fears recurred during the heroin boom of the 1960s, as whites adopted the argot of the black drug subculture, and crossover notions formed part of the indictment of PCP in the following decade.

From the mid-1980s, drug policy was dominated by the fear of a next crack cocaine, of a new chemical which could make white people fall prey to the problems which traditionally characterize blacks and Hispanics. In this scenario, “inner-city conditions”—namely, the problems afflicting minorities - could be visited upon “nice kids” in the suburbs, and the havoc wrought by drugs would reach the heartland, those rural and overwhelmingly white states of the West and Midwest. The racial codes are transparent. In recent years, methamphetamine has played the primary role in such rhetoric, as the latest drug “invading the heartland.” In 1996, the television news show 48 Hours depicted a speed recovery group in Arizona, which was introduced with the line that “these people could be your neighbors, your friends, even your family,” presumably referring to the fact that all were white and Anglo, in contrast to the minority drug abusers who had become so familiar a media stereotype in the preceding decade. The new drug was viewed, ominously, as a “redneck cocaine.”

I fear we are seeing a rerun of the same thing with Ecstasy and the club drugs. Throughout media coverage, we hear repeatedly that those most at risk from the new drug culture are the young and white. The exposure of young teens to synthetics was the theme of a Time magazine article in late 1997, which asked, in a characteristically hair-raising manner, “Is Your Kid on K?,” that is, ketamine. The following report interviewed youngsters of fifteen and sixteen who were enthusiastic about the drug, and the magazine reported that “K has exploded in the past few months onto the suburban drug scene.” Some months later, ABC’s 20/20 covered teen raves, which appealed to youngsters aged from ten to eighteen. Despite their youth, all those interviewed claimed easy access to a panoply of drugs which included Ecstasy and Ketamine. These programs offered viewers a portrait of illegal drug use radically different from the stereotypes of a decade previously, as users and dealers depicted were white or Hispanic, and their social settings ranged from the respectable lower-middle class to the very prosperous. In the words of a 20/20 report on illicit Rohypnol® use in a Florida suburb, the teenagers involved lived “amidst neat lawns, clean streets and comfortable homes.” As Time declared, “a hot new high hits Main Street,” and users were “suburban,” that is, white.


In summary, I suggest, with all respect to this committee and to the other witnesses, that recent activism over club drugs in the mass media and in political discussion betrays all the familiar signs of a new drug panic. Legislators are naturally and commendably concerned about the need to protect young people—what better use could they make of their powers? But the danger is that in trying to offer better safeguards for youth, they will enact new prohibitions and criminal justice-oriented policies which will result in causing more harm, more injury and death.

I am not asking the committee to take anything I say on trust. I just ask that all claims about this, or any, new drug problem, should be treated with the utmost care and critical reading. On further analysis, I think you will find that many such claims offer far less than meets the eye.

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Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of numerous books, including Synthetic Panics: The Symbolic Politics of Designer Drugs (New York University Press, 1999). This is a transcription of his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Crime on "The Threat Posed By The Illegal Importation, Trafficking, And Use Of Ecstasy And Other 'Club' Drugs," a hearing held on June 15, 2000.