The Journal of
|This article is from Vol. 1,
Issue No. 3 pages 7-28 (Fall 2000)
© 2000 CENTER
FOR COGNITIVE LIBERTY AND ETHICS
All rights reserved worldwide. ISSN: 1527-3946
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
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
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 drugs 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
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 Shulgins 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 doesnt spin you into the drugs control. The only way to have a
bad E trip is to be afraid to look. You cant shut down the process.
Shulgin himself comments that MDMA allows
you to be totally in control, while getting a really good look at yourself...it does away
the fear barrier, the fear people have of seeing whats going on inside
them, who they are. It was penicillin for the soul, and you dont give up
penicillin, once youve 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. Hes 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
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 drugs 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
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 individuals 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, Prozacs 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 drugs 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 sidesee now Joseph Glenmullens 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 drugs 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. Johns 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 drugs 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
Prozacs 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 usagea 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,
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 victims 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 dont 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 dêtre 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.
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
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 usersthe 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:
its déja vu all over again.
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.
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
caricatureworst 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 Mustos classic account [The American
Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control] argues:
American concern with
narcotics is more than a medical or legal problemit 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
The most passionate support for legal prohibition of narcotics
has been associated with fear of a given drugs 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
Gusfields 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 conditionsnamely, 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
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, ABCs 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
peoplewhat 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.