Last year politicians and the news media went through an extraordinary antidrug frenzy. Every major newspaper, news magazine and television network carried lurid, exaggerated stories alleging that an epidemic or plague of drug use was attacking cities and suburbs. As election day approached, candidates challenged one another to urinate into specimen cups to prove their moral purity. President Reagan and Vice President Bush led the way to the toilet in what some observers called Jar Wars. The White House drug adviser, Carlton Turner, went so far as to tell Newsweek that marijuana use may lead to homosexuality. Congress passed a law, wishfully nicknamed the Drug-Free America Act, that requires a mandatory life sentence for a 21-year-old who sells a gram of cocaine to a 20-year-old, and gives most of its nearly S2 billion appropriation to law-enforcement and military agencies to wage a futile war on drugs.
Obscured by the blizzard of scare stories, articles in the Los Angeles Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The New Republic and even TV Guide ("Is TV News Hyping America’s Cocaine Problem?") suggested that the extent of drug abuse has been seriously blown out of proportion. Despite a typically panicky cover, Time included a graph showing that teen-age drug use had not risen appreciably for six years and quoted the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse: "The trend since 1979 is that people are backing off. In almost all classes of drugs, abuse among younger people has diminished." Gradually it became clear that the epidemic was one of media and political attention.
Only fifteen years ago the political climate with regard to drugs was very different. In the early 1970s, President Nixon’s National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse recommended decriminalization, and many states and localities eased penalties on marijuana use. In 1977, President Carter still spoke of decriminalization as a rational policy. What changes since that time have created the current wave of antidrug hysteria?
Drug scares have recurred throughout American history. Just as during Red scares leftists are accused of undermining the foundations of America, so during drug scares all kinds of social problems are blamed on one chemical substance or another. The first and most commonly scapegoated drug was alcohol. In the nineteenth century the temperance movement persuaded tens of millions of people that alcohol was responsible for most of the poverty, crime, violence, mental illness, moral degeneracy, broken families, and individual failure in industrializing America. In the twentieth century prohibitionists promised that a constitutional amendment banning alcohol would empty the prisons and mental hospitals and insure lasting prosperity.
Just as Prohibition was animated by perceived threats from the immigrant working class, so racist fears have played a part in antidrug crusades. In the 1870s a movement that raised the specter of Chinese men drugging white women into sexual slavery prompted California to pass the first law against opium smoking. The law was part of a campaign to enhance police and employer control over immigrant Chinese workers. During the first cocaine scare, at the turn of the century, some Southern sheriffs claimed they had switched from .32- to .38-calibcr pistols because their old guns could not stop the "coke-crazed" black man. In the 1930s the Federal Bureau of Narcotics popularized an image of marijuana as the "killer weed," which made smokers, especially Mexicans, violent. By the 1970s, however, the drug warriors claimed that marijuana, the "drop-out drug," was destroying the motivation and patriotism of middle-class youth—the same generation now derided for its overly ambitious and conservative yuppies.
In addition to racist fears, there has often been an economic motivation behind drug scares. Many big companies in the early twentieth century supported anti-liquor crusades arguing that temperance would increase worker productivity. Today nearly half the Fortune 500 companies use blood or urine tests to screen employees or job applicants for illicit drug use. Corporations justify the tests on the grounds of efficiency and competitiveness; meanwhile, the examinations also intimidate workers and allow management surveillance over employees’ private lives.