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.
In September 1986, President Reagan ordered drug testing for more than 1 million Federal employees. Even according to the most optimistic and self-serving estimates of the testing industry, there is "only" a 2 percent rate of "false positives." That means that more than 20,000 Federal employees who do not use illicit drugs will be falsely accused, their reputations and livelihoods threatened. All those forced to go through the supervised urine tests will have lost their constitutional rights to privacy and the presumption of innocence, and protection against self-incrimination and unreasonable searches. The drug tests should have been instantly discredited as unconstitutional, insanely expensive and grossly inaccurate. Instead, they are going forward. By last December, the press was reporting that even high-level Justice Department officials were opposed to the tests but were unwilling to speak out for fear of being branded "soft on drugs." Unions and civil libertarians who are trying to stop the tests have so far won thirteen out of seventeen court cases involving government employees, but there are other battles to come.
The increased power of political and cultural conservatism in the Reagan era has contributed significantly to the current drug scare. The right wing has long been attracted to the issue of illicit drug use because it focuses political attention on individual deviance and immorality and away from questions of economic inequality and injustice. A crusade against drugs allows conservative politicians to support law and order; it also gives them the appearance of caring about social ills without committing them to do or spend very much to help people. In the past ten years New Rightists and cultural conservatives have championed a social policy that is anti-gay, antiabortion, anti-unmarried sex and anti-rock and roll. Politicians opposed to the agendas of the right have often felt compelled to give lip service to some conservative moral issues to retain their own political legitimacy.
Participation in the antidrug crusade of 1986 allowed to take a strong stand on something without opposing a President who was then very popular. Fighting illegal drugs has always been safe for politicians because there are no wealthy and influential corporate lobbies, as there are tobacco, alcohol, pharmaceuticals, firearms, automobiles and other dangerous products. In fact, Democrats allocated even more money for a war on drugs than Reagan requested, thus depriving conservatives of one of their issues and allowing liberals to appear to be closer to the middle of the road.
We do not want to suggest that there is no drug problem. The percentage of people who have used cocaine once or more increased substantially from 1970 to 1980, although it has leveled off since then. Many people certainly abuse drugs and do lasting physical or psychological damage to themselves and others. In the past two years a purer, more powerful, crystallized form of cocaine called freebase or crack has been packaged in small, relatively inexpensive units and sold on the street, making cocaine widely affordable for the first time. Because crack is smoked rather than snorted, more of the drug gets into the body more rapidly. This greatly speeds up the heart and provides an orgasmic rush that stimulates the user’s desire to repeat the experience, thus increasing the risk of psychological dependence. Everyone agrees that smoking crack is an especially dangerous way to use cocaine, and the spread of crack, although exaggerated, lends a kernel of truth to the drug warriors’ propaganda.
What is often not mentioned is that with cocaine and marijuana, as with alcohol and Valium, there are many users but many fewer abusers; moderate and "recreational" patterns of drug use are the dominant ones. According to a study conducted by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, some 22 million Americans have tried cocaine at least once, and 5 million to 6 million used it in the month prior to the survey. As many as 62 million Americans have tried marijuana, and 18 million of them smoked it in the month prior to the survey. More than 100 million people drink alcohol. None of those three substances is inherently addictive. Although no one knows the percentage of users who abuse cocaine, it is clear that the vast majority of people who try it do not become addicts, end up in emergency rooms or sell their mothers’ television sets for a fix.
A sense of perspective and proportion is missing from current discussions about drug problems. Last year there were more than 600 deaths related to cocaine use. The same number have died since 1983 using all-terrain vehicles, the three-wheeled motorized dirt bikes which are often ridden by children. The physical, psychological and economic damage done by legal drugs still dwarfs the damage done by illicit drugs. For every cocaine-related death last year there were at least 500 tobacco-related deaths. Alcohol is the direct medical or psychological cause of more than 18,000 deaths a year and is a contributing factor in at least 20,000 fatal accidents in homes and cars.
Because drugs are dangerously abused by some people and because enough families have suffered, it’s fair to ask, What’s the harm in a little hysteria about drug abuse?
First, drug scares are counterproductive even on their own terms. Exaggerations that do not correspond to users’ own experiences lead them to reject all warnings. That happened in the 1960s with propagandistic warnings about marijuana and hallucinogens. It is likely that some current cocaine abuse developed precisely because users did not trust official scare stories. In matters of public health the truth is the best policy.
Second, drug scares not only fail as public health policy, they also divert the nation’s attention and resources from more serious problems. Obscured or forgotten in all the political rhetoric and media coverage of crack use among inner-city and minority youth are the intractable social and economic problems that underlie drug abuse. Dealing drugs, after all, is often correctly perceived by poor city kids as the highest-paying job they will ever get. Liberal Democrats denounced the Reagan Administration’s hypocrisy in declaring war on drugs and then cutting the budget for drug-education programs. The more important point is that the Administration had itself just said no to virtually every social program intended to create alternatives for inner-city young people.
Drug wars have never worked. Distortions about drugs do not improve public health, and they give a warped sense of social priorities and problems. Calls for people to be "drug free" are hollow because they pertain only to illicit drugs, ignoring alcohol, tobacco and Valium. The current fear, drawing on ugly traditions in American culture and politics, is also a product of a highly conservative moment. Perhaps the one good result of all this will be the recognition that a serious problem is being manipulated rather than addressed. With the legitimacy of Reaganism eroding, it may be possible to return to a policy discussion about drugs that is more humane, honest and effective. What we have now is largely drug-abuse abuse.