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Moral Panic and the War on Drugs (soc essay)

Posted on January 12, 2013 at 7:05 AM

Throughout the twentieth century, drug use has undergone cycles of intense public scrutiny and concern. From the 1960s onwards, the media and legislators have focused on specific drugs as representations of the wider cultural and moral decay of youth demographics. These intense, often exaggerated, reactions to drug culture mark a moral panic that was drawn to boiling point during the 1980s and has sustained itself through negative public opinion well into the 2000s. America’s “War on Drugs” campaign is the most dramatic example of moral panic informing national policy, and represents the establishments struggle against the counter-culture movement as a perceived threat to social order and values.


The term “moral panic” has been widely used, both as an academic and everyday expression, since the work of Stanley Cohen in the early 1970s. It is generally used to describe the public’s perception of youth subcultures, as well as anti-social or criminal behaviour. Essentially, it is an exaggerated reaction, on the part of the media, police, or wider public, in response to the activities and attitudes of a particular social group. These activities may well be trivial or harmless, but their documentation by the media has been sensationalised to such a degree that a general anxiety is formed. Conversely, the activities of a subculture may indeed be harmful or dangerous, but the response of the social establishments has been so exacerbated and unyielding that it has actually inflamed the problem. In both cases, perceived perpetrators of the social unrest are vilified and ostracised by the media and public, often referred to as “folk devils”. This antagonism is later reflected in legislation, in which the perceived “troublemakers” are profiled and targeted by law enforcement agencies. The drug war embodies many of the principles of a moral panic, and has been exploited by politicians and legislators to curry favour with their older and more socially conservative constituents.


The “War on Drugs” is a campaign of prohibition being undertaken by the United States and several other Western governments, including Australia. It is aimed at deterring the use of illicit substances, and reducing the illegal drug trade. The so-called “war” is both a political ideology, and a set of federal and international policies designed to discourage production, distribution and consumption of psychoactive drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin, crystal meth, and many other forms of illegal narcotics. For members of the subculture, drug use is a recreational or social activity, such as the consumption of alcohol; however drugs may also be employed for medical, athletic and spiritual purposes. The illegal drug trade refers to a global black market that cultivates, distributes and sells these substances subject to prohibition. In 2003, the United Nations estimated that the drug trade generated $321.6 billion a year, representing almost 1% of the total global commerce. In this sense, drug prohibition represents both a cultural and an economic structure, one that houses and harms members of the socio-economic underclass. The term “War on Drugs” was coined by President Richard Nixon in 1971, but is actually a continuation of drug prohibition laws dating back to 1914, which saw the outlawing of opium and coca leaves. Preceding Acts include the 1919 Alcohol ban, though this was repealed in 1933 after intense public disapproval, and the 1956 Boggs Act, which drastically increased penalties for the use of Marijuana, declaring it a “gateway drug” to more dangerous substances. The prohibition was intensified in the 1980s during the deeply conservative Reagan and Thatcher administrations, which further demonised drug users, particularly ethnic minorities. Unlike, perhaps musical or artistic movements, drug culture does in fact pose a legitimate risk to the health and wellbeing of its members. However, moral panic has served to inflame the problem, more than help it, and it is often the people most in need of public assistance, namely addicts, that are so coldly maligned by public disapproval.


In response to Cohen’s research into moral panics, criminologist Jock Young explored the drug use that developed around the “hippy” culture of the 1960s, in particular the use of marijuana. Young observed that the negative social reactions to hippy drug use actually had a reinforcing effect on its members. As the hippy movement defined itself in opposition to established norm, drug use snowballed as a response to public criticism. Young described the process as “deviance amplification”, in which the accumulation of moral panic serves to proportionally increase the deviant or criminal behaviour of a subculture. Young observed that “our knowledge of deviants is not only stereotypical because of the distortions of the mass media but is also one-dimensional”. Many so-called “deviant groups” are grossly misperceived, due to stereotypical and sensationalised reporting, deliberately designed to inflame readers. One British newspaper in the late-60s described hippies as a violent, filthy mob that walked the streets with iron bars, fornicated in public, and resided in a fortress in Piccadilly Circus. This false perception leads to a social reaction based on perceived threat to morality, and not an accurate representation of the subculture in question. Young also found that when the police employed stereotypes to engage drug users, the users would gradually come to embody those stereotypes, emphasising the more criminal elements of their subculture, and expressing themselves in rebellion to mainstream values and opinion. This escalation between police and drug-users served to criminalise groups where illegal activities were initially not the focus of their association. Young argued that, over time, the police action against marijuana users led to the intensification of their deviant behaviour, so that “certain facets of the stereotype became the actuality”.


In 1930, the public perception of American’s towards marijuana was apathetic and indifferent. Very few American’s smoked marijuana or knew someone who did. Only 16 states had laws making possession and distribution a crime, and even in those states enforcement was “relatively lax”. But by 1937 every one of the United States had outlawed the possession of marijuana. Hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles were being published, proclaimed the horrors of marijuana, and denouncing the drug as “a sex-crazed drug menace”, “a weed of madness” and “the burning weed of hell”. This dramatic shift is a direct result of moral panic, cultivated by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who “perceived an area of wrongdoing that properly belonged in their jurisdiction and moved to put it there”. The FBN attacked marijuana use from two positions – they provided the media with “facts and figures” which demonstrated marijuana as being a harmful and addictive substance; and they worked with legislators to outlaw marijuana one state at a time, until the prohibition was federal. By sowing the seeds of public disapproval, the bureau was able to raise support for the legislation, and by criminalising the marijuana, they were able to further solidify the deviancy of the drug in the perception of the mass media and public attitudes. Marijuana, a relatively unknown and little-used drug had been transformed into a “national menace” over the course of a few years. The FBN had successfully created a crisis where no basis for one existed, and expertly positioned itself as moral and legal crusader against the “killer weed”. In the process, American marijuana-users, a largely passive and socially responsible demographic, were suddenly the outsiders and enemies of a moral crusade. The 1937 Marijuana Transfer Tax is a prime example of an artificially constructed moral panic. Some parties have even argued that the demonization of marijuana was merely a business endeavour initiated by timber merchants (such as newspaper owner Randolph Hearst) to limit the production of hemp, which had emerged as a very cheap substitute for pulp paper.


While public fear of marijuana faded during the 1960s and 70s, the drug panic exploded once again in the 1980s, amidst the “crack epidemic” that plagued America’s inner city neighbourhoods. If marijuana was the drug of the 60s, then crack cocaine was the drug of the 80s, and in no other decade has the issue of drugs occupied such a huge and troubling space in the public consciousness. Drugs were no longer regarded as the symptom of moral and social decay; they were the cause, not just within poor areas such as Harlem, South Chicago and South Central, but within wealthier areas of Beverly Hills and downtown Manhattan, where cocaine became a mark of extravagance and success. This shift in public perception was dramatic to say the least, especially when one considers that during the 1970s eleven states had decriminalised small quantities of marijuana, and only a third of American high-schoolers thought of marijuana as harmful. However, as soon as 1980s commenced public tolerance of drugs began to decline, and they were once again perceived as harmful. The resurgence of moral panic over drugs during this decade is interesting in how unexpected it was. Even more baffling is that the panic declined almost immediately after the 1980s concluded, and public awareness turned to international matters, such as the Gulf War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, for the preceding decade, drug use and abuse were forefront in the minds of everyday American’s, culminating in 1989 when 64% of voters in a New York Times/CBS poll “named drug use the nation’s number one problem”.


The reason drug panic reached such a fever pitch during these years could be the result of a number of factors, including the concoctions of the press, politicians and moral entrepreneurs wishing to serve their own ambitious agendas. Media fear-mongering and political scapegoating has also been blaming, particularly with a focus on ethnic minorities, who served as the primary victims of the crack epidemic. The use of crack within inner city neighbourhoods would have largely gone unnoticed by most American’s, but when the media suddenly alerted people to its widespread use, along with the overdoses of several famous athletes, fresh anxiety may have been formed. From a political perspective, the issue of illegal drug use as a social rallying cry focuses attention away from “structural ills like economic inequality, injustice, and lack of meaningful roles for young people”. It allows politicians, particularly conservatives, to appear strong-handed and socially conscious without actually having to do anything. Condemning drugs and drug users costs a politician nothing, but attracts easy votes from law-and-order minded individuals, and actually removes blame from the establishment, placing it onto the users themselves, many of whom are poor, desperate and powerless to defend themselves. The 1980s also provided a period of reflection for the United States, following the sullen horrors of Vietnam, while still lingering under the dormant shadow of the Soviet Union; the decade marked a point of stasis and introspection for the country itself, in which drug use became the dominating anxiety, because it eroded society from within.


The public finds widespread drug use both “riveting and terrifying” because it taps into a very primary fear concerning the control over one’s body. Misplaced as they are, the public perceives the entering of foreign substances into the body as a form of “silent genetic catastrophe”, which renders the victim psychotic and completely dependent on the poisonous chemicals. This fear has been exploited numerous times over the twentieth century, by American and British politicians, and exacerbated by sensationalist media coverage and documentation. Moral panic is stirred up around drug use and abuse at seemingly random points in social development, and these moral crises give us a glimpse into the fears and anxieties of the society in which they take root.



The point is, moral panics do not solve a problem. They inflame it. Whether drugs are a danger to Australian youth is debate worth having. However, the social anxiety formed around this debate functions only to demonise drug users, and further marginalise them from mainstream society. While there are subcultures that wilfully use drugs as a symbol of their rebellion, there are also kids who have become addicted to illicit substances and who continue to harm themselves. In both cases, moral panic only worsens the problem. It can even be argued that this moral panic has been engineered, by media sources and politicians, who have framed the issue as a criminal matter, rather than a social health matter. The war on drugs, as it has come to be called, has raged for over four decades, and victory is nowhere in sight. Yet, it isn’t really a war being fought against drugs, but against drug users, the people addicted to these substances. And rather than treat them as victims of social neglect, we lock them in prisons, where their problems are increased tenfold.


Hebdige observed that once a subculture has been accepted by the mainstream, it loses its power and attraction. What if we applied that same principle to the drug war? What if we legalised drugs, and instead of locking up users, we treated them. This may sound like a radical and reckless proposition, but it could incorporate several positive changes within our society. Firstly, we would have to admit that the drug war cannot be won, that like alcohol prohibition, society will never suppress people’s desire for intoxicants. However, if those substances could be sold legally, in specialised chemists, we may be able to control the problem, and monitor it more effectively. Moreover, the legal sale of drugs would also allow their production to be monitored with the same rigid health standards applied to food, alcohol, tobacco, and medicines (as opposed to the less than sanitary, and possibly poisonous conditions of most drug labs). All taxes generated from drug sales, and there would be a lot of it, could go directly to funding free rehabilitation clinics, clean needle exchanges, and safe injecting rooms. Such clinics could also serve the function of bringing addicts to a central location, where they could be offered medical care, or at the very least clean needles (which would in turn, decrease the rates of HIV and hepatitis). The other benefit to this proposal is that it would effectively cripple the illegal drug trade, robbing dealers, traffickers, enforcers, and suppliers of the economy in which they operate. As with the end of prohibition in the United States, legalisation could cripple drug empires in a single stroke, and the money saved on police enforcement could be diverted to education and health services, as well as freeing up police resources to pursue other areas of crime.

Categories: ESSAYS, Sociology

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