Anti-drug campaigns aim at racial fears

March 27, 2000

University Park, Pa. --- The latest headlines about the club drug "Ecstasy" and its alleged dangers are part of another anti-drug campaign generated by drug enforcement bureaucrats, politicians and the media to scare the public, says a Penn State historian.

"Since the mid-1970s, panics about synthetic drugs have erupted with striking regularity in the United States," says Dr. J. Philip Jenkins, distinguished professor of religious studies and history and author of the recent book "Synthetic Panics: Symbolic Politics of Designer Drugs" (New York University Press).

"What makes synthetics so uniquely scary is that they are particularly 'White drugs', raising the specter that what happened to minorities with the crack epidemic might spill over into the White community," says Jenkins. "Often, this threat is disguised in terms of drugs like ecstasy appealing to 'good kids', or 'the suburbs' - but what the codes, ultimately, mean is White kids. What I call 'synthetic panics' are an unabashed attempt to play on the racial fears and stereotypes of the majority community."

Such anti-drug movements have led to the expansion of drug enforcement powers, including a militaristic police philosophy, and great infusion of public money. But public enthusiasm is waning with the current Los Angeles police department corruption scandal, the New York police shooting of a West African immigrant and the vicious attack of a Haitian immigrant by N.Y. police, according to the Penn State historian.

"When support starts dropping, you suddenly hear new scare stories about another drug epidemic facing youths in Middle America in order to shore up the drug enforcement bureaucracy," Jenkins notes.

This new campaign against Ecstasy is similar to those initiatives against PCP in the 1970s, designer drugs and Ecstasy in the 1980s, methamphetamine and methcathinone, also known as CAT, in the 1990s, according to the book. In late 1980s, Ecstasy and Prozac, both designer drugs created in laboratories, each altered levels of neurotransmitter chemicals in the brain, affecting a person's mood. But Ecstasy is considered illegal and harmful, while Prozac is a medical wonder drug, notes the book.

"Mainly, one drug rose through approved channels and the other did not," says Jenkins. "I'm not claiming that any of these illegal substances is harmless or that they should be socially acceptable. But if a state believes that it has a problem with drug X, its police forces will go looking for it, prosecutors will be more likely to press charges concerning it and medical examiners will tend to look keenly for its role in violence incidents.

"Therefore, all of the leading indicators will soar, regardless of whether actual usage is rising or falling," he notes. "A society that grows less tolerant of drugs will have more arrests and seizures so that the higher statistics may coincide with declining drug use as occurred nationwide during the late 1980s. "

The grim social effects of past drug wars have been mass jailings of people, a growing militarized attitude among law enforcement, and a disproportionate burden placed on minority communities, according to Jenkins.

"The drug war must take much of the blame of the abysmal state of police-community relations during the 1980s and 1990s and the depths of mutual hatred that became apparent during the wave of urban violence in Los Angeles and elsewhere in 1992."

Drug-related prosecutions snared more people ­ deserving and undeserving -- in prison, parole or probation; eroded gains in civil liberties made during the Warren Court years; and rolled back the rights of suspects and prisoners, says the Penn State historian.

Another major impact of the drug wars has been the removal of some highly effective drugs, especially those that control pain, from legal medical use. In illnesses like terminal cancer, drugs such as heroin are by far most effective for relieving pain and are commonly used in other countries. In the U.S., patients are undermedicated partly because of doctor's fears of addiction, but mainly because of overwhelming campaigns by anti-drug bureaucracies, according to the book.

"A completely drug-free America is an unattainable illusion, " Jenkins says. "Designer drugs inspire so much fear not because they are uniquely dangerous, but they heighten deeply rooted public concerns about social and cultural upheaval. These panic movements scapegoat people outside the mainstream and worsen racial, class and intergenerational conflicts."

Jenkins has examined similar public movements, or moral panics, in his 1998 book "Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America," Yale University Press; and in earlier books "Using Murder: The Social Construction of Serial Homicide" and "Pedophiles and Priests and Anatomy of a Social Crisis."
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EDITORS: Dr. Jenkins is at 814-863-8946.

Penn State

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