Today, I’m posting the first in a short series on the concept of “moral panic” and its utility for those of us who write and think about the history of drugs and alcohol. I’ve been promising this series to co-managing editor Trysh Travis (and to my students) for some time, so I’m glad to get things underway.
While there’s been no “moral panic” tag here at the Points blog (until today), there’s no shortage of references to it here, either. You can find Trysh Travis dropping the phrase here and here. In keeping with the spirit of Trysh’s posts, I thought I’d use the history of methampetamine (and its place within the moral panic literature) as the focusing point of this series.
Let’s go back, for a moment, to 1990. Early in my graduate career, I was just beginning my long engagement with drugs history when I ran across an article in the February 8, 1990 issue of Rolling Stone magazine. On the cover, right alongside a photo of the old-even-then Paul McCartney, was the lead: “The Ice Age: A New Drug Epidemic Threatens America.” The actual article, written by contributing editor Mike Sager, was scarcely less scary and foreboding than the words on the cover. Effectively, Sager was warning readers in “The Ice Age” that an epidemic of smokable crystal methamphetamine use was on its way from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland, soon to surpass heroin and cocaine as the nation’s major drug problem. I confess to having found Sager’s article compelling reading—the gritty realism of his style as a Rolling Stone contributing editor during these years was and is of the sort you can see in much greater detail in a collection of his work entitled Scary Monsters and Super Freaks: Stories of Sex, Drugs, Rock ‘n’ Roll and Murder. At about the same time, Sager spelled out the central claim in the Chicago Sun-Times: “The Age of Ice is a new era in drug abuse” and ground zero for this new age was Hawaii, “where use of the drug has recently been declared ‘epidemic.’”
Sager wasn’t the only one working the ice beat in late 1989 and early 1990. A substantial volume of news stories and longer article appeared in the local and national press, most echoing the basic tone of Sager’s warning piece. Indeed, Sager and his fellow journalists were hardly the only ones at this party–the story had grown from a big issue in Hawaiian local politics to the national political stage. Less then one month before Sager’s article appeared in Rolling Stone, ice was the subject of a Congressional hearing “Drug Crisis in Hawaii” [Drug crisis in Hawaii : hearing before the Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, House of Representatives, One Hundred First Congress, second session, January 13, 1990]. Indeed, the phrase “ice age” was borrowed by Sager from the ongoing political conversation–the phrase had been employed multiple times to describe the looming crisis.
While I was credulously absorbing Sager’s tale of drug menace, historian Phillip Jenkins was taking a different and more critical approach to this and other writings on the subject. What happened next? I’ll let Jenkins tell the rest of the story, which shows me to have been pretty gullible, and Jenkins fairly savvy: