Meth and Moral Panics, Part One

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: “Ice, or smokable crystal methamphetamine, was believed to be the rising threat: during 1989 and early 1990, it was supposedly booming in popularity and was said to have the potential to overwhelm the nation in a few months or years. Of course ice never became the drug of the nineties, and the prophesies of those months now look so exaggerated as to be ludicrous. This panic was a strictly regional event, largely confined to Hawaii…”

Jenkins’ description of the Ice Age non-event comes from Chapter Five (“The Menace That Went Away” pp. 95-96) of his compelling 1999 book Synthetic Panics: The Symbolic Politics of Designer Drugs, which placed the stories of America’s reaction to “synthetic” drugs squarely within the moral panic framework. His argument about ice was first laid out in a 1994 Justice Quarterly article entitled, “’The Ice Age’: The Social Construction of a Drug Panic”—then subsequently expanded into Synthetic Panics, which covered a number of other contemporary American drug panics as well.

So what created the “ice age” fear that both Sager and Jenkins took as article titles? Jenkins tied it specifically and directly to the larger drug war, arguing: “The drug-war era promised rich political dividends for any group or individual who could successfully draw attention to a plausible new drug menace and create a clamor over substance abuse in the public marketplace of social problems. Moreover, the precedent of crack gave anti-drug advocates a prefabricated script that could be used to spread their message. Declaring a drug the next crack cocaine, or as addictive as crack, created an instant public resonance.” [p. 100] For Jenkins, ice fit the script. New, potent, extremely dangerous, and on the verge of spreading in epidemic fashion from its regional home to the entirety of the United States, ice threatened even the nice kids. The bottom line? For Jenkins, the “ice menace” was a “created” social problem that rested upon “slim foundations” of actual fact. [p. 109].

Ice departed as quickly, perhaps even more quickly, than it had arrived. One year after Sager’s Rolling Stone piece, there were few major reports still being published on the phenomenon. Jenkins concludes that “warnings of an epidemic had proved illusory,” the claims of dangerousness “blatantly overblown” and thus interest ultimately waned. [p. 113] All of which leads me directly to what I regard as some pressing questions for the moral panic concept, which I’ll begin to address in Part II: does the “ice age” fit into the moral panic framework because the predicted rise of smokable methamphetamine use failed to materialize? Put another way, do the morally panicked have to be empirically wrong, when subject to what Jenkins called a “sober, objective assessment of the claims offered”? If so, just how wrong do they have to be? And who gets to do the assessment, and say whether they are right or wrong?

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Joe Spillane is Professor of History at the University of Florida. He has authored Cocaine: From Medical Marvel to Modern Menace in the United States (Johns Hopkins Press, 2000) and co-edited Federal Drug Control: The Evolution of Policy and Practice (Haworth Press, 2004).  More recently, he authored Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform (Johns Hopkins Press, 2014). His current drug-related research agenda includes: the history and development of drug abuse liability assessment; reflections on the nature of drug epidemics; and examinations of drug war “harms” in historical context.

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