In my first post on the moral panic concept, I briefly described the short-lived furor over smokable crystal methamphetamine between late 1989 and early 1991. Phil Jenkins placed the “ice” episode alongside other pharmaceutical scares-of-the-moment in a category he called “synthetic panics”—a drug-specific term derived from the basic sociological construct of the moral panic. Synthetic panics, and moral panics generally, share the common element of disproportionate response. Of the examples collected in his book, Synthetic Panics, Jenkins wrote: “these reactions justify the term panic, because the reactions are so wildly disproportionate to the scale of the problem and the claims made about the prevalence and effects of the substances are generally so exaggerated.” (Synthetic Panics, 4) And this, really, is what makes a moral panic—responses must be empirically and demonstrably wrong about their subject.
Without disproportion, you’ve still got a lot of fabulous sociological-historical analysis, but you don’t have a moral panic.