Government Is Addicted to Crackpot Scare Tactics

How fear drives drug policy.


"As many as 100,000 crack babies are born every year," reported the Los Angeles Times in an overheated 1990 article echoing the results of a Department of Health and Human Services study. The feds were calling for a massive influx of tax dollars to fund social programs to help a new generation of Americans born to mothers who used so-called crack cocaine.

The article included a "must have" list for government agencies: more postnatal care and foster care, extra dollars for schools to deal with the disabilities these children reportedly would have, government-provided residential care, drug programs and more. "But absent those billions of additional dollars, what can state and local government do now to help those innocents?" the article asked, almost hopelessly. This was typical of news coverage of the time.

More than two decades later, we learn the truth. The hysteria '" which led to new drug laws that imposed unreasonably harsh sentences on the mostly African-American people who used that particular kind of cocaine '" was unwarranted. The numbers of crack babies were wildly exaggerated. As The New York Times now reports, "This supposed epidemic … was kicked off by a study of just 23 infants that the lead researcher now says was blown out of proportion."

No one is suggesting that it's good to use cocaine while pregnant, but years of study show that the "shocking symptoms" that crack babies revealed are actually symptoms found in many newborns. "A much more serious problem, it turns out, is infants who are born with fetal alcohol syndrome," according to the Times.

I recall the "we must do something" attitude of the time, which clearly played on the public's fears of inner-city crime. Never mind now. But it's not as if the people who have spent years in jail for crack cocaine possession can get their lives back. Don't expect Congress or state legislatures to rethink any of the laws they hastily passed. And don't expect anyone in authority to have learned anything from the new reports.

The same week that we learn about the bogus crack-baby scare from decades ago, we learn about a new study designed to scare us about the perils of marijuana legalization. It sounds even less believable than the past crack research.

"Children poisoned after eating brownies, other foods laced with medical marijuana, study finds," blared the headline in the Syracuse Post-Standard. Basically, the feds are claiming that the new law legalizing marijuana in Colorado is leading to kids accidentally eating Mom's pot-laced brownies, which isn't good but hardly amounts to a poisoning epidemic.

There's no evidence that legalization caused such things. People have been eating pot brownies since I can recall, and they have been doing so even though laws haven't allowed it. But the goal isn't a reasoned debate. The goal is to prompt upset legislators to pass laws designed to slow down the burgeoning legalization movement.

And as Reason magazine's Mike Riggs just reported, "The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy released a study last week that found the majority of arrestees in five metropolitan areas tested positive for marijuana at the time they were booked, and that many other arrestees tested positive for harder drugs. There was one drug missing from the report, however, and it appears it was omitted intentionally. That drug is alcohol."

I still regularly meet people who believe that the laws under which we are governed are the result of a deliberative process led by legislators driven by a commitment to the public good. Stay away from people like this. They will lead to more crack-baby scares, to the funding of new armies of social workers, planners, tax collectors, cops, and regulators, who are more than happy to lobby for higher taxes and meddle in our affairs.

The key to understanding the political system is found in this quotation from journalist H.L. Mencken: "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."

Check out the latest efforts in the California Legislature. Legislators specialize in looking for miniscule crises they can blow out of proportion, hold press conferences and push for new laws they author that help protect us, even as they steadfastly ignore the big problems (budgets, pensions, retiree medical liabilities) they themselves created.

So far this year, we see proposed new taxes on ammunition, soft drinks and on clubs that sell alcohol and offer nude dancing (perish the thought!). These taxes are meant to discourage this behavior and to protect us from ourselves all while funding government "services." Government does this in all areas of our lives including foreign affairs, where inaccurate scares justifying U.S. intervention in the past will be forgotten amid hysteria about some new menacing country from the present.

"Be outraged," said former Assemblyman Chris Norby of Fullerton. "The crack baby scare led to draconian laws that cost billions and led to racially discriminatory drug laws." He is right, but most people will shrug and most legislators will just keep doing what has always worked for them in the past.