Drug Policy

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 â€" which led to new drug laws that imposed unreasonably harsh sentences on the mostly African-American people who used that particular kind of cocaine â€" 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.

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  1. Plenty of company:
    “The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS:
    A Nine-Year Retrospective of Fear and (Mostly) Loathing”

    1. It’s a shame Fumento seems to have retired.

      1. “Who can protect the public but the journalists and they’ve been an incredible disappointment,” says Sonnabend. “Instead of digging and doing investigative research, they just take press kits and have Rolodexes filled with celebrity names.”

        I didn’t make the connection at the time (of the quote), but even I eventually noticed a year or two later that what passed for journalism was little more than PR releases and maybe an uncontested interview quote or two. This lazy, cheap, scare-based journalism won Pulitzers so it even came with its own third-party seal of approval.

        1. And doing serious work can get you sued. See James Randy/Geller, or Fumento/Brokovich (I think).

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  2. I was a cracker jack baby.

    Crack cocaine use funds terrorism which leads to sequesters. Hugs not drugs.

    1. You’re just screwed up because you weren’t first!

  3. Yeah, I remember the eighties. Aids was gonna kill one member of every family by 1997, everybody would be dead ten years after that. Crack was going to turn our cities into Mad Max like warzones as the crack babies matured. Homelessnes was out of control.

    None of that shit happened. Now it’s Global Warming. Yeah right.

    1. C’mon Tim. AIDS would never have had the chance to kill us all in ten years because without the Nuclear Freeze, we were all going to die in a nuclear war with the USSR before the decade was out, remember?

      1. None of that would have happened, because the Arabs were going to take over the world anyway.


        1. You sure? I thought it was the Japanese.
          /late ’70s

          1. Now it’s the Chinese. They all look alike.

          2. Arabs: 70s
            Japanese: 80s
            90s? Fuck, who was taking over in the 90s?
            Chinese: 00s

            Of course it’s always important to differntiate between the ‘era’ and the numerical decade.

            Most of what we call “the sixties” happened in the 1970s.

            The 80s kind of extended into the early 90s. And the 00s just seems to bleed continuously starting in the early 2000s until now. Or I’m getting old. I’ll let you decide.

            1. The 90s? That would be the so-called crackheads.

            2. Don’t forget:
              Communists: Late 40s through to early 60s
              Nazis: 40s
              Communists: (first time): 30s
              Anarchists: Teens and roaring 20s

    2. Don’t forget the scourge of PCP laced pot. I tried and tried to find some and never did.

      1. My high school had the rumour of joints sprayed with RAID insecticide. I guess if you smoked one you were compelled to kill bugs or something.

    3. I’m all for the Mad Max warzones.

      1. And rape subsidies. We all know your positions on wasteland management and horror endment.


  4. 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 fundingfund government “services” on the backs of an unsympathetic minority, thereby eliminating the uproar that would result from a general tax hike.

  5. Mencken quotes are fantastic. Be nice to have a writer like him nowadays.

    1. While not the Old Master, P. J. O’Rourke is worth checking out, especially PARLIAMENT OF WHORES and ALL THE TROUBLE IN THE WORLD.

      My favorite Mencken quote is what came to be known as Mencken’s Law;

      “Whenever A annoys or injures B, on the pretext of saving or improving x, A is a scoundrel”

  6. Global warming, seat belts, helmets, black people will riot if Obama is impeached…………………and poor peeps will die by the billions without GMO food.

    1. “and poor peeps will die by the billions without GMO food.”
      You were doing so well, too.

    2. poor people are dying by the millions and going blind due to vitamin deficiencies, and yes, partly its because of GMO crops being banned in places that need them the most.

      1. In LM’s world, the poor deserve to starve.

        1. The poor ain’t so bad?? They stink on ice!!

  7. Government is addicted to power. Crackpot scare tactics gets them there.

  8. With decent care a crack baby will recover. Babies with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, not so much.

    1. It isn’t so much the cocaine though but rather the overall poor attention to health on the part of the pregnant woman.

      1. As it relates to booze though alcohol is a direct danger to the fetus.

  9. “Dope-created ecstasy avalanching into frightful perversions; makes beasts of men & women.”

    That was once considered a scare tactic?

  10. This was a damn good article by Greenhut.

  11. I would love to see a follow up to this article really discussing the issue of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. While the story of crack babies was blown all out of proportion to the actual scientific evidence available at the time 40+ years of hard evidence about the dangers of alcohol use in pregnancy and the damage it inflicts on those affected continues to be largely ignored in the main stream media even today. There is enough material available to easily provide a series of articles – the science of the developing brain, the issues around addiction, the impact in cost and lost lives to the country, the issues of privilege and industry influence that keep this issue out of the headlines ? did you know that children of white, middle to upper class, college educated women are statistically MORE likely to be born alcohol exposed in the USA than any other demographic? And that they are LESS likely to be diagnosed with FASD but rather to be give diagnosis of ADHD, ASD, ODD etc.? The material for relevant and impactful reporting is all out there. Alcohol is one of the most widely abused substances during pregnancy, and its effects on fetal development and infant outcomes have been well studied. This is a real story – one no one is covering.

    1. “Alcohol is one of the most widely abused substances during pregnancy, and its effects on fetal development and infant outcomes have been well studied. This is a real story – one no one is covering.”

      I have no doubt this is true. I also have no doubt that any MSM report on it would be filled with hyperbole and scare stats; that’s what sells time on Oprah (who pitched the AIDs myth at a scream level).
      Just as a suggestion, why not contact Fumento and see if he’s interested in selling an article? At least he’d use real numbers.

      1. Sevo – thank you for the suggestion. i found an e-mail contact for him and did suggest it. I can only hope he will be interested and look into it.

        1. You are more than welcome. I’d love to have folks who would cover stuff like this without the SCREAMING!

  12. “A much more serious problem, it turns out, is infants who are born with fetal alcohol syndrome,” according to the Times.

    But that was blown up too!

    So if fetal alcohol syndrome was blown up to appear to be serious at all, and crack babies were a much less serious problem, that’d mean crack must be positively good for babies!

    1. Robert – reporting in FASD is underplayed not overplayed. The racial and financial incentives to overlook alcohol’s damaging impact on developing cells is huge.

  13. The government’s serious addiction problems are harming millions. Because we care about our government, and don’t want it to be sick, an intervention must be scheduled so we can get into a lengthy treatment program.

    1. The “government”? You talking about the fascist oligarchy we call a government? They aren’t really governing anything, they’re ruling.

      1. Well, yeah. Of course.

  14. “Government Is Addicted to Crackpot Scare Tactics”

    And the Pope’s Catholic….

  15. Intimidation and fear are languages spoken by this administration and Chicago Thug Politics.
    The BenghaziDECEPTION will be investigated.

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  18. I made pot cookies once, and my girlfriend’s mother came over and sees cookies and starts eating one before saying, “Oh, cookies.” My GF says, “Oh, no, don’t eat those!” but it was too late.

    Apparently after this she went to the grocery store, filled her cart with junk food, then got paranoid and almost walked right out of the store with the cart before paying. Then she pushed it back inside, abandoned it, and bought a milkshake on the way home.

    Yeah, poisoned, horrible permanent effect on her…. Because of this incident, she’ll never again start eating cookies without finding out what they are first. Which, frankly, should have been her policy before this.

  19. This whole “War on Drugs” was promoted by the government by the scary, fictional movie, Reefer Madness. Now everyone knows Cannabis is relatively harmless, especially compared to alcohol which kills daily. President Obama was a Choom Gang pot smoker and look how he turned out! Oh, he’s a lying Muslim tyrant………maybe that was a bad example. Nevermind.

  20. Steven, I agree with the premise here, but carving your logic down to its essence, you are saying crystal meth should be sold freely over the counter because fetal alcohol syndrome? Does not compute brother.

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