Drug War

Why We Have Drug Scares

Drugs and alcohol may embody greater social problems that we cannot face up to in themselves.


How many drug scares can you identify? Jacob Sullum identified these from 2013: marijuana, Salvia divinorum, cocaine,"bath salts," absinthe, Four Loko. Well, let's go back a ways. Of course there was crack. There were horse tranquilizers. There was OxyContin. Before Oxy there were Quaaludes, brought back into public consciousness by Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street. Also, recently, the whole raft of prescription painkillers have been identified as the fastest growing drugs of abuse. There was ecstasy. And between ecstasy and bath salts were the whole caboodle of "designer drugs." Oh, there were psychedelics, starring LSD. And what about performance-enhancing drugs, which have recently been highlighted in the case of Alex Rodriguez and so many major league baseball players?

I know, I've missed plenty. Like my favorite—the combination of alcohol and caffeine, as in Irish Coffee or Kahlua, about which a Yale addiction specialist issued this warning in HuffPost: "Combining alcohol and caffeine is—in one word—crazy. Don't do it! It has an excellent chance of hurting you, and a fairly good chance of killing you." And, of course, we have always feared alcohol and heroin.

On February 18, the Drug Policy Alliance is issuing a new report by Carl Hart, "Methamphetamine Dangers Exaggerated," and DPA is convening a panel on February 20, "Methamphetamine: Fact vs. Fiction and Lessons from the Crack Hysteria."

So, another drug hysteria has hit the headlines. Actually, it has already been bypassed, prompted in part by Philip Seymour Hoffman's death and the governor of Vermont officially designating heroin use as an epidemic in his state (many label it a national epidemic)—so much so that when MSNBC's normally sober Chris Hayes interviewed Carl Hart, his focus was entirely on heroin.

But, although Hart's research concerns meth, his non-scare approach with heroin is the same. As he said in his New York Times interview with John Tierney: "Eighty to 90 percent of people who use crack and methamphetamine don't get addicted. And the small number who do become addicted are nothing like the popular caricatures." (Hart's ReasonTV discussion is among the funniest treatments of drug scares of all time.) But when I saw Hart interviewed in the Reason forum at which he appeared, he said the same thing about heroin (graciously citing my own writings). 

I said the following in Love and Addiction, as I noted in my article in the current (March) issue of Reason:

We argued not only that the distinction between "addictive" and "habituating" drugs [including marijuana] should be abandoned but that nondrug activities, including love, sex, eating, and gambling, could also be addictive, or not, depending on the way people became involved in them and how destructive the involvement was. As we wrote in 1975, "If addiction is now known not to be primarily a matter of drug chemistry or body chemistry, and if we therefore have to broaden our conception of dependency-creating objects to include a wider range of drugs, then why stop with drugs? Why not look at the whole range of things, activities, and even people to which we can and do become addicted? We must, in fact, do this if addiction is to be made a viable concept once again."

In other words, Hart and I are both saying, drugs just don't deserve to be placed in a special scare category.

Why does the drug scare meme appear so regularly in America? If we accept at face value that, indeed, so many substances have reared their ugly, panic-inspiring heads in such regular succession, then it seems we have never gotten a handle on drugs in America, and we never will, as drug scares stretch behind and before us ad infinitum. Hart argues, as I did before him, that drugs and alcohol embody greater social problems (prejudice, alienation of segments of the population, racial and age divisions) that we cannot face up to in themselves. However, by embodying these irresolvable social problems and dilemmas in drugs, we hold out the ever present hope that American medicine will solve them, most likely using pharmaceuticals, as Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, asserts in a recent opinion piece in the most prestigious scientific journal in the world, Nature.

And that's the greatest drug scare of all.

NEXT: Brickbat: Tears on My Pillow

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    1. So you might say, the cake is a lie?

      1. Someone left your cake out in the rain?

  1. How many times do I have to say it? Corporate or government (is there any separation now?) research and development has been testing the reanimation of human tissue and they’re now ready for the trial phase. They’ve been pushing bath salts to explain away the few times the laboratory subjects got away from them. And when they got away with that, they’ve been planting the seeds of krokodil as cover for when they start to test on the public at large. And the news media have been complicit or complacent enough to blindly go along with it.

    Either that or drug warriors need to secure their easy money and power.

  2. It actually goes pretty deep historically. Temperance societies were a big thing during most of the 19th and early 20th centuries leading up to prohibition. Probably every town over a small population in the US had one and they operated much like the Dare programs do today – with involvement of the school children and little prizes and awards. Twain has an interesting account of it in one of his books, can’t remember which one now.

    1. Lucky I wasn’t around back then, I probably would have slung a whisky bottle at some Carrie Nation wannabe’s head.

      1. Check out VESSEL OF WRATH, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF CARRY NATION by Robert Lewis Taylor. It’s hysterically funny, and also a powerful portrait of a Crusader completely divorced from anything resembling reality. I came away from it with an odd respect for the old haradin.

    2. DARE to keep kids off Ritalin.

      DARE to resist government violence.

      1. Derp Awareness Resistance Education?

  3. Hey – anybody wanna get high? I have no idea what’s goin’ on…


  4. Why do we always have new drug scares?

    Because it’s easier to blame THINGS than it is to admit that one’s precious little snowflake made a series of huge mistakes and has done some shockingly immoral things.

    But, here’s the shocker, drugs are inanimate objects. Those fuckers won’t take themselves.

    The exact same thing (their inanimate nature) that makes it easier to blame them is the same feature that makes it impossible for anything to be their fault.

    Ironic, no?

    1. Like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife.

      (I note those spoons are inanimate objects, too.)

      1. I’ve spent the last ~17 years or so trying to figure out if I would date Alannis Morissette. On the one hand, she sucks at music and she’s clearly too dumb to be anything better than incredibly annoying. However, it seems pretty clear that she’d be amazing in bed and she’s pretty.

        What should I do?

        1. I mean, I really need to come to a decision and move on with my life.

        2. You don’t want to stick any part of your body into that; you don’t know where it’s been.

          1. “You don’t want to stick any part of your body into that; you don’t know where it’s been.”
            Next to that guy from ‘Full House’.

        3. However, it seems pretty clear that she’d be amazing in bed and she’s pretty.

          Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

  5. There will be no AM Links today, so get that idea out of your heads right now.

    1. So Reason is like the post office?

      1. Free minds and free markets follow government holiday schedules?

        1. Worse, it’s a holiday honoring politicians.

        2. They do inside the Beltway. They don’t always necessarily know the proper name of the holiday, however.

    2. I was ready. I was refreshing like a crazy man. Why do they hate us?

      1. They can’t stop the people. I will post what I had prepared anyways.

        Smillin’ Joe Fission bait.


        Let’s see if I can coax him from his new job to morning links.

        1. I thought his new job begins at the end of the month.

          1. I did not know that.

            1. I could be wrong. It’s been known to happen.

    3. See? I *knew* you had inside information about the timing of morning/afternoon links!

      Conspiracy theory: You’re actually a Reason staffer. I’m guessing Gillespie.

        1. You’re Mangu-Ward aren’t you?

  6. Surprise lurks among the root veges

    n the latest Crimeline newsletter, Senior Constable Ian Henderson, of Wanaka, makes note of the usual run-of-the-mill disputes, break-ins and warnings, but one particular incident featured a request for the perpetrator to own up to their act of vege vandalism.

    The newsletter says: “On 3 February an older male placed a vibrator in a display of parsnips in the New World Supermarket. That person will soon be identified from the in-store video footage and is advised to own up to this offensive behaviour.”

    1. Oh dear, oh dear, I cannot hear!
      Will you please come over near?
      Will you please look in my ear?
      There must be something there, I fear.

      Say look!
      A fruit fly larvae was in your year!
      But he is out, so have no fear
      Again your ear can hear, my dear!

      1. Ear, not year. Fuck. I go away for a week and I’ve forgotten how to use english gud.

    2. This is one my wife’s greatest fears and why she always vetoes my vote for a trip to the amazon.

      1. I dug that earwig episode of the old Night Gallery tv series.

        1. “You see, the worm was a female and it laid eggs.”


          1. That one really freaked me out years ago.

    3. I don’t know why she swallowed the fly. Perhaps she’ll die.

      1. Get her a spider stat!

  7. “Ceci n’est pas une hash pipe”

  8. Obama’s meetings with Congress’ Democrats reflect worries of Senate incumbents

    The House of Representatives’ 200 Democrats are largely pleased with the administration. Most are running in carefully drawn congressional districts where Obama remains popular.

    “This is a very ideologically cohesive caucus,” said Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at Washington’s Brookings Institution. “They represent blue places.”

    Senate Democrats often do not. Democratic-held seats in states that Republican Mitt Romney carried in 2012 ? West Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, South Dakota, Alaska, Louisiana and Montana ? are all seen as potential Republican wins. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to control the Senate next year.

    1. The Republicans are going to find a way to nominate another Todd Akin-type candidate and screw their chances of getting a majority in the Senate.

      1. Never underestimate the power of Team Red to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

  9. For Democrats looking to post-Obama era, how populist a future?

    All will have to grapple with this reality. The Democratic Party, by various measures of public opinion, has moved to the left in the past decade. But that does not necessarily mean that progressives have become the party’s dominant force or that the policies and messages they advocate can carry the day in a national election.

    “Nothing moves a party more than copying successful people,” said Andrew Stern, the former president of the Service Employees International Union, as he pointed to the prominence of de Blasio and Warren. “I think the party tends to drift in the direction of its successful innovators.”

    But Stern cautioned that the bigger test of who holds power inside the party is proving those ideas can attract voters beyond staunchly liberal states or cities.

    1. innovators

      Marx and Lenin beg to differ.

  10. Most are running in carefully drawn congressional districts where Obama remains popular.

    Those damned Republicans and their gerrymandering!

  11. Deflation Threat Worries G-20 Roiled by Emerging Markets

    Weaker growth from Brazil to South Africa risks unleashing a “disinflationary impulse through the global economy,” said Bruce Kasman, chief economist at JPMorgan Chase & Co. in New York. Cheaper commodities, slower trade and sliding exchange rates in developing markets all could soften price pressures internationally.

    That in turn could force Federal Reserve Chair Yellen and European Central Bank President Draghi to keep monetary policy loose for longer, increasing the attractiveness of their financial assets even at the threat of creating asset bubbles.

    No shit?

    1. Pardon my ignorance of economics but why is deflation a bad thing? I can kinda figure that, since the steady rise of inflation since the beginning of central banking, inflation must be be benefiting someone. But who?

      1. why is deflation a bad thing?

        The theory is that when money appreciates (real prices fall), people postpone purchases (because later they can buy more w/ their appreciated money) which leads to less sales which leads to less work — the “deflationary death spiral”.

        What it leaves out is that non-discretionary spending (food, shelter, energy, transportation, communications &c) has to be done even when prices fall. Furthermore, discretionary non-spending leads to savings, which improves capital positions of the savers.

        Gently falling real prices is much better than inflation for the great unwashed masses — but not for the money printers.

        1. Thanks 🙂

          So, do the pro-inflation types get off on being the object of conspiracy theories or something?

        2. At some point the powers-that-be determined that savings shouldn’t be encouraged; can’t have the people controlling their money, that’s just crazy, can lead to them thinking they have power or something.

          That’s why deflation is bad.

  12. May none of your drug scares involve scarcity.

  13. by embodying these irresolvable social problems and dilemmas in drugs, we hold out the ever present hope that American medicine will solve them, most likely using pharmaceuticals, as Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drugs, asserts in a recent opinion piece in the most prestigious scientific journal in the world, Nature.

    And that’s the greatest drug scare of all.

    Aw, come on, Stanton, that’s a tangent off a tangent. The movement against using animals as test subjects has led in Italy to an in-process ban on using them for “addiction” research, and Volkow’s decrying that as “the soft underbelly” of animal-using experiment’n that can be attacked. In doing so she defends the value of such research, pointing out that it’s required by regulatory agencies for licensing of brain drugs, and saying that such research might lead to solutions, some of which might be pharmacologic, for “addiction” problems.

    Yes, I know the timeliness of her piece is a hook you can hang a scare from, but surely you can find scarier stuff than that about people hoping to chemically treat social problems.

  14. We have drug scares because statist types of both parties need to have a boogeyman. Period.

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