Scared Straight? Media Cycles and the “War” on Drugs

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 , ,    –
surrounded by executives from the major
television networks, production companies,
and advertising agencies, Richard Nixon
somberly asked his audience for their support
to help “warn our youth constantly against
the dangers of drugs.” Nixon declared, “if this
nation is going to survive, it will depend to a
great extent on how you gentleman help raise
our children.”
For many historians and political scientists,
this moment marks the birth of America’s
war on drugs. For others, the war on
drugs was born with the passage of the Boggs
Act of 1951, which for the first time in U.S.
history mandated minimum sentences that
specifically targeted drug trafficking. Other
scholars point to Ronald Reagan’s reminder
that “the newsrooms and productions rooms
of our media centers have a special opportunity
to send alarm signals across the nation”
and quickly added the promise of an
“unshakable commitment to do what is necessary
to end the drug war.” And still for others,
George H. W. Bush’s declaration during
his first televised address as president that
“the gravest domestic threat facing our
nation today is drugs” marks the beginning of
the war on drugs. Despite this historical disparity,
that April day in 1970 cemented the
partnership between the media and the White
House, and created the archetype that would
come to dominate the media coverage and
political response to drug use in America.
Prior to Nixon, the presidency had fluctuated
between long periods of ignoring drug
use and blasts of hype and concern. But coming
out of Woodstock, protests against the
Vietnam War, and the hippie culture at the
end of the 1960s, drugs became a staple of
White House rhetoric. Of course, there were
the histrionics about True Crime pulp fiction
involving the dope fiend and the hysterics
over films like Reefer Madness in previous
decades, but it is in the last thirty-four years
that drug use has been employed as a powerful
and principal agent in politics and news
media coverage.
AsWashington and the mainstream media
moved drugs to the forefront of their
rhetoric, public concern soon followed. Psychologists
researching media effects would
come to understand this phenomenon as the
availability heuristic. According to University
of Minnesota professor David Fan, this
research concluded that people will most
likely give top billing to whatever issue the
media emphasizes since it is the issue most
likely to come to mind. Thus, as presidential
rhetoric and media coverage descended on
drugs, most notably during the late 1980s
crack scare, drug use sounded the loudest
alarm with the public. Unfortunately, this
national alarm produced (and continues to
produce) a lopsided rhythm of false information,
distorted consequences, heightened
panic, and ultimately led to the marginalization
of whole groups of fellow citizens.
“American Vice: The Doping of a Nation.”
“48 Hours on Crack Street.” “Cocaine Country.”
This is a small sample of the headlines
and television news shows that hit the pages
and rode the airwaves of the United States in
the mid-1980s. The arrest of automobile
mogul John DeLorean for cocaine trafficking,
the overdose deaths of actor-comedian John
Belushi and basketball star Len Bias, and the
“othering” of the disenfranchised drug user
were just some of the key elements that produced
a moment ripe for political gain and
increased circulation and television ratings.
Cocaine, the drug of affluent partygoers,
had now trickled down into lowest socioeconomic
rungs of the country in the form of
crack; cocaine’s innocence lost and replaced
by the morbid fear of crack. Television and
print media produced several generalizable
chronotopes in the form of the crack house,
crack mother, and crack baby to scare the
reading and viewing public into demonizing
the crack user as a diabolical criminal. The
three major networks and the New York Times
and Washington Post quadrupled their news
coverage of crack between the years of 1983
and 1986. At the height of this frenzy, in
1986, public opinion polls leaped from 2% of
the population considering drugs to be the
nation’s most serious issue to the finding that
drugs were the number one problem on the
U.S. agenda. Yet, crack use was primarily isolated
to just a few metropolitan areas, like Los
Angeles and New York. Still, the message
from the media and the White House
screamed of a crack tide flushing across all
four corners of the United States.
The image of America under attack from
within would come to dominate the drug
narrative produced by
Washington and the
media. The public face
of this threat was
embodied by Ronald
and Nancy Reagan, as
the two appeared in
more news coverage of
the crack problem than
any other representative
of the government
or medical establishment
during the 1980s.
This combination of
media coverage, public
tragedy, and official condemnation produced
the appearance of a nation on the brink of
destruction or what Jimmie Reeves and
Richard Campbell coined as the “siege paradigm.”
America was exposed, pulled apart by
little white rocks.
But what do we know now? At the peak of
crack hysteria in 1986, overall drug use,
including crack, had actually been in steady
decline for four years. The media’s blatant
exaggeration of the drug problem as America
“under siege,” “torn apart,” and “ravaged by a
medieval plague” rhetorically escalated the
situation to a frenzied onslaught. Thus,
Newsweek claimed that crack is the “most
addictive drug known to man … producing
an instantaneous addiction” in March of 1986
only to quietly admit in 1990 that “there’s a
dirty little secret about crack, as with most
other drugs, a lot of people use it without getting
addicted.” The crack mother was a figurative
scapegoat to blame for the breakdown
of the nuclear family, and the myth of a generation
of crack babies permanently lost has
been proven false as research now shows that
with the proper care and education, a “crack
baby” has the same chance to fully and naturally
develop as any other child.
Although most of the hype has been corrected,
rescinded, or simply forgotten, the
legacy of the crack scare is not so comforting.
The 1980s witnessed an unprecedented ratcheting
up of law enforcement and a concurrent
boom in the prison population. Thus, if we
follow the National Drug Control Budgets
over the last thirty-four years, we find that in
1969, $65 million was spent by the Nixon
administration on the drug war, in 1982 the
Reagan administration spent $1.65 billion, in
2000 the Clinton administration spent more
than $17.9 billion, and in 2002, the Bush
administration spent more than $18.822 billion.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics,
between 1984 and 1999 the number of
defendants charged
with a drug offense in
U.S. district courts
increased almost 3%
annually. The total
number of state and
federal inmates grew
from 400,000 in 1982
to nearly 2,100,000 by
2002. This was accompanied
by the opening
of over 600 state and
51 federal correctional
facilities. The number
of local jail inmates also
tripled, from approximately 200,000 in 1982
to 600,000 in 1999. Adult probation increased
from over 1.3 to nearly 3.8 million persons.
Overall, corrections’ employment more than
doubled from nearly 300,000 to over 716,000
during this same period. Consequently, the
drug war is one of the most advanced examples
of the “panopticon” in recent history,
Michel Foucault’s theoretical understanding
of the method of surveillance that produces a
new governmentality of centralized and
increased government power employed to
execute and regulate control of society.
Hence, drug coverage has produced a culture
with a distinct purpose. Drug use and
abuse has been systematically individualized.
The user bears all responsibility. Society no
longer has any responsibility to its citizen,
other than locking them up in prison. The
crack scare of the 1980s hid from public sight
the shrinking of the middle class, the loss of
American jobs, out of control national debt,
and on and on. This model has been recreated,
albeit on a smaller scale, to the same
effect. Remember “ice” and “CAT” from the
early 1990s, proclaimed by U.S. News and
World Report as the “new drug of choice”
that was “chilling the nation’s law enforcement.”
Then again, ice was almost exclusively
used in Hawaii and CAT rarely left the borders
of Michigan. It would turn out the new
“sieges” that popped up just happened to
occur during election years in both states.
Likewise, the media has just wound down its
cycle of coverage regarding ecstasy. Without
the full backing of Washington and the
media, these stories did not reach the heights
of the crack panic of the 1980s, and soon quietly
disappeared from the national radar.
Why does all this matter? On January 30,
2004 the Chicago Tribune’s front page
declared in its boldest letters “Flood of Heroin
Ravaging City.” Tragically, two men died
from a heroin overdose on the same night,
January 7, in Chicago, which appears to have
been the impetus for this article. There is no
doubt that Chicago has a heroin problem, but
unfortunately, the problem has been ignored
for the last eight years. According to the
Domestic Monitor Program, the purity of
heroin sold on the streets of Chicago has
averaged between 20 and 25 percent every
year for the past six years, indicative of a
steady supply of high-quality heroin. Heroin
use is at alarming levels in Chicago, with
DAWN (Drug Abuse Warning Network)
reporting that there were more estimated
heroin-related emergency department mentions
in Chicago during 2001 than in any
other U.S. city for the fourth consecutive year.
In 2000, more drug-related deaths in Chicago
were attributable to heroin than to any other
illegal drug. So, what compelled the Tribune
to break this story now? Maybe because it is
an election year, or state and federal funds are
at stake, or maybe the Tribune lets the reader
know in its last paragraph when it states that
“today’s users are more likely to be suburban
teens or professionals.”
This pattern of media hype and the government’s
militarized response to drug use
only works to silence the dialogue that should
be taking place. A conversation that goes anywhere
close to decriminalization or treatment
instead of imprisonment is stopped by the
drug hysteria manufactured by the government-
media cartel. Soft on crime? Society
needs to revisit what is classified as a crime.
Instead, society is left with General Barry
McCaffrey’s (former director of the Office of
National Drug Control Policy) twisted confession,
“we must have law enforcement
authorities address the issue because if we do
not, prevention, education, and treatment
messages will not work very well. But having
said that, I also believe that we have created
an American gulag.”

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2 Responses to Scared Straight? Media Cycles and the “War” on Drugs

  1. Pingback: Former Nixon Aide Admits War On Drugs Was Government Sanctioned Terror On Black People | Ear Hustle 411

  2. Pingback: Nixon’s ‘War on Drugs’ was government sanctioned terror on black people | CE Marketing & Promotions

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