What the press didn't learn from the last drug panic.

Media criticism.
Aug. 23 2005 6:18 PM

Crack Then. Meth Now.

What the press didn't learn from the last drug panic.

Blowing smoke: the press war on meth 
Click image to expand.
Blowing smoke: the press war on meth

As the nation descends into the screeching psychosis of a moral panic over methamphetamines, we would all benefit by pausing to look back at our most recent drug panic—over crack-cocaine.

Our reality check begins with a careful reading of 1997's indispensable collection Crack in America: Demon Drugs and Social Justices, edited by Craig Reinarman and Harry G. Levine. Reinarman and Levine present no brief in favor of crack, that cheap, short-acting, and potent smokable version of cocaine that arrived in urban America with great fanfare in the mid-1980s. But this volume presents persuasive evidence that the press and politicians distorted and ignored the best medical and statistical evidence about the dangers of crack to induce an irrational "crack scare."

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The parallels between the crack coverage—in which authorities described it as a "plague" and an "epidemic"—and reporting on methamphetamine are so striking you could swap the word "meth" for "crack" on scores of pages of this book and not skip a beat.

Reinarman and Levine begin their story in the 1970s and early 1980s, when the middle and upper classes took their big snowslide. Although the press and government publicized cocaine's risks, the greater public mostly shrugged. By 1984, snorting coke was still sufficiently acceptable among the professional classes that they made Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney's docu-comedy that celebrated the drug, a best seller. That summer Bob Woodward gaffed—that is got pummeled for telling the truth—when he said to CBS News, "A number of people have said to me—and I guess maybe I should be specific—that there are probably 40 people at the Washington Post who use cocaine regularly." Woodward, investigative reporter supreme, caught himself in mid-gaffe to add with a straight face that he didn't actually know the identities of any of the 40 alleged cokeheads in the newsroom.

Cocaine's easy ride ended in the mid-1980s, when a cheap, prepackaged, smokable version of it—crack—arrived. The press no longer thought the drug cute since inner-city users binged on it and dealers fought gang wars over territory. The users most frequently chronicled in the press—young blacks and Latinos—came from a "different social class, race, and status," as Reinarman and Levine write, groups that many in the press were uncomfortable about covering. Whereas reporters would have protested an all-out drug war by the government on the coke-snorting McInerney crowd, they rarely extended these sympathies to poor, urban users who tended "to have fewer bonds to conventional society, less to lose, and far fewer resources to cope with or shield themselves from drug-related problems." It wasn't latent racism as much as stupidity that led the press to help the government demonize crack and its users.

Lives were lost and families ruined, but as god-awful bad as crack was, it was rarely as bad as the press, government, and the rest of the drug-abuse industrial complex made it out to be. For instance, Newsweek, which pumped up meth madness early this month with a cover story claiming "epidemic" and "most dangerous drug" status for the drug without even attempting to prove the assertion, was among the most aggressive purveyors of crack overkill in 1986. Reinarman and Levine cite a March 17, 1986, Newsweek cover story in which the magazine quotes quite credulously an authority who says, "Crack is the most addictive drug known to man right now." The authority, a psychopharmacologist, adds, "It is almost instantaneous addiction" compared with snorting coke. The drug, writes Newsweek, has "transformed the ghetto" and "is rapidly spreading into the suburbs."

Four years and billions of drug-war dollars later, though, the magazine came down from its crack high long enough to inform readers in "A Dirty Drug Secret" (Feb. 19, 1990) that its reporting hadn't been completely on the level. Without acknowledging the magazine's role in creating the crack panic—and thereby hiding the dirty drug secret—Newsweek reporter Larry Martz wrote:

Don't tell the kids, but there's a dirty little secret about crack: as with most other drugs, a lot of people use it without getting addicted. In their zeal to shield young people from the plague of drugs, the media and many drug educators have hyped the very real dangers of crack into a myth of instant and total addiction. … By the best estimate, at least 2.4 million Americans have tried crack, but contrary to the myth, less than half a million now use it once a month or more. And even among the current users, there are almost surely more occasional smokers than chronic abusers. As children in drug-using communities can see for themselves, the users show a wide range of drug symptoms, from total impairment to almost none.

That doesn't mean it's safe to play with crack, or with most other drugs, legal or illegal. Addiction is a slippery slope. But what worries a growing number of drug experts is that the cry of wolf about instant addiction may backfire. "It's a dangerous myth," says Herbert Kleber, the demand-reduction deputy to federal drug czar William Bennett. "If the kids find out you're lying, they'll think you're lying about other things too." The pattern is an old one. Exaggerated warnings about demon rum at the turn of the century sparked derision; the 1936 scare movie, "Reefer Madness," became a cult film for jeering potheads in the '60s and early '70s. And that in turn, as Kleber says, helped foster the delusion that cocaine itself was safe. …

How addictive is crack? One answer is another question: compared to what? Among widely used drugs, nicotine is by far the most addictive. According to Jack Henningfield, NIDA's chief clinical pharmacologist, fully 90 percent of casual cigarette smokers escalate to the point of addiction. …

Any addiction is hard to break, but some users find crack surprisingly easy to drop. In her San Francisco study, Murphy has found at least two women who went cold turkey from full-scale addiction.

We bid a fond sayonara to Newsweek's revisionist take by quoting its last sentence: "The truth is bad enough; there's nothing to be gained, and a lot to be lost, by hyping the dangers of drugs." That would be an excellent lede for Newsweek's revisionist story about meth, which, if past is prologue, should arrive on newsstands in 2009.

Before my in box floods with e-mails accusing me of endorsing methamphetamine, let me extend my strongly worded advice to all: Don't use this drug. Don't, don't, don't. Don't.