Scenes from a Moral Panic

From Craig Reinarman and Harry G. Levine (1997), The Crack Attack: Politics and Media in the Crack Scare.
On September 5, 1989, President Bush, speaking from the presidential desk in the Oval Office, announced his plan for achieving “victory over drugs” in his first major prime-time address to the nation, broadcast on all three national television networks. We want to focus on this incident as an example of the way politicians and the media systematically misinformed and deceived the public in order to promote the War on Drugs. During the address, Bush held up to the cameras a clear plastic bag ofcrack labeled “EVIDENCE.” He announced that it was “seized a few days ago in a park across the street from the White House” (Washington Post, September 22,1989,p.A1). Its contents, Bush said, were “turning our cities into battle zones and murdering our children.” The president proclaimed that, because of crack and other drugs, he would “more than double” federal assistance to state and local law enforcement (New York Times, September 6, 1989,p.A11). The next morning the picture of the president holding a bag ofcrack was on the front pages of newspapers across America.

About two weeks later, the Washington Post, and then National Public Radio and other newspapers, discovered how the president of the United States had obtained his bag of crack. According to White House and DEA officials, “the idea ofthe President holding up crack was [first] included in some drafts” of his speech. Bush enthusiastically approved. A White House aide told the Post that the president “liked the prop….It drove the point home.” Bush and his advisors also decided that the crack should be seized in Lafayette Park across from the White House so the president could say that crack had become so pervasive that it was being sold “in front of the White House” (Isikoff,1989).

This decision set up a complex chain of events.White House Communications Director David Demarst asked Cabinet Affairs Secretary David Bates to instruct the Justice Department “to find some crack that fit the description in the speech.” Bates called Richard Weatherbee, special assistant to Attorney General Dick Thornburgh,who then called James Milford, executive assistant to the DEA chief. Finally, Milford phoned William McMullen,special agent in charge of the DEA’s Washington office, and told him to arrange an undercover crack buy near the White House because “evidently, the President wants to show it could be bought anywhere” (Isikoff,1989).

Despite their best efforts,the top federal drug agents were not able to find anyone selling crack (or any other drug) in Lafayette Park,or anywhere else in the vicinity of the White House.Therefore,in order to carry out their assignment, DEA agents had to entice someone to come to the park to make the sale. Apparently,the only person the DEA could convince was Keith Jackson,an eighteen-year-old African-American high school senior. McMullan reported that it was difficult because Jackson “did not even know where the White House was.”The DEA’s secret tape recording of the conversation revealed that the teenager seemed baffled by the request: “Where the [expletive deleted] is the White House?” he asked. Therefore, McMullan told the Post, “we had to manipulate him to get him down there. It wasn’t easy” (Isikoff,1989).

The undesirability of selling crack in Lafayette Park was confirmed by men from Washington,D.C., imprisoned for drug selling, and interviewed by National Public Radio. All agreed that nobody would sell crack there because,among other reasons, there would be no customers. The crack-using population was in Washington’s poor African-American neighborhoods some distance from the White House. The Washington Post and other papers also reported that the undercover DEA agents had not, after all, actually seized the crack, as Bush had claimed in his speech. Rather, the DEA agents purchased it from Jackson for $2,400 and then let him go.

This incident illustrates how a drug scare distorts and perverts public knowledge and policy. The claim that crack was threatening every neighborhood in America was not based on evidence; after three years ofthe scare, crack remained predominantly in the inner cities where it began. Instead, this claim appears to have been based on the symbolic political value seen by Bush’s speech writers. When they sought, after the fact, to purchase their own crack to prove this point, they found that reality did not match their script. Instead of changing the script to reflect reality, a series of high-level officials instructed federal drug agents to create a reality that would fit the script. Finally, the president of the United States displayed the procured prop on national television. Yet, when all this was revealed, neither politicians nor the media were led to question the president’s policies or his claims about crack’s pervasiveness.
Advertisements

Having it Both Ways

From p. 396 of Andrew Sinclair, Prohibition: The Era of Excess:

Yet the strangest situation of all had been rendered legal by a decision of the Supreme Court. The Court had ruled that the Bureau of Internal Revenue had the right to request income-tax returns from bootleggers. The Court saw no reason “why the fact that a business is unlawful should exempt it from paying the tax that if lawful it would have to pay.” In the argument of the case, it was even suggested that bribes paid to government officials might be held deductible as business expenses. To this day [1962], the bootleggers of the last dry state in the Union, Mississippi, pay federal income tax and a state tax on their illegal profits.

 

The Best Sentence I Read Today

When Wheeler publicly praised the insertion of poison into industrial alcohol on the theory that those who drank it were committing deliberate suicide, he did not persuade others of the humanitarian aims of the League.

Andrew Sinclair, Prohibition: The Era of Excess, p. 336. Poison is still added to some industrial alcohol, of course.

Prohibition Cartoon of the Day

1376_victims_pile

 

By Winsor McCay, courtesy of DrugSenseBot. For a few of the victims of contemporary prohibition, see here.

Smoking is Gay

This video from The Onion is funny, but not too far from the reality of current campaigns (Hat tip: Balko).

Many PSAs aim to stigmatize smokers rather than inform people of health risks of smoking. I’ve always hated New Zealand’s Not Our Future campaign for this reason. They’ve just started running some new ads. The message of one is a pretty clear: “If you smoke, you won’t get laid.” It seems to ask local two-bit celebrities (both male and female) whether they’d go out with a smoker. The responses are what you’d expect: “Hell no!” “It’s unattractive” “It stinks.”

They have a shitty site, so I can’t link to it directly, but you can watch it by going to videos (TV in lower left corner), adverts, advert 1.  If anyone finds a linkable or embeddable version, please let me know in the comments.

Brewery Launches Low-Alcohol Beer, Calls it Nanny State

Awesome:

A brewery has launched a low alcohol beer called Nanny State after being branded irresponsible for creating the UK’s “strongest beer”.

Scottish brewer BrewDog, of Fraserburgh, was criticised for Tokyo* which has an alcohol content of 18.2%. (…)

BrewDog founder James Watt explained on his blog: “Anyone who knows BrewDog, knows beer, or anyone has more common sense than a common (or garden) gnome will know that the scathing and unrelenting criticism we faced was pretty unjustified.

“If logic serves the same people who witch-hunted and publicly slated us should now offer us heartfelt support and public congratulations.

“However I fear that this, unfortunately, is an arena devoid of logic and reason.” (…)

Jack Law, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, said of the new Nanny State beer: “This is a positive move which proves that low strength doesn’t compromise quality.

“However the name of the beer proves that once again this company is failing to acknowledge the seriousness of the alcohol problem facing Scotland.”

BrewDog’s blog post is here. They don’t seem to ship outside the UK, but Brits can buy Tokyo* here and Nanny State here.

Also, I hereby double dare The Epic Brewing Company to make an 18.2% or stronger beer. I will consume some without imposing external costs on others. You will be labelled irresponsible and get some free publicity. Geoffrey Palmer will be filled with righteous anger. Everybody wins.

Drunk in Public

should-a

Geoffrey Palmer want to make being drunk in public an offence in New Zealand:

“It’s not an offence to be drunk in a public place but nonetheless police have to deal with (drunk people), but they have nowhere to take them.”

Being drunk in a public place should be an infringement offence that incurs a fine, Sir Geoffrey said.

The law could include drunk and disorderly behaviour or only being drunk and discretion be left to police on whether to charge someone or not. (…)

The amount of police resources used policing the “late night culture” in New Zealand was “truly astonishing”, he said.

“Unless you saw it you wouldn’t believe it.”

This guy is clearly a puritan; he doesn’t like drinking and feels the need to Do Something about it. He’s willing to cite whatever shonky research best serves his case.

Still, at first glance, banning public drunkenness seems like a better option than increasing the excise tax on alcohol or taking other measures to “reduce availability.” If government wants to reduce the external costs of alcohol, it should address behaviour most closely related to external harm. People who are drunk in public are far more likely than those having a couple of beers at home to cause problems for others. As Ed Stringham puts it, “raising taxes on alcohol to prevent problem drinking is akin to raising the price of gasoline to prevent people from speeding.”

As it happens, I don’t think government should be concerned with reducing the social costs of alcohol: I think they are much smaller than the social costs of any policy intervention I can imagine. Even if we accept the need to Do Something, however, Palmer’s proposal worries me more than other (perhaps less efficient) means of alcohol control.

Since being drunk is arbitrary, the proposal would give police more arbitrary power. As someone who takes the rule of law seriously, this worries me more than the (very high) cost of excise taxes on innocent drinkers. Unless you think being drunk is itself wrong, in which case I don’t much value your opinion, this gives cops another legal weapon to brandish against innocent people they don’t quite like the look of.

Discretionary power sounds reasonable enough, but it is dangerous. It replaces the rule of law with the rule of men, and history teaches us that power corrupts.