“Generational forgetting”: A year-end reflection

As 2012 comes to a close, there are a few drug- and alcohol-related stories I’d like to forget. But forgetting isn’t always the best way to cope with the unpleasant repercussions of US drug policy. For several generations, social psychologist Lloyd Johnston’s statistics have quantified the adage that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to experiment with bath salts (more on that in a minute).

In 1975, Johnston and his colleagues at University of Michigan began conducting the nationwide survey, Monitoring the Future. By pairing these results with the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (initiated in 1971), we have been able to get a fairly accurate annual look at drug use prevalence for almost four decades. Both surveys were inspired, in part, by the increase in youthful experimentation with psychoactive substances (especially marijuana) in the 1970s. While substance use trends come and go, academic interest in youthful drug use has remained stable.

The good thing about studying high schoolers: We get older, they stay the same age

In examining trends in drug use over the course of several decades, Johnston and his colleagues noticed a pattern: Continue reading →


Weekend Reads: Micro Edition

Early October is a special time on the college calendar. Undergrads grit their teeth in anticipation of mid-term exams, the Seminoles experience their yearly swoon, and frosh throughout the nation finally realize – not a moment too soon – that laundry machines exist for a reason. The most predictable of early autumn college rituals, however, may be the annual media panic over alcohol abuse.

This year, “butt-chugging” has titillated the media. University of Tennessee student Alexander Broughton has become something of a minor celebrity, having given himself alcohol poisoning – a .45 blood-alcohol content upon his arrival at the University of Tennessee Medical Center – through…*ahem*…anal infusion. Mr. Broughton vehemently denies providing himself with an alcohol enema. According to recent reports, he is planning on suing someone because, you see, he’s a Christian and being accused of “butt-chugging” implies that he’s gay. Or something. For their part, police are skeptical, having found a plastic bag of wine (a rose, for the record) beside pools of Broughton’s blood in the frat’s bathroom.

Does this story of alcohol poisoning, self-abuse, suspended fraternities, thinly-veiled homophobia, and frivolous lawsuits really constitute news? Probably not. You probably couldn’t find a better slice of 2012 fraternity life, though.

Florida’s Cannabis Cannibal? Zombies, Bath Salts, Marijuana, and Reefer Madness 2.0

Editor’s Note: In a “ripped from the headlines” post, guest blogger Adam Rathge historicizes the recent episode of the Florida face-eater, drawing parallels between the contemporary panic over bath salts and 1930’s-era alarm over “reefer madness.”  A PhD candidate in History at Boston College, Adam is at work on a dissertation entitled “The Origins of Marijuana Prohibition, 1870-1937.”

On May 26, a 31-year-old man named Rudy Eugene tore off the clothes of a homeless man under a highway in Miami, Florida and then ripped off parts of the victim’s face with his teeth. According to witnesses, when a uniformed police officer shouted at him to stop, the attacker allegedly looked up, growled, and then “kept eating the other guy away.”The officer then shot Eugene at least five times before he fell dead on the scene. The damage, however, was done. Much of the victim’s face was gone; his skin ripped away, nose bitten and his eyes gouged. Given the horrific nature of the event, news reports immediately spread around the country, with most observers wondering the same thing: what could possibly make a person eat someone’s face? The answer, of course, was drugs.

The Crime Scene

Reports from the Miami Herald show that local police initially theorized the attacker might have been suffering from “cocaine psychosis,” a drug-induced craze that bakes the body internally and often leads the user to strip naked to try and cool off. Speculation on the internet suggested it was a mix of hard drugs, or perhaps a bad batch of LSD, or even the beginning of a Zombie apocalypse. Just days later all of these theories  were put to rest when the head of the Miami police union publicly speculated that Eugene was actually on “bath salts” – a range of synthetic stimulants that mimic the effects of marijuana, cocaine, and other illegal substances. Though bath salts had previously been blamed for psychotic episodes and wild hallucinations in other cases around the country, the gruesome nature of the face-eating case helped fuel a growing fear and hysteria of these legally available substances. Instantly, and for weeks after, police speculation on Eugene’s alleged use of bath salts became fact, firmly solidified in the national media as other shocking stories about this new and horrific drug emerged.

The Presumed Precipitator

To the general public much of this information undoubtedly seemed as novel as it was shocking. As a drug historian watching this story unfold, the developing narrative actually sounded pretty familiar: a sensational story, a new more-dangerous-than-ever-before drug, and law enforcement officials clamoring for strict laws to combat it, all combining to drive a nationwide panic. Continue reading →

Depression Depressants: Why Are We Drinking So Much?

Over the last few weeks, the Anglo-Atlantic world has engaged in a slight moral panic regarding drinking. True, our concern is yet to extend to Swine Flu or Killer Africanized Honey Bee levels. You may, in fact, not even know we’re in the midst of a moral panic. It does seem, however, that alcohol is, both literally and figuratively, on everyone’s lips.

Dean Martin, Iconic Drinker (photo courtesy of Alternative Reel)

Dean Martin, Iconic Drinker (photo courtesy of Alternative Reel)

In the United States, the Center for Disease Control recently estimated that one in six Americans  regularly binge drinks. In Canada, researchers at Dalhousie University concluded that, far from serving as beacons of moral support, our loved ones may be driving us to the bottle. Meanwhile, the British Conservative Party, an entity once led by the prodigious tippler Winston Churchill, are now asking the British public to dry up just twice a week.

One can only speculate as to why people on both sides of the Atlantic are re-acquainting themselves with John Daniels. Perhaps this upsurge in alcohol consumption is the manifestation of recession-related ennui. Maybe the issue is cultural, as the stigma of consuming “bargain-priced” alcohol is diminishing, giving buyers license to drink in greater quantities. Maybe it’s something else completely. Whatever the explanation, don’t be surprised by a drinking song and dirty limerick renaissance in the near future.

Forgotten Drugs of Abuse I: T’s and Blues

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.  It’s about a new drug, a killer, raging through a major American city filling ERs and morgues and leaving a trail of wrecked lives.  Just a year ago heroin was the big problem, but now this new scourge accounts for three-fourths of drug busts and a third of all addicts seeking treatment.  Experts are saying there’s no way the drug will stay in one city: “similar to an infectious process,” it will inevitably spread across the nation.  It’s already surfaced in a handful of cities, and who knows where it will strike next.

Scourge of Our Cities

The year is 1978, and the Talwin panic is in full swing.

Wait, you don’t remember the great Talwin terror of 1978?  Maybe haven’t even heard of Talwin?  Don’t feel bad.  Despite the promising start, the Talwin scare never really got off the ground.  There were a few headlines here and there, a TV documentary, and a day of testimony in Congress, but in the annals of anti-drug crusades it was small potatoes.

Why?  1978 was a great year for drug crusades, and this one seemed to have plenty going for it:  Talwin really was causing major public health problems in Chicago; it had a hip, media-friendly street name (“T’s and Blues”); and most of its abusers were nonwhite, urban poor—classic drug-war boogeymen.  More:  one of the largest sources of Talwin in Chicago was a Medicaid clinic, where, Congress was told, the drug was “handed out literally like M&Ms.”  The headlines could have written themselves.  “Hard Working Taxpayers’ Dollars Going to Give Dope to Junkies!”  And if that wasn’t enough, how about this sound bite from the Congressional hearings:

Thank you indeed!  “Grandmothers are buying Talwin on the street”:  does it get any better than that for an anti-drug crusader? It wasn’t supposed to end up like that for Talwin.  Continue reading →

Meth and Moral Panics, Part Three

Meth and Moral Panics, Part One and Part Two led us to the question of whether and how we ought to arbitrate the real in assessing the ‘disproportionate response’ that moral panics require. In this post, we’ll look at efforts to do just this with respect to methamphetamine in the contemporary United States, and conclude with three suggestions for refashioning the relationship of moral panic studies to actual behavior.

An abundance of published works tie the methamphetamine response to the moral panic concept, most often in studies that don’t really fit the framework (see my earlier post for more on this). Travis Linnemann’s fascinating examination of the gendered reporting of methamphetamine in the Midwest is a good example; in the end, he’s not really all that interested in arbitrating the real. Consider his observation when discussing media portraits of a masculine/feminine dichotomy of work within the methamphetamine trade: “it is not clear whether this division of labor is entirely constructed by the media or if the data depict actual differences in duties. Regardless, the mediated depictions illustrate perceived differences in duties.” (1) Likewise, the sophisticated study of Canadian media by Susan Boyd and Connie I. Carter invokes the drug panic concept, but largely confines itself to the general observation that media coverage avoids and even forecloses “discussion of the broader social, cultural, and economic factors that affect users’ lives, including lack of housing, healthcare, and meaningful employment opportunities.” (2) Jack Shafer, writing Slate‘s Press Box column, has presented some of the best journalistic accounts of error and disproportion, here and here and here—hectoring, at times even begging, his colleagues to take a more careful, evidence-based approach to their reporting of the methamphetamine problem.

The academic study that most explicitly searches for the gap between moral panic and objective reality is Robert R. Weidner’s “Methamphetamine in Three Small Midwestern Cities: Evidence of a Moral Panic,” from the September, 2009 issue of the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. Weidner correctly observes that all of this moral panic talk would appear to demand some effort at sorting out the gap between meth panic and meth reality, and that doing so is no easy task (indeed, Weidner cites the work of several scholars who have made the case that the quest to find disproportion “is so laden with ontological and methodological difficulties as to render it virtually useless as an analytical guiding light.”). (4)

Weidner’s study “examined the existence of disproportionality” by comparing media coverage of meth relative to other illegal drugs with the prevalence of treatment admissions for meth relative to other illegal drugs in three cities (Bismarck, North Dakota; Springfield, Illinois; Topeka, Kansas). Media coverage data came from newspaper articles. Prevalence of treatment admissions came from the Treatment Episode Data Set [TEDS], “the only national-level information on the prevalence of substance abuse that is disaggregated for hundreds of MSAs.” Unfortunately, the TEDS data has one absurdly distorting quality—marijuana “treatment” cases overwhelm the data set. Nearly HALF (48%) of all treatment cases during the entire period for all three cities combined were for marijuana, mostly cases in which defendants were “diverted” from the criminal justice system into “treatment.” If coverage of marijuana was not correspondingly high in newspaper accounts (and it wasn’t), one is more inclined to praise editors for sound judgment than to attribute moral panic! By the numbers, the rest of the “real” data is similarly problematic–meth lab seizures and state-level drug self-reports. In the end, Weidner finds his moral panic with criticisms of “drug-scare” rhetoric (the use of terms like “epidemic” “plague” and “scourge”) and claims of addictiveness. A noble effort, but a dispiriting result in the quest to locate disproportion.

So, what do we do now? Discard the moral panic concept? Continue reading →

OxyContext: “Hillbilly Heroin” and the Kentucky Crime Scare of the Late 1990s

As we continue in our quest to get to the bottom of the current moment’s hysteria about “pill mills,” Points is delighted to have as a guest blogger Kenneth D. Tunnell, talking about the ways in which OxyContin abuse was portrayed in the media the first time people got all worked up over it.   Professor of Criminology at Eastern Kentucky University, Tunnell is the author of Choosing Crime, Political Crime in Contemporary America, Living Off Crime, and Pissing on Demand: Workplace Drug Testing and the Rise of the Detox Industry.  His forthcoming photography book, Once Upon a Place, details the vast changes occurring across rural agricultural communities in Kentucky.

Pre-Oxy Press Coverage of Eastern Kentucy

During the late 1990s Kentucky experienced a new drug abuse epidemic.  OxyContin, a powerful analgesic for terminal disease-related pain, was over-prescribed and diverted into informal black markets.  Media reports linked OxyContin use to increases in crime and overdose deaths.  The OxyContin problem in Eastern Kentucky was graphically featured in a Newsweek cover story.  Media rhetoric oftentimes was bigoted toward rural, mountain people (hence, “hillbilly heroin”).  Media coverage of the OxyContin-crime connection was momentary (the early 2000s) as symbolic crusades about other drugs (methamphetamine and mephedrone) emerged.

OxyContin became the stuff of frequent front-page news stories that consistently increased in number.  Similar to previous drug panics, the OxyContin problem was described using hyperbolic imagery and rhetoric.  Its construction often relied on unverified claims.  Much public discourse focused on OxyContin’s relationship to Kentucky’s increasing crime problem.  Claims of increases in crime and due to one variable — OxyContin — were widely reported as fact.  Although crime data are public, they were ignored by media and public officials who made sensational claims.  Data simply do not support linking any crime increases (or decreases)  to OxyContin’s introduction.

The realities of the crime problem are nothing like the rhetoric. Crime rates in Kentucky are declining and have been for years.  The violent crime rate in 1990 was 390 per 100,000 dropping to 258 during 2001 (the year of most media attention) and increasing since then to 284 per 100,000.  Property crime rates (the crime type usually associated with drug abuse) steadily decreased from 2909 per 100,000 in 1990 to 2638 in 2001 and further to 2470.

Beyond Kentucky, newspapers reported that OxyContin was fueling a national crime wave.

The Mainstream Media: Presenting the Public with Nuanced Accounts of Drug Use and Abuse

The fact is no such crime wave exists.  For years now, crime rates in the US have steadily decreased.  Property crime decreased from 5,073  per 100,000 population in 1990 to 3,658 in 2001 (the year of most media reporting) to 3,036 per 100,000 in 2009.  In fact, property and violent crime has declined by 40 percent since 1990.

After a drug bust netting 201 people, a US Attorney General, justifying the arrests, claimed that  OxyContin had caused 59 deaths in one year in Kentucky.  Although dismissed as “inflammatory,” his claims, with no factual basis, were widely published.  The actual number of OxyContin-related overdose deaths likely will never be known due to poly-drug use, most commonly OxyContin mixed with alcohol and other depressants.  Data do not distinguish accidental deaths from suicides.  Emergency room reports reveal that oxycodone (OxyContin’s drug category) is mentioned by fewer than one percent of patients.  Oxycodone products evidently remain far less widely used than rhetoric suggests.  Nonetheless, estimates — and alarming ones — have been uncritically published by the media and officials.

Like other social problems, OxyContin abuse requires social explanations.  Kentucky’s history includes: OxyContin’s sales and marketing strategies, Congress’s declaration of the “decade of pain” and doctor’s treating pain differently, the DEA granting consistent increases in opiate manufacturing, and a history of pharmaceutical use. Yet Kentucky’s OxyContin-crime relationship is socially constructed.  Granted, crime rates in some Kentucky counties are increasing but mainly due to decreases in population.  These rate increases likely would not occur with positive population gains.  But, this news further reinforces OxyContin- crime panic.

Whenever drug scares emerge, the role of the media–its focus and how the public comes to accept its stories–must be examined.  During a few short years, OxyContin news stories increased, from none in 1998 to 404 stories in 2001(and then declining).  In 2003, the Lexington Herald-Leader, serving nearly half the state, ran a 12-part series detailing OxyContin and its connection to crime.  Such media attention contributes to the acceptance of the news as factual.

Although some may question the harm in hysteria, scare campaigns are ineffective at reducing abuse; they assign blame to individuals when explaining social problems. Drug scares have helped propagate the behaviors they aim to contain and fail at disseminating accurate information.  Drug scares result in extreme reactions to perceived problems that may not correspond to reality.   Drug scares, as moral panics, are symbolic crusades involving interest groups or agencies that lead the way in labeling drug as dangerous, oftentimes benefitting from such.  Public officials, often aided by media outlets, embellish reports for greater crime fighting resources and social control initiatives.  The OxyContin-crime panic is only the latest in the history of moral panics.