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Synthetic Panics

Synthetic Panics: The Symbolic Politics of Designer Drugs

Philip Jenkins
Copyright Date: 1999
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    Synthetic Panics
    Book Description:

    America has a long history of drug panics in which countless social problems have been blamed on the devastating effects of some harmful substance. In the last forty years, such panics have often focused on synthetic or designer drugs, like methamphetamine, PCP, Ecstasy, methcathinone, and rave drugs like ketamine, and GHB. Fear of these substances has provided critical justification for the continuing "war on drugs." Synthetic Panics traces the history of these anti-drug movements, demonstrating that designer chemicals inspire so much fear not because they are uniquely dangerous, but because they bring into focus deeply rooted public concerns about social and cultural upheaval. Jenkins highlights the role of the mass media in spreading anti-drug hysteria and shows how proponents of the war on drugs use synthetic panics to scapegoat society's "others" and exacerbate racial, class, and intergenerational conflict.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-6965-2
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
  6. ONE Synthetic Panics
    (pp. 1-28)

    Over the last century and a half, America’s social problems have often been blamed on the devastating effects of some harmful substance or chemical, and at various times, different substances have been seen as the major demon figures threatening the nation. In the early twentieth century, alcoholic drinks were seen as the chief social scourge, while at other times marijuana, heroin, and cocaine have been presented in this way. Since the mid-1980s, the worst condemnations have been reserved for cocaine in its crack form. Some scares last a few months or a year before dying away, but a phenomenon such...

  7. TWO Speed Kills
    (pp. 29-53)

    Synthetic or designer drugs were by no means an innovation of the 1960s, but it was in these years that current media stereotypes of the substances and their users were first articulated. These ideas would also shape the political discourse concerning other drugs. Over the last forty years, amphetamines in various forms have been at the heart of perhaps half a dozen separate drug scares, from the concern over teenagers misusing pep-pills in the early 1960s through the national methamphetamine epidemic of the mid-nineties. More frequently than we would gather from the standard histories of drug use in this country,...

  8. THREE Monsters: The PCP Crisis, 1975–85
    (pp. 54-75)

    The synthetic scares surrounding methamphetamine and PCP shared a similar chronology, reaching a climax in the late 1970s and early 1980s. For all their differences of content and rhetoric, the two movements had a similarly far-reaching political significance, reviving public hatred and fear of narcotics and demolishing the broad tolerance that had emerged during the hedonistic 1970s. Just as the anti-speed campaign of the 1960s prepared the way for the subsequent war on dealers and drug kingpins, so PCP established later expectations about the devastating impact of crack cocaine on users and communities.

    Growing concern about synthetics reflected changing usage...

  9. FOUR Suppressing Ecstasy: The Designer Drug Crisis
    (pp. 76-94)

    The designer-drug concept gained notoriety following a series of media exposés and official investigations during 1985. In an atmosphere of growing anti-drug panic, discussions of designer chemicals misleadingly bracketed together many recently developed synthetics as if they were part of one wave of sinister laboratory concoctions, all posing a like danger to life and sanity. Some of the new synthetics certainly were dangerous, at least in the way they were used on the streets, but others really did not deserve their new notoriety. The blanket condemnation of so-called designer drugs contributed to an ever-growing restriction on pharmaceutical experimentation, or at...

  10. FIVE The Menace That Went Away: The Ice Age, 1989–90
    (pp. 95-116)

    In retrospect, the synthetics scares of the early eighties look like a first draft for the real drug war, which started when crack hit the scene. The turning point was 1986, when the media discovered crack as perhaps the most fearsome problem in the long American encounter with illegal chemicals. The synthetics rapidly faded in significance, so that official concern about even PCP and Ecstasy went underground for several years. But synthetic drugs were still being used, and it was only a matter of time before concern reignited. By the end of the decade, their rediscovery by politicians and journalists...

  11. SIX The CAT Attack, 1993–94
    (pp. 117-131)

    With its recent experience of ice in mind, the media should have been doubly careful when presented with a comparable barrage of claims about another new substance, one said to be booming already in one small area and soon to become the nation’s new drug of choice. They weren’t. Barely three years after ice was forgotten, a new drug epidemic was supposedly sweeping the nation. This time around, it was the drug methcathinone, popularly known as CAT, yet another relative of the amphetamine family. CAT was often in the national headlines during 1993 and 1994, and in June 1993, the...

  12. SEVEN Redneck Cocaine: The Methamphetamine Panic of the Nineties
    (pp. 132-159)

    Though both the ice and the CAT scares soon fizzled out, the next anti-synthetic campaign was far more successful, developing powerful legs of its own. This was the 1995–96 movement against methamphetamine, the first of the post-crack panics to begin to live up to its auspicious precedent. Though the hyperbolic language of the new movement superficially recalled the abortive scares of the early nineties, clearly something had changed: not only did the new speed menace gain instant credibility as a national threat, but it retained some resonance an impressive four years after its inception. The issue had obvious political...

  13. EIGHT Rave Drugs and Rape Drugs
    (pp. 160-182)

    Just as publicity concerning methamphetamine was cresting in the summer of 1996, a new synthetic menace was looming in the form of rave or party drugs. Over the last four decades, successive youth cultures have adopted very different tastes in music, dress and dance styles, but through all of these waves, illegal drugs have remained a constant presence. In the last few years, several different synthetics have become popular as party or rave drugs, and these substances have provided the foundation for a new wave of designer-drug panics. The dance/party cultures have been highly localized, so that one substance might...

  14. NINE The Next Panic
    (pp. 183-198)

    Since the mid-1970s, synthetic panics have erupted with striking regularity in the United States, and they have generally followed very similar patterns and been based on extremely dubious claims. Similar assertions will unquestionably be heard in the near future, perhaps concerning substances presently unknown outside academic departments of chemistry. With so many precedents at hand, it should be possible to frame a typical model of the panic cycle in operation, with the goal of encouraging both the media and policymakers to acquire greater caution and scepticism in such matters, lest the spurious quest for the next crack cocaine become an...

    (pp. 199-200)
  16. NOTES
    (pp. 201-238)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 239-246)
    (pp. 247-248)