This is not, Jenkins would agree, a brand-new field of study. Burroughs put one side of the argument succinctly nearly a decade ago: Just Say No to Drug Hysteria. The library on the general topic of The United States Government v. The People's Right to Get High is vast, and much of it describes how successive local, state and federal governments throughout the 20th century created, supported and manipulated various illicit-drug scares, while, increasingly toward the end of the century, they allowed or assisted the corporate pharmaceuticals industry to flood the world with drugs on a scale illicit traffickers wouldn't ever let themselves dream of accessing. In other words, while your government has sought to keep you worried about a few bales of marijuana being flown up from Florida, it's allowing Pfizer and Lilly to keep all your neighbors zonked on Zoloft and Prozac.
That's Jenkins' story in a nutshell. He has narrowed his focus in an interesting way, by concentrating not on heroin or crack but on the so-called "designer drugs." It's a mid-80s term, borrowed from the designer jeans of the period, but Jenkins appropriately grandfathers it to include earlier synthetics and their associated hysterias, like crystal meth in the 60s and angel dust in the 70s. He also looks at the first Ecstasy panic of the mid-80s, the return of meth hysteria in the mid-90s, the recent panics over "rape drugs" (GHB, Rohypnol) and "rave drugs" (Ecstasy again, Special K, the LSD revival), as well as a couple of attempts to stir up panics that fizzled out so quickly most readers may well not even remember them now: the failed ICE (smokable crystal meth) scare of 1989 and the equally forgettable CAT (methcathinone, another meth relative) "epidemic" of 1993.
Jenkins contends that studying the careers of these synthetic drugs, and the equally synthetic panics associated with them, is a good way to discern the almost folkloric patterns and modes of storytelling that underlay virtually all modern drug hysterias.
"If you look at the literature on drugs, which is immense, virtually all of it is about certain drugs?heroin, cocaine, maybe a little marijuana," he tells me. "I wanted to make a couple of points. First, in terms of what drugs people actually use, synthetic and designer drugs are far more important than that would suggest. Secondly, that these designer drugs have done more to shape attitudes toward drugs than [the literature] would suggest. For example, one argument I make is that the crack panic in the mid-80s could not have happened as it did if there had not been several years of panic about PCP, which is now forgotten. Thirdly, synthetic drugs are always there to be drawn on when other panics flag... If things like heroin and cocaine aren't conveniently there [to base a drug scare on], it's easy to find this other stuff that's just bubbling along somewhere."
Not surprisingly, Jenkins points out that one of the easiest ways to panic mainstream America about a drug has always been to pick one being used by inner-city blacks or poor white trash, then claim that its use is "spilling out" from the ghetto or the trailer park to the streets of small-town, middle-class, suburban America. Remember how crack, never anything but a poor black person's drug, was always threatening to turn into a nationwide problem that was going to sweep the country and turn every Main Street in Anytown, USA into a crack alley? Jenkins cites the remarkable news special 48 hours on Crack Street, which ended "with Dan Rather standing in Washington Square Park with crack vials all around him, saying, 'This is any street in America.'" Sure it is, Dan. The media and law enforcement got several years of play out of that little nightmare.
For another example, Jenkins argues that "since probably the 1940s amphetamines and related drugs have been one of the biggest presences on the illicit market, and yet they're in areas where they're not seen, and if they're not seen they don't exist." It was only in the "speed kills" era of the later 1960s that it earned widespread government and media attention. Why? Because, Jenkins argues, before middle-class hippies started farting around with it, it was largely a working-class drug, not harming the mainstream and therefore largely beneath prosecution. Truckers used it, night-shift workers at factories and hospitals liked it and the military doled it out to soldiers up at least through Vietnam. "Look at the My Lai massacre," Jenkins says. "This is what happens when you have people who have been speeding for weeks."
More recently, when a supposedly new wave of speed use started making news in Oklahoma City, everyone assumed that "black street gangs" must have spread the epidemic out to the boonies from big cities like L.A. In fact, it turns out that Oklahoma City and environs have long been a major speed-manufacturing area supplying bigger cities, and that consequently local speed use has always been relatively high. The Okies don't need the homeboys to show them how to score, but no one wants to hear that.
Jenkins makes the very important point that drug fads are almost invariably more local and regional than the hysterias about them let on, and that in fact very few new drugs of choice manage to "sweep the country." ICE is a great example. Briefly in fashion in Hawaii, of all places, at the end of the 1980s, it was also briefly touted as a contender for the next big national drug epidemic. Never caught on, was soon forgotten, and then local authorities in Michigan put in their bid for CAT, another meth variant, as the Next Big Thing. That never happened either. Rather than concede that the threat had been exaggerated in the first place, the DEA spin was to claim that swift and decisive early action had effectively squelched the CAT epidemic before it had a chance to spread.
"Usually there's an agenda," Jenkins says, behind touting local fads as incipient national epidemics, "because somebody wants to get resources. Obviously, if you just say, 'This is a real big problem in Oahu,' it's not gonna get much attention. So you have to say, 'It's going to hit your town tomorrow.'"
Jenkins reminds you how the War on Drugs really hit high gear and went to volume 11 in the mid-to-late 80s under Reagan and then Bush: ...Bush made combating [crack] a key component of his domestic agenda and drugs conditioned US foreign and defense policy. In 1989, American activism against international traffickers provoked a near-civil war in the nation of Colombia and led to an actual invasion of Panama that December. Drug fears led to an official redefinition of national security as the concept of narco-terrorism was born. The incessant diet of alarming stories had its impact: the proportion of Americans citing drug abuse as the nation's most important problem soared from 3 percent in 1986 to 64 percent in 1989.
That last bit is an amazing statistic. Cui bono? Certainly drug and law enforcement agencies, whose staffs, budgets and powers soared during this period, even as "[t]he ever-expanding scope of criminal forfeiture came close to making the drug war self-financing," Jenkins writes. Prisons did well, too, as thousands of new drug offenders overloaded existing capacity, meaning big budgets for expanded facilities and staffs?creating the so-called correctional-industrial complex. To this day, Jenkins tells me, one of the largest political pressure groups in California is the state prison guards' union. "There was in short an enormous vested interest in adopting the harshest possible view of illicit drugs," he writes, "while the mass media showed absolute credulity in reporting claims from the drug-enforcement bureaucracy."
Jenkins devotes a lot of space to Ecstasy, which has had a very interesting life. It's curious, for instance, that while the Ecstasy panic of the mid-80s is long forgotten, Ecstasy itself continues to be enormously popular. If anything, kids are using far more E now than they were 10 years ago, and yet you rarely see the sort of Ecstasy Serial Killer Rape Suicide Car Crash horror stories you once did. Indeed, Jenkins says, Ecstasy use in America is nothing compared to its popularity in Europe. "Europe these days floats on Ecstasy," he tells me. "In some ways Ecstasy is a little bit like punk rock?it transformed European youth culture, but never had anything like the same impact over here. You see amazing figures for the number of people who are on Ecstasy in Britain and a few other countries... It's not the same mass phenomenon here. An analogy is that in Europe it's like marijuana was in the 70s here."
In the book he contrasts the careers of Ecstasy and Prozac?two similar drugs, born around the same time, with the same basic effects on users, yet one is licit and the other illicit. One is a "bad" drug because it's homemade and has grassroots distribution. The other's a "pharmaceutical," prescribed like candy, because it comes out of a corporate lab (Lilly). It's certainly true that as drug epidemics go Prozac is far and away the wider-spread and more troubling addiction. Had the tables been reversed, Jenkins says?had Prozac been the one developed by underground chemists and called, oh, Feelgood?you can just imagine the Dan Rather Special Report on the terrible Feelgood epidemic sweeping the nation. "Your neighbors could be hooked. Your children may be, too. Notice any changes in their behavior lately? Their moods?"
Instead, would you be surprised to learn that Dan Rather was on Prozac?
In a similar comparison, Jenkins likes to note that in sheer numbers there have actually been far more deaths associated with the use of acetaminophen than PCP. So if PCP is a very "dangerous" and "harmful" drug, what does that make Tylenol?
I ask Jenkins what the next Next Big Thing in drug scares is going to be. His money is on one just surfacing this summer, an Ecstasy-like rave and club drug called GBL. When I tell him I feel out of it because I haven't heard of GBL yet, he replies, "Don't worry. It's like London buses. If you miss this one, there'll be another one along in 10 minutes."