How Bogus Drug Scares Get Started
Bogus drug scares are a mainstay of mainstream media reporting and reactionary parenting. A roundup of the latest in ludicrous drug trends—and look back at how bogus substances have stirred panic for more than a century now—below.
By now you've seen the YouTube clips featuring clean-cut kids "i-dosing," hooked up to headphones and writhing around on their beds from the mind-bending sounds. Could it really be that easy to trip? You wish.
On July 12th, the Oklahoma Narcotics Bureau kicked off a "digital drugs" scare when it warned that a company called idoser.com was selling mp3s, which mimic the highs of every conceivable narcotic, for prices ranging from $3.00 to $6.75. The songs, the agency claimed, were exposing kids to the dangers of prescription medications like Methadone and Adderall. But as ridiculous as that may sound, that didn't stop mainstream media outlets from treating it as a genuine threat to the psychological well being of American teenagers.
Of course this is just the latest example of the media's longstanding infatuation with fanning the flames of parental pharmacological-based hysteria. During the last decade, one unproven drug craze seems to have been replaced by the next-including threats of "pharm parties," Salvia divornum, Khat, herbal Ecstasy, energy drink addiction, and scores of variations on hard drug epidemics. Two decades earlier, it was another set of natural substances that raised alarm bells in the media. In March '67 Wall Street Journal piece, which also noted the abuse potential of nutmeg and morning glory seeds, warned: "A lot of hippies are tripping on banana peels."
The tried and true recipe for scary drug stories—trust authority blindly, solemnly parrot dubious facts-goes back at least as far as a 1914 New York Times piece, which reported that Southern sheriffs were powerless to stop armies of "Negro cocaine 'fiends'" from "running amuck" through their towns. The reporter, a doctor, wrote, "Bullets fired into vital parts, that would drop a sane man in his tracks, fail to check the 'fiend.'"
This year, on July 13th, the Times gave the recipe a rare boost with a report about the lurid, vampiric practice of "flashblooding." The piece—about a population of unseen, anonymous addicts in Africa-purposefully sharing syringes filled with potentially AIDS infected blood to stave off withdrawals—portrays its faceless subjects (addicted African sex-workers) as so stupid and craven that they would die for an undetectable amount of heroin.
Africa seems to be a common theme for reporters seeking out the next big addiction epidemic. In 2007, the "Jenkem" scare conjured up a new and dangerous brew, which had allegedly made its way from the shores of Africa. "Its a homemade drug created by allowing human urine and feces to ferment in a bottle with a balloon covering the opening," ABC.com reported, adding that it may elicit similar effects as cocaine to users who can stand the taste of raw sewage in their mouths.
But the danger could exist much closer to home. Like in your medicine cabinet. This month, CNN.com claimed that drinking Robotussin, the ancient last-resort of drug-starved Deadheads, was a brand-new phenomena galloping through high schools. In language reminiscent of a 1950's PTA meeting, CNN medical producer Stephanie Smith warned: "There's a trend among kids, dubbed 'Robo tripping,' and it's not the latest dance."
Whether it's the naked nastiness of "flashblooding" type scares or "i-dosing" style concocted teen trends, phony drug scares have the same basic elements in common. They are appeals to readers' emotions that hinge on claims by authority figures, and are guided by simplistic narratives and stereotypes. These unlikely trends say more about the fears of their readers' than the habits of their purported subjects.
Slate's Jack Shafer, who's been debunking media-fed drug scares since the 1990s, says the Internet lends itself to the rapid dissemination of hoaxes. "Bogus trends move faster in the web, but they also expire faster," he says.
But the media's ongoing suspicion that adolescents are ever corruptible to the threat from easily attainable mind-altering chemicals will never die. Sounding a warning about the psychoactive potentials of nutmeg and airplane glue, a 1966 newspaper article summed up this attitude the best when it intoned: "The teen-age abuser will use any substance that gives them a 'thrill.'"
Previously: Ambient Music Replaces Drugs