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Meth and Moral Panics, Part Three

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

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? As badly has sometimes been used, I would nonetheless retain the moral panic idea. But, I offer three suggestions to make it work:

1) Connect social reaction to behavior. When the distinction between panic and reality is drawn so sharply, when the distance is so great, it becomes too easy to ignore actual behavior. The more we ignore actual behavior, the more the objects of moral panic recede into the background as passive and uninteresting. While there are surely instances of social reaction where the purported behavior never actually existed, more often the one exists in dynamic relation to the other. As Cornwell and Linders observe in their study of LSD and moral panic, that old “folk devil” Timothy Leary could hardly have failed to perceive the extent to which he challenged the moral status quo. Akihito Sako, in a study of a moral panic over meth in postwar Japan, argues that part of the new narrative about meth’s dangers that was so critical to the “moral panic” actually emerged from within communities of meth users as part of their self-justifying stories of agency, victimization, and recovery. Angela McRobbie and Sarah L. Thornton remind us that “so-called folks devils now produce their own media as a counter to what they perceive as the biased media of the mainstream.” (5) Actual behavior matters–often local behavior. There’s nothing inherently helpful in pointing out that methamphetamine was widely used by the German military in World War Two, or in postwar Japan, or in the sixties-era Haight-Ashbury, when the men and women of the twenty-first century American Midwest have worked so hard to establish meth markets in Bismarck, Springfield, and Topeka, where such markets previously did not exist. That their efforts are not well appreciated (in all senses of that word) hardly means that the social response isn’t to some extent in conversation with their behavior.

2) Make “behavior” a two-way street. If social response is in conversation with problem behavior, then it isn’t enough to treat moral panics as “problem” and “response” in which both are highly singular entities, one following the other. Rather, just as problem behavior needs to be specified and contextualized, so too must “control” responses. For historians, this means looking beyond apparently panic-induced legislative enactments toward a consideration of the full range and operations of the mechanisms of social control. In the drug case, this means striving for a close and detailed look at what William Garriott (in Policing Methamphetamine) called “narcopolitics”–“any practice of governance whose rationalization lies in the concern with narcotics.” [p. 5] When we do, we may better understand the relation of panic-talk and panic-culture to actual practices of control.

3) Contextualize and connect the panic narratives. Moral panics are commonly understood (see my earlier posts) as inherently volatile. Indeed, volatility is one of the key indicators of panic–clear evidence of an irrational, emotional response. Narrative framing devices like “contagion” and “epidemic” are part and parcel of these “out of nowhere” panics. Yet some moral panic scholars seem unaware of the extraordinarily long history such words have. Historian Allen Conrad Christensen helpfully shows us the extent to which “the phenomenon of metaphorical or moral contagion” was already well-established in mid-nineteenth century England. (6) Jock Young reminds us that it would be better to think of these narratives not as acute episodes of panic, but as chronic and recurring: “if panics are ‘successful’, they connect up to fundamental shifts in the tectonic plates of order, each occurrence like a volcanic atoll. It is their reappearance that confirms their status as moral disturbances of any significant order.” (7) A final point on these narratives–if it is futile to record them as historically isolated bursts, it is equally futile to study the narrative threads in isolation from other contemporary areas of law and policy (see this post for more) or in isolation from one another. Mara Keire’s study, For Business & Pleasure: Red-Light Districts and the Regulation of Vice in the United States, 1890-1933, shows us the right way to avoid the latter problem when she locates a whole new narrative thread to the white-slavery scare, sitting alongside sin and salvation–“the language of economics, particularly the corrupting power of trusts and their control of society…a broader condemnation of monopoly capitalism.” (8)

All three of these demand close attention to period and place, to context and behavior. They demand forging a new conceptual relationship between “real” response and “real” behavior. No easy task, but one well worth pursuing! Here’s hoping that future posts can point to new work doing just this on the question of meth in America.


(1) Travis Linnemann, “Mad Men, Meth Moms, Moral Panic: Gendering Meth Crimes in the Midwest,” Critical Criminology (2010), 95-110. [quote is from p. 103]

(2) Susan Boyd and Connie I. Carter, “Methamphetamine Discourse: Media, Law, and Policy” Canadian Journal of Communication (2010), 219-237. [quote is from p. 229]

(3) To quote Weidner’s article: “the seriousness ascribed to a given drug problem rarely reflects an objective assessment of the threat that the drug presents” and includes “unsubstantianted media reports about prevalence” and “exaggerated claims about…addictiveness”—drug panics “make subjective mountains out of objective molehills.” [Page 228]

(4) For an early version of this, see P.A.J. Waddington, “Mugging as a Moral Panic: A Question of Proportion,” British Journal of Sociology 37 (June, 1986). The quote comes from Benjamin Cornwell and Annulla Linders, “The Myth of ‘Moral Panic’: An Alternative Account of LSD Prohibition,” Deviant Behavior (2002), 307-330. [Quote is from p. 314]

(5) See Angela McRobbie and Sarah L. Thornton, “Rethinking ‘Moral Panic’ for Multi-Mediated Social Worlds,” British Journal of Sociology (1995), 559-574. A justifiably oft-cited study!

(6) Allen Conrad Christensen, Nineteenth-Century Narratives of Contagion: ‘Our Feverish Contact’ (Routledge, 2005). [quote is from p. 4]

(7) Jock Young, “Moral Panic: Its Origins in Resistance, Ressentiment and the Translation of Fantasy Into Reality,” British Journal of Criminology (2009), 4-16. [quote is from p. 14] This is another “must-read” in the moral panic literature.

(8) Mara L. Keire, For Business & Pleasure: Red-Light Districts and the Regulation of Vice in the United States (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 67-68.


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