Addicted to scare tactics

June 3, 2013

By Steven Greenhut

SACRAMENTO — “As many as 100,000 crack babies are born every year,” reported the Los Angeles Times in an overheated 1990 article echoing the results of a Department of Health and Human Services study. The feds were calling for a massive influx of tax dollars to fund social programs for a new generation of Americans born to mothers who used so-called crack cocaine.

The article included a “must have” list for government agencies: more postnatal care and foster care, extra dollars for schools to deal with the disabilities these children reportedly would have, government-provided residential care, drug programs and more.

“But absent those billions of additional dollars, what can state and local government do now to help those innocents?” the article asked, almost hopelessly. This was typical of news coverage of what was called the crack epidemic.

More than two decades later, we learn the truth. The hysteria — which led to new drug laws that imposed unreasonably harsh sentences on the largely African-American users of that particular form of cocaine — was unwarranted. The numbers of crack babies were wildly exaggerated. As the New York Times now reports, “This supposed epidemic … was kicked off by a study of just 23 infants that the lead researcher now says was blown out of proportion.”

No one suggests that it’s healthy to use cocaine while pregnant, but years of study show that the “shocking symptoms” that crack babies displayed were actually symptoms found in many newborns. “A much more serious problem, it turns out, is infants who are born with fetal alcohol syndrome,” according to the Times.

‘Do something!’

I recall the “we must do something” attitude of the time, which clearly played on the public’s fear of inner-city crime. Never mind now. But it’s not as if the people who have spent years in jail for possessing crack cocaine can get their lives back. Don’t expect Congress or state legislatures to rethink any of the laws they hastily passed. And don’t expect anyone in authority to have learned anything from the new reports revising the crack-baby scare.

Then, the same week, comes word of a new study designed to scare us about marijuana legalization. It sounds even less believable than the discredited crack research.

“Children poisoned after eating brownies, other foods laced with medical marijuana, study finds,” blared the headline in the Syracuse Post-Standard. Basically, the feds contend Colorado’s new law legalizing marijuana is leading to kids inadvertently eating Mom’s pot-laced brownies, which isn’t good but hardly amounts to a poisoning epidemic.

There’s no evidence that pot legalization caused such mishaps. People have been eating pot brownies for as long as I can recall, even though it generally was illegal. But the goal of such studies isn’t a reasoned debate. The goal is to prompt upset legislators to pass laws designed to slow down the burgeoning legalization movement.

And as Reason magazine’s Mike Riggs just reported, “The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy released a study last week that found the majority of arrestees in five metropolitan areas tested positive for marijuana at the time they were booked, and that many other arrestees tested positive for harder drugs. There was one drug missing from the report, however, and it appears it was omitted intentionally. That drug is alcohol.”

I still regularly meet people who believe that the laws governing us result from a deliberative process conducted by legislators committed to the public good. Such thinking will result in more crack-baby scares and the funding of new armies of social workers, planners, tax collectors, cops and regulators, who are more than happy to lobby for higher taxes and to meddle in our affairs.

The key to understanding the political system is found in this quotation from journalist and social critic H.L. Mencken: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”


Members of the California Legislature, for example, specialize in looking for minuscule crises that they can blow out of proportion, then hold news conferences and push for new laws they author that help protect us, even as they steadfastly ignore the big problems (budgets, pensions, retiree medical liabilities) they themselves help to create.

So far this year, we have seen proposed new taxes on ammunition, on soft drinks and on clubs that sell alcohol and offer nude dancing. These taxes are meant to discourage certain behaviors and to protect us from ourselves, all while funding government “services.”

Government does this in all areas of our lives, including foreign policy, where unfounded scares justifying past U.S. intervention in another country will be forgotten in the face of some new supposedly menacing regime.

“Be outraged,” said former Assemblyman Chris Norby of Fullerton. “The crack-baby scare led to Draconian laws that cost billions and led to racially discriminatory drug laws.”

He is right, but most people will shrug, and many legislators will just keep doing what has always worked for them.

Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity; write to him at: [email protected].

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