Drug "Panic" and "Scare"


Late 1980s was called drug "panic" or "scare", when public concern about drug use increased. This phenomenon has not been born over night but rather has been building up throughout the 1980s, and finally exploded in the late 1985 and early in 1986. The special public concern was targeted on cocaine, more specifically, crack, a cocaine derivative. Drug use in general became a crucial social problem of the decade. For a number of reasons which will be discussed later drug use, abuse, and exploitation became as apparent as never before. In this very decade the drug issue has occupied million’s of minds and emerged as a huge social problem. During those times the concept "tougher on crimes" became widely used in society for the reasons of drug frenzy in the country, the government intentions were to establish such harsh laws which would scare criminals and make them think twice before committing a crime, of using or selling drugs.

Late 1980s was called drug "panic" or "scare", when public concern about drug use increased. This phenomenon has not been born over night but rather has been building up throughout the 1980s, and finally exploded in the late 1985 and early in 1986.

The reasons behind the craze over drug use were numerous and at times unobvious. Something began happening in first year of the decade of the 1980s, public tolerance of the use of illegal drug use declined, the belief that the use of drugs is harmful increased, convictions that possessing or selling illegal drugs should be decriminalized or legalized declined, even the use of the drugs declined. In 1980s


experienced enormous increase in public concern about drug use and abuse. In the middle of this decade crack or potent crystalline form of cocaine, was practically an unknown drug in the

United States

and by late 1985, it was broadly used in urban areas. The appearing suddenness of crack's widespread use and the degree to which it has been used in some neighborhoods made the crack story popular among news reporters and gave the public the notion that a huge drug crisis has exploded overnight. In reality drugs mainly were used in certain neighborhoods in big cities such as NY,

Los Angeles



. Thus, it was not simply the greater threat than new patterns of crack use posed but the unknown drug and the thorough news coverage which gave up rise to this problem and made a major social concern out of it.

Another episode that caused tougher sentencing predominantly associated with drug use was caused by the death of famous athletes. In June 1986, hardly a week apart, two popular young athletes died of a cocaine overdose. On June 19,




basketball forward Len Bias, and on June 27, Cleveland Browns' defensive back Don Rogers. One of the major reasons why Bias’ death was so much talked about is the proximity of


to the Capitol where decisions on crime policies are taken. Country such as the

United States

, that praises sports figures would be treating the death of their athletes not only as a tragedy, but also will consider this death as a basic and common for the society as a whole. In the case of mid 80s that was a certain thing, which was generously discussed in all media channels creating more noise around it than it fairly should.

It is obvious that all spheres of social life are greatly affected by the politicians and often by their personal interests. The elections of 1986 probably should be regarded as a source of rising concern about the drug issue. Although we cannot claim that there is a straight relationship between public concern and attention by politicians to a given issue, it is clear that when politicians sense that public concern about and interest in a certain topic (drugs in our case) growing, they will most certainly exploit this issue in their interest. With the media talking about the issue and famous dying athletes, Congress once it started talking about it, realized that all the same things were heard from everywhere and the problem existed or at least was apparent to all. So, clearly when the government became involved in the issue and Nancy Regan began making speeches stressing the anti-drug theme with "Just say no" slogan society was even more stimulated and awaited some concrete moves from the senators.

The entire drug matter and other social problems such as firearms offences required some strict decisions being made on the subject of criminal responsibility for those crimes. The minimum mandatory sentences were to solve the problem of drug abuse and impose tougher punishment. Initially the federal government had forced mandatory minimum sentences with the Narcotic Control Act of 1956 but had turned away from such laws by 1970, when it found that the increased sentences had not resulted in the expected overall reduction in drug law violations. States on the other hand began implementing mandatory minimums on their own; such

New York

began the trend in 1973 when it passed the Rockefeller Drug Laws requiring 15-year prison sentences for possession or sales of small amounts of narcotics.


followed in 1978 with the enactment of the "650 lifer law," requiring life imprisonment for possession, sale or conspiracy to sell or possess 650 grams (about 1.25 pounds) of cocaine or heroin. By year 1983, 49 of the 50 states had passed some mandatory minimum provisions, usually adding them little by little, instead of major changes. The federal government started reforming its sentencing stipulations in the 1980s in the light pf problems described above, primarily by setting up a system of sentencing guidelines trying to create more uniformity in the sentences given out by judges. Afterwards it intended to impose mandatory minimums, mostly for drug-related offenses.

The United States Sentencing Commission, established by the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, created a system of guidelines designed to limit judges' discretion in sentencing and to create more uniformity and proportionality in the sentences. Another Drug Abuse Act was passed by the Congress in 1986 in response to criticism of indeterminate, or undefined, sentencing and also about concerns on the perceived link between moderate penalties for drug offenders and increases in violent crime and drug abuse. Under the law, drug linchpins received sentences of at least ten years for a first offense and twenty years for a second. Mid-level dealers and managers face five and ten years for first and second offenses, respectively. In 1988 Congress extended mandatory minimums to reach conspirators in the drug deals as well as principals, thus ensuring that minimum penalties would apply with equal force to secondary players found guilty of conspiracy.

Obviously those drug related acts passed by the government were the answer to the ever rising concerns of the society in the decade of 1980’s. Although drugs were always a big problem, the situation began to look out of control because of various factors and to calm down the hysterical mood, those strict and as seemed at that time "just" laws were ratified. The history gave you an idea about drug usage however that there was almost no effect brought by the mandatory minimums sentence.

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