The moral panic has always been an important weapon in the arsenal of the bourgeoisie. By manufacturing scare stories about "problems" which they can blame on lack of individual moral responsibility they can gain acceptance for harsher state repression and hammer home the need to respect work, the family and the Law. These scare stories are usually simple morality tales about the link between hedonism, violence and the corruption of youth. They bear little relation to reality. From the "juvenile delinquency" panics of the 1950's to the "crack menace" of today the story is the same. [Oct. 2004 - we would recommend the book Satan's Silence by Debbie Nathan for a complete history of the Satanic child abuse panic].


In Britain the present crop of moral panics have mostly failed to take root. In the USA the "War On Drugs" has been much more successful. Much of the anti-drugs propaganda in the British media has simply been imported from the US.

In 1989 a national drug squad, overcoming the traditional rivalry between police and Customs was set up, with wide ranging powers. Drugs are a pretext. The bourgeoisie isn't worried about crack in Lambeth, Hackney and Moss Side. It's an excuse to crack down on the inner cities with, they hope, the support of a majority of the population. In June 1989 there was a riot in Wolverhampton following a police "drugs" raid. In October 1990, about 500 axe-wielding police invaded Broadwater Farm estate, against which they have a grudge. A cop was killed there during an uprising in 1985 after the cops had caused the death of a local woman. The media willingly cooperated in this attempt to isolate and criminalise the estate. Small amounts of cannabis were found. In July 1991 armed police with a helicopter attacked the Pembury estate in Hackney, kicking a pregnant woman down the stairs, and dragging black workers returning from work into police vans. The estate is one of the most squatted in London.

In April 1989 a United States Drug Enforcement special agent had addressed a senior police drugs conference giving his "personal guarantee" that within two years Britain would have a crack problem on a par with the US, which would cause an explosion of murder and child abuse. The British media uncritically repeated the story, and added their own lurid tales of drug induced decadence. In a few days, the press claimed that a crack addict allowed her daughter to be raped in exchange for the drug; that the "third world" infant mortality rate in Washington DC is caused by cocaine; and that coke causes child molesting. This is a concerted attempt to link our deepest fears to drugs. In particular, there is an attempt to convince us that the horrors of life in American cities are caused chiefly by the import of a mild anaesthetic from South America.

The predicted drug boom didn't take off. There was even a suggestion in August 1990 that the special police and Customs squad set up to fight crack should be disbanded. Senior officers of the National Drugs Intelligence Unit admitted that there had been no upsurge in crack use.

Every now and again, a story is exposed. The Lambeth Police Monitoring Unit discovered that the police story about a Caribbean "Black Mafia" called "Yardies" was a pack of racist lies. But even in demolishing the black drug-pusher myth, the South London Press (6 July 90) maintained that there is a "spiralling crack menace in South East London". Spiral, spiral. A Southwark council moron summed up the official line : "Although the Yardie idea may be myth it cannot be ignored". The overtly racist nature of anti-drug campaigns is nothing new. In the 1920's, Scientific American published articles scientifically linking cocaine use by black men with raping white women. In Britain in the early 1950's the first serious media scare about youth being corrupted by smoking grass provided the pretext for police repression against newly-arrived West Indian immigrants.


Not all moral panics issue from the police. When British social workers started spreading stories about groups of people from Nottingham to the Orkneys livening up their Satanic rituals with a spot of child abuse, the police were sceptical. Nevertheless, they joined forces with crazed social workers to raid dozens of innocent homes, taking children off to secret locations, where the social workers used standard police interrogation techniques ("you might as well tell us, your sister already has") to intimidate children into agreeing to lies about their parents.

In every case, the stories were exposed as complete nonsense, the product of the imaginations of Christian social workers and their American gurus. They were a clumsy attempt to spread fear and distrust. The natural inclination of children to fantasize about witches and demons scares Christians, who respond to interest in witchcraft, the occult, etc., by labelling all of it "Satanism" and claiming it leads to child-molesting.

The state realized that the Satanism campaign was getting out of hand. The social services were under attack. Groups were set up to defend parents against persecution. So they abandoned the campaign and let the children go home.

Social workers' brutality against children in "care" led to a small uprising in a children's "home". Slates were thrown, windows smashed and furniture broken before police restored order at the Tyn Mawr institution in Wales. This action shows an identification with prisoners. It also implies identifying social workers with prison officers and the police. Their lefty friends don't agree. "'We want to care for the kids', said one social worker. 'But unless they give us the resources we can't do that'" (Social(ist) Worker 8 June 91).

There is a crisis of state legitimacy in Britain, with growing numbers of workers holding the police and the courts in contempt. The release of the Birmingham Six in March 1991, after 17 years of false imprisonment, damaged the system still further. Refusing attempts by nationalists to turn the issue into a purely Irish affair, firmly rejecting a tricolour offered by one of the crowd, the Six denounced the judges and politicians who had conspired to keep them inside, as well as the police, and read out a list of other framed prisoners, such as the Tottenham 3, who were forced to confess to the 1985 Broadwater Farm cop-chop.

Desperate to restore their credibility, the police started a new anti-drugs campaign in May 1991. In August they announced the formation of a squad of detectives to tackle violent crime related to cocaine dealing across south London, claiming that gangs had links to organized crime in the US and the Caribbean (of course!). Scotland Yard listed various unpleasant London robberies, claiming that they were all in some way related to crack.


Since the USA was defeated in Vietnam, its rulers have been working out how to persuade the public to support war abroad and the law at home.

The anti-terrorism campaign was one such attempt. There were a number of important blunders in this campaign. Reagan was exposed selling arms to Iranian terrorists and using the proceeds to finance Nicaraguan ones, and it was revealed that he persuaded the Iranians to keep the Embassy hostages in order to destabilize the Carter administration.

Given the cock-ups, they had to try something else. General Noriega, originally put in power by the drug runners of the CIA under George Bush in the seventies, was turned into a scapegoat. They didn't invade Panama in December '89 to stop the coke trade which now flourishes more than ever before. They did it to ensure control over the Panama canal, and to test how US public opinion would react to the biggest military operation since Vietnam. Given the success of the operation - it was "over by Christmas" - opinion polls reported overwhelming support. This led to the Gulf war. The American ruling class are now confident that they can launch a full scale war anywhere to protect their interests.

Recently US involvement in Peru has escalated with the sending of military personnel to train two combat battalions who will be used to protect police units from attack by left wing guerillas. In Colombia, the drugs war is largely a faction fight within the ruling class, between the US-backed government and the big dealers who process coca leaves into cocaine. It affects the poor only so far as the streets become less safe and jobs in the coke industry are destroyed. In Peru it is directed primarily at the peasants of the Upper Huallaga valley where up to 300,000 families survive by growing coca. The Peruvian government talks of crop substitution but its obvious that growing potatoes instead of coca is economically absurd. The drugs war is about nothing less than the brutal expropriation of these peasants who will flood into the cities, forcing down wages of urban workers who already live at bare subsistence level.


"I think people believe that the only strategy we have is to put a lot of police officers on the street and harass people and make arrests for inconsequential kinds of things. Well, that's part of the strategy, no question about it." - Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates.

In the ghettoes of America's cities, another war is being fought, with equally sinister implications for the working class. With crack dealing as a pretext, military style operations are being used against inner-city non-white youth. In these operations, thousands of teenagers are searched at random, forced to "kiss the sidewalk", and have their names entered on computers for "gang membership". LAPD Chief Gates explains the "reasoning" behind the campaign : "This is war... we're exceedingly angry... we want to get the message out to the cowards out there... we want the message to go out that we're going to come and get them." The head of the drug squad added "This is Vietnam here". And the Los Angeles Times quoted local politicians comparing the drug-dealing gangs to "the murderous militias of Beirut".

There is a political purpose behind these wild claims. In the midst of a local economic boom, black youth unemployment in LA County is 45%, and worse in other areas. American cities are increasingly racially divided. Crack dealing to neighbouring wealthy white suburbanites is rational economic behaviour for local gangster capitalists, who employ thousands of people. A Rand Corporation survey in 1985 found that three quarters of cocaine users in the Washington metropolitan area lived not in the black ghettoes of DC itself but in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs. In a New York Times/CBS poll in 1989 it turned out that the highest percentages of people "knowing someone seriously affected by drugs" were those earning more than $35,000 a year. This is not, of course, how the trade is depicted by the media, who talk about the "ghetto drug problem", and you don't see many yuppie coke-heads spread-eagled over their Porsches by the police.

Crack is derived from cocaine by removing the hydrochloride salt. This makes it possible to vaporize, hence smoke it. Smoking it gets you higher, quicker. Thus it is more addictive than ordinary cocaine. However, a survey in Miami revealed two thirds of teenage crack users using it less than once a day (British Medical Journal 5 August 1989).

Crack related deaths in the USA are caused by shoot-outs in the competition for the money to be made, a result of the drug's illegality. Unlike legal business, which is controlled by the law, the illegal part of the capitalist economy is regulated by murder, just as it was during the Prohibition of alcohol. The dealers are organized in gangs in order to defend their slice of the market. Because coke dealing is so lucrative, it is tempting for the children of respectable working class and even middle class black people to get involved. Youth involvement in the business has produced a phenomenal mortality rate. A black male in Washington DC stands a 1 in 10 chance of being shot dead before his 35th birthday.

The war on drugs has nothing to with the dangers of the drugs themselves. The most intelligent capitalists agree with the Economist that most illicit drugs are relatively harmless and that their legalization is the only rational solution. The fact that rationality is not the issue is proven by the proposed death penalty for smuggling a boat load of grass, and the massive raids on marijuana growers in Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties in Northern California in 1989 and 1990 by the Army and National Guard. These raids were not carried out because the ruling class don't know that marijuana is harmless, but to accustom people to helicopter gunships flying over their houses, the army sealing off large areas, and troops terrorizing schoolchildren with automatic weapons.

The drugs war is also an attempt to mobilize good citizens in support of the police. It could not achieve this objective without the collaboration of community activists, social workers and priests. After years of vicious cuts in all forms of social services the only sources of funding left to "community leaders" and similar parasites are those related to the drugs war. They are now in a position to provide a service which the state is more than willing to pay for.

A major ideological aim of the drugs war is to blame crack (rather than job losses and welfare cuts) for the dramatic decline in incomes and general quality of life in the inner cities over the last decade. This is made easier by the fact that, unlike in the suburbs, crack use in the ghettoes is a very visible phenomenon. Many destitute street people do turn to crack for solace and do become addicted. Because they run out of money it is very common for them to go through withdrawal which involves manic behaviour. Since they are constantly on the streets the craziness of easily labelled "crack heads" makes them walking advertisements for the war on drugs.

It is not just the urban "underclass" who are feeling the iron-heeled jackboot on their necks. There is also a campaign against lazy workers in the form of more and more widespread compulsory drug testing in work places. Some companies are even insisting on testing a urine sample before considering someone for employment. The technology used is very sensitive - if you smoke a joint at a party you could test positive two weeks later.


The war on drugs has massively overloaded the US prison system, which now has by far the highest per capita detention rate in the world. The American gulag boasts 426 prisoners per 100,000 head of population, against South Africa's 333, the Soviet Union's 268, and Britain's 97 (London Guardian, 19 June 91). The prison population is growing at 13% per annum necessitating a vast prison building program. A system of parole and probation exists whereby a prisoner can be under judicial control for up to 10 years after release. This allows a prisoner to be permanently circulated through the system on the slightest pretext. A black man in America is four times more likely to be in prison than a non-white South African man. One in four black men in their twenties is in prison, on parole or probation. The number of black Americans arrested for drug offences increased even more rapidly than the general arrest rate, which grew every year from 1980.

In 1967-68, tanks had to be used to quell inner-city riots. Since then, all kinds of techniques have been used to split, demoralize and destroy these communities. But racism, impoverishment and heroin have not completely defeated the urban proletariat, as was shown in May when black and Latino youths joined forces in Washington to attack the police and loot shops for three days running, jogging memories of 1968, when machine guns were ready on the White House lawn to protect the President from the proletariat. Hence the anti-drugs campaign. Its aim is to get people used to military policing which at the end of the day is the guarantor of the survival of the state.


So far, the drugs war is much more intense and successful in the US than in the rest of the world. Surveillance with video cameras, and a wide proliferation of different kinds of police and security guards, are widely tolerated. Notices about "drug-free zones" don't get ripped down. A lot of Americans agree to drug-testing by employers; this means agreeing that your employer has the right to determine what you do while you are not being paid.

The bourgeoisie will try to build on their success. Recently the start of a "people's war on drugs" was announced in China and in the Russian Empire perestroika has made traditional cannabis growing a target of persecution. The maintenance of internal borders in the EC is justified by "terrorism and drugs".

These campaigns are waged by our usual enemies: the media, the police and politicians. We should recognise them for what they are - not some kind of misguided health education but, like all moral panics, attacks on our class. Next time someone tries to sell you a newspaper with a story about Satanic drug peddlers, just say no.