Drug Abuse and the Concept of Moral Panic


Drug Abuse and the Concept of Moral Panic

The concept of moral panic regards the spreading of fear among people suggesting that some evil actions threaten society’s wellbeing. According to Chagnon (2010), social constructionists’ notion holds that the manifestation of social problems does not occur on its own but emerges as social issues due to agents acting on their own interests bringing them to public attention. As a result, the media has emerged to be a prevalent source of information in society. While it has significant benefits in spreading news, Rodgers (2011) refutes that it can also become a channel for misinformation, opinions, and propaganda. As one of the major dominant subjects in media is drug abuse, media representation does not accurately reveal reality when it comes to social problems. Subsequently, the media present insights and exaggerations that the public develop moral panic concerning drug abuse and the related outcomes. Hence, to understand the moral panic theory, it is imperative to look at the two dominating models; Cohen’s model and the model by Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda.

In Cohen’s model, it is asserted that three main stages are involved in moral panic; exaggerated and twisted assertions, the forecast of terrible results if action is not taken, and the symbolization of problems (Messick & Aranda, 2020). On the other hand, the model by Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda provides five major traits of moral panic; increased concern about certain groups, hostility against the out-groups, a consensus about the graveness of the perceived threat, disproportionality where congressional speakers’ thoughts are composed of what “should” be instead of what actually is, and volatility that explains the temporality/seasonality of this panic (Messick & Aranda, 2020). These factors can show that the most highlighted issues explaining society’s excessive concern over drug abuse and the increasing implementation of stringent policies are products of moral panic. Thus, this essay will argue that although media entities aim to promote society’s goodness, there are times when these intentions translate to the moral panic that originates from exaggerated and misinformed notions about societal issues. This translation is evident through the media’s depiction of the existing connection between drug abuse.

Media has so often spread the message or, instead, the notion that people should always be afraid when a new drug comes around. According to Goode and Ben-Yehuda (2009), “A substantial number of media stories on drug abuse throughout the period during which a specific substance attracts sensationalistic coverage contain a single message: “Be afraid – be very afraid” (p.217). Thus, based on this understanding, it is understandable why society would be so fearful of drugs, even when this fear is unjustified or inflated than it should be. The media has so often exaggerated the harmful impacts of drugs, created negative notions about their users and the community from which they hail, and, collectively, created unpragmatic stories about drugs and all associated factors. Thus, it is easy to see why most communities perceive certain drugs as malice to the societies that deserve stringent action from the community members and the authorities. Examples of such instances when drugs were associated with social evils and unrealistic harms was through the 1930s, 191960s, 1970s, and the 1980s when drugs such as marijuana, LSD, PCP, and crack cocaine, ecstasy, and methamphetamine respectively caused a moral panic throughout America due to the exacerbated impacts of these drugs by the media (Goode & Yehuda, 2009). Hence, the media enhances moral panic by misrepresenting information and statistics of drug abuse and related crimes, domestic violence, dependence on non-familial support systems for survival, increased unproductivity and unemployment, as well as homelessness.  

Drug Abuse and Crime

As the use and abuse of drugs have a significant effect on people’s health, economic and social wellbeing, the intensified media representation of the resultant crimes and their nature leads to the perception that community members have a higher likelihood of becoming victims. Mass media creates and perpetuates moral panic through the excessive use of melodramatic vocabularies and exaggerated headlines when presenting news on drug abuse and its association with crime. While it plays an integral role in constructing the reality of crime for the public, the depiction of drug abuse and crime are frequently distorted. Kenny (2019) suggests that many individuals do not perceive social problems as troublesome and harmful until they receive media exposure. Accordingly, the public’s understanding concerning an issue is significantly influenced by their involvement in the media’s selective portrayal of drug and substance abuse. Baumgaertner et al. (2018) argue that while heroin does not cause some users to develop aggressive and violent behaviors, the media often depicts heroin users as more aggressive than any other illicit drug user. Also, the media and society perceive that heroin use causes significant problems in mental health. While it is extraordinary circumstances and events that help capture public attention, the media’s display of these crimes to inform the public leads to the development of personal attitudes and stress. As a result, such reports from the media can influence community members and shape their perceptions of heroin use prevalence. Thus, the members can inaccurately believe that they are vulnerable to becoming victims of drug abuse-related crimes. Undeniably, the media’s influence on individuals’ perceptions causes fear of crime and creates moral panic that is disproportionate to the actual victimization levels.

Besides, the media’s explanations involving drug abuse often entail sensational representation that promotes signal crimes and ascribes blame to moral shortcomings and personal abnormality of drug addicts. Media always comprehends that illicit drug users form prominent examples of criminals associated with horrific crimes, thus using them to gain attention and mobilize the public. Walsh (2020) suggests that moral panics are directed by activists in media who expand the generation of sufficient concerns and panic pathways. Correspondingly, Goode, and Yehuda (2009) support Walsh by asserting that “the press handled the seaside events with exaggerated attention, inflating incidents, distorting accounts and stereotyping characters and behavior.” As news concerning crime includes disseminating myths about drug abuse offenders and victims, most news coverages use sensational crimes to characterize drug abuse crimes and support them with unrelated figures and information presented in a distorted manner (Chagnon, 2010). For instance, a news story covering crime may provide a comprehensive account of shocking murder committed by an illicit drug abuser and then describe statistics that advocate how violent crimes committed by drug users are rising. Whereas such information may be correct, it suggests that drug users’ rate of committing horrific crimes is rising.

The statistics also indicate that the horrific crimes included in the coverage represent a broader range of crimes comprising many that are unacceptable than murder. This disparity between the actual occurrence rate of crimes and the coverage results in the media reporting crimes associated with drug abusers with a higher frequency, thus causing drug users to gain more crime attention than other offenders. Subsequently, the media helps in constructing stereotypes related to certain groups of people. As Rodgers (2011) discusses, labeling can affect the behavior of people who become discriminative against drug abusers and avoid certain areas. Consequently, community members develop moral panic due to anxiety and fear of physical harm that is prompted by the perception of crime occurrence when encountered with drug abusers.  

Drug Abuse and Increased Violence

Although moral panic establishes that social problems quickly result in the formation of crimes, moral panic over violence reinforces criminal perception bias prevalent in stereotypes, especially the general understanding that drug abusers constitute a dangerous group. Compounded by the insightful news coverage on violence and other conventional forms of disorder associated with drug abusers, a minority of drug abuse addicts remain a threat to the public over impending violent actions. Drug abuse and violence draw a greater attention volume of the media, providing provable evidence concerning the emergence and increase of social threats from drug addicts. While Goode and Yehuda (2009) establish that the concern of a social problem, for instance, drug abuse, should be verified in concrete ways that are “through public opinion polls, public commentary in the form of media attention, proposed legislation, number of arrests and imprisonments, and social movement activity,” there exists a prevalent belief that drug abuse forms the leading cause of increased violence. However, social institutions, mainly the media, create moral panic by directing significant consideration to violence and presenting it as a threat to the public.

The media contributes to setting the perception that the rate of violence increases, causing an accumulation of public fear toward becoming victims of violence initiated by drug abusers. Moral panic emerges from a prominent stereotypical figure in the society where hostility is developed towards people who are mistrusted and disliked. While drug abuse and increased violence contribute to the reproduction of criminal activities, it also results in intense anxiety because of the media labeling the cause of drug abusers. Since the media has a way of conveying the source of violence and determines drug abusers as the perpetrators, the public does not need to consider other information because it already knows the people involved in creating violence and crimes. Therefore, society may perceive drug abusers as dangerous than they potentially are because of the media contributing to their anxiety by broadcasting exaggerated claims concerning violence and the offenders.

Furthermore, moral panic concerning violence has significantly increased due to the media distorting reality concerning the occurrence of domestic violence. These inaccuracies present drug abusers as the major offenders to blame for increased domestic violence. According to Chagnon (2010), local news coverages tend to portray the risk of domestic violence as more robust than it might be in reality. In contrast to reality, drug addicts are displayed as domestic violence offenders, more than sober people in the news. This theme of misrepresentation increases misguided concerns over domestic violence when it comes to creating relationships and even families with addicted individuals. While drug abuse can result in domestic violence victimization, sober people also tend to commit violence against their partners, for instance, during marital and financial misunderstandings. As a result, the distortions represented in the media can increase moral panic in society, in which mostly it is the offenders from poor backgrounds portrayed. The disproportionate news of domestic violence that inadequately reveals coverage concerning high social class people results in the diversion of society’s attention to consider the rich as people who do not abuse drugs and commit domestic violence. This perception causes most people to fear drug addicts and poor people because of viewing them as potential perpetrators.

Increased Dependence on Non-Familial Support Systems

The media has increased the fear of some drugs and consequently raised the social concerns and actions towards the drugs in question by highlighting that drugs increase dependence on non-familial support systems for survival. By non-familial support systems, what is meant is that the media makes it seem that using certain drugs results in the loss of any support from the family or the community, both of which are important factors to consider in the survival of any person. In this case, moral entrepreneurs such as politicians, the media, and the general public get excessively involved in protecting societal values and, in this case, the value of family in the sustenance of a person. By emphasizing the importance of family and its erosion by drug and substance abuse, people would inevitably attempt to mitigate the use of these substances as much as possible. Herein, the concept of “folk devils” is significant in explaining society’s reaction towards some drugs. Drug users are usually characterized as “folk devils,” cast and cut away from all familial and community support. Such categorizations create fear of even using these drugs, seeing that these “folk-devils” are usually portrayed as miserable and suffering compared to the rest of society.

The impact categorizations have undoubtedly been negative to these “out-groups”, mainly because these drugs’ originators are linked to criminal ties. Laguna’s (2018) work is important since it highlights the common beliefs associated with drug and substance abuse. According to Laguna (2018), the out-groups associated with MDMA rely on support from promoters who would do anything to keep users within this cycle for the sake of profits. The lack of non-familial supporters has resulted in the exposure of these “folk devils” to the mercies of promoters who do not care about the interests of these groups. Some congressional speakers have exemplified how an out-group such as MDMA users have been denied access to water in rave parties by promoters to keep them dehydrated and, thus, in need of such substances. Such are the claims brought forth by congressional speakers and the media, who attempt to highlight the dangers of belonging to the “out-group,” far away from familial or communal support that, according to them, typically looks out for the interests of all people. However, such claims are ridiculous, unevidenced, and unpragmatic. Nevertheless, the media and other moral entrepreneurs have succeeded, in some cases, in convincing the public that such issues are commonplace, thereby increasing the fear and anger among some people. Consequently, policies and practices have been sought to mitigate the use of these drugs.

Increased Unproductivity and Unemployment

Another way drugs have been demonized more than they should be through the linkage of their use to increased unproductivity and unemployment. Though it is somewhat true that drugs result in decreased productivity and increased unemployment, this is not always the case. In 1995, for example, a report by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crimes posited that increased unemployment and underemployment is common among young people and is often linked to increased drug and substance abuse (UNODC, 1995). According to this report, prior research indicated that the prevalence of drug abuse was too high, seeing that in a study of 468 young adults, 31% of them admitted to being under the influence of drugs at the immediate time of the study (UNODC, 1995). These findings have often been linked to the increased unemployment among the group, which explains why society is so much concerned about eradicating drugs. However, it is worth noting that the aim here is not to discredit or disprove the prevalence of drug abuse nor portray it as a positive thing. Instead, the objective involves showing that such findings have often been misinterpreted and misused by the entrepreneurs of morals to justify their reasons for such stringent claims and actions against drug abuse.

By portraying how drugs increase unemployment among people, the media, politicians, and the public have created a negative mindset concerning drug abusers, especially by presenting them as over dependent and over-reliant. In some cases, the media has portrayed drug users as ineffective members of society who drag the economy. Worse still, underemployment and unemployment among the “folk devils” have been blamed on them and not on the community. Some congressional speakers claim that this group is personally and individually responsible for the unproductivity and unemployment associated with them. Rather than seeing unemployment and unproductivity as a social issue, they perceive it as an individual issue, which explains why so many policies have been developed to attack drug users rather than attack the societal causes for their drug use. This claim is exemplified by the United States’ drug policies that had led to increased incarceration of drug users until recently, when society began seeing the faults in its reasoning and unjust fear of drug users. Indeed, positive progress has been noted, seeing that rehabilitative measures are presently underway to help drug users instead of casting them away (UNODC, 2003). Among these actions is the attempt to develop specific employment programs to aid drug users. However, some people remain uninformed and misinformed about the unemployment situation among drug users despite these actions. Some still have negative ideas about this group, thus inciting fear and the need to exclude this group from the rest. Such worries and views are exemplified by the emphasis on the incarceration of drug users to seclude them from the rest of the population due to fear associated with his group.


Homelessness is yet another issue that has been inflated due to moral panic. Moral entrepreneurs such as the media often portray drug users as poor and homeless, although it is true; sometimes not entirely accurate in others. Based on Cohen’s model, moral panic is achieved concerning drug abuse by exaggerating the state of homelessness of drug users. The second criterion is met in that media portrays the consequences of drug abuse as homelessness, which is harmful in all societies as it is linked to poverty and helplessness. The third criterion of Cohen’s model is fulfilled in connection to drug abuse and homelessness. This issue has been symbolized as poverty and helplessness. Drug abuse is also linked to moral panic because, based on the model by Goode and Ben-Yehuda, a consensus has been reached that homelessness is s a severe issue of society and deserves to be eradicated. Also, in terms of what should be, the community believes that everyone should afford a home. This requirement is not linked to most drug users, seeing that moral entrepreneurs associate homelessness with a majority of this group.


To sum up, exaggeration and misrepresentation of information can result in the development and prevalence of moral panic among society members. This panic results from the media’s potential to portray the significant association between drug abuse and crime commitment, increased domestic violence, increased dependence on non-familial support systems for survival, increased unproductivity and unemployment, and the manifestation of homelessness amongst drug abusers. As portrayed through the misinterpretation of drug abuse and its effects, moral panic impacts how actions and policies are developed and implemented. The media identifies drug addicts as more aggressive and horrific offenders who commit crimes that reach beyond unacceptable levels. By providing statistics that do not seem to occur in reality, drug addicts get the label of heightening crime rates. Additionally, it is evident the media stereotypes drug addicts as dangerous people who threaten the safety of the public through violence. Indeed, actions emanating from moral panic are unfair to the out-groups such as drug users, seeing that they are considered the problem even in the presence of underlying sociocultural issues contributing to their situations. Using the models developed by Cohen and Goode and Ben-Yehuda, it has been proven herein that multiple faults exist in historical and contemporary definitions of drug abuse and its consequences. While these faults exist, it can be recommended that future policies focus on solving the sociocultural and external issues contributing to drug use rather than attacking the drug users, who in this case are the victims and not the problem.


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