The story of criminal sanctions in modern America is a familiar-and depressing narrative. According to the narrative, we live in an era where the dynamics of popular politics, the practices of the media, and the (often racialized) anxieties of modern life combine to create a one-way ratchet, in which we identify perceived new threats to public order and respond unthinkingly with harsh new criminal sanctions. On the surface, the wave of concern over methamphetamine that swept the nation in the middle part of this decade followed this script, as a media panic led to substantial popular concern and significant new legislation. When one digs a little deeper, however, the story is more complicated: Instead of a singular focus on increased criminal penalties and mass incarceration, we see a multifaceted strategy focused on educating the public, limiting access to ingredients, and remediating environmental concerns raised by the manufacture of the drug. Why has public and legislative concern about a drug described in terms of natural disasters and communicable deadly diseases generated cold medication restrictions and educational programs rather than extensive new criminal law?
This article--the first comprehensive examination of our legal and cultural response to methamphetamine--asks and attempts to answer that question. After providing a succinct history of modern American drug policy, the article narrates the wave of coverage that sparked concern about a possible "Methademic" and then catalogs state and local responses to the alleged threat. It concludes by offering some informed speculation about the possible reasons for this surprisingly tepid response. After considering and rejecting or partially crediting a number of explanations most notably that the popular identification of methamphetamine as a "white drug" muted the expected hostility to its users, the article concludes that the public response to methamphetamine was, in fact, the first chapter in a new era of drug policy: the age of ambivalence.
Deborah Ahrens, Methademic: Drug Panic in an Age of Ambivalence, 37 FLA. ST. U. L. REV. 841 (2010).