Social Construction of Drug Problems

Part 2. The "Killer Drug" and the "Coke Plague"

The Killer Drug, Marihuana

The following poster, which was distributed shortly after the passage of the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, illustrates a variety of claims about this "killer drug." Most notably, the definition of marihuana as a "powerful narcotic" and the image of "dope peddlers" preying on unsuspecting victims are directly inspired by earlier claimsmaking about opiate drugs and cocaine. Interestingly, the organization that attempted to profit from this poster was put out of business by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics because their fear tactics "were beginning to alarm the citizens of Chicago" (David F. Musto, The American Disease, 1999, p. 228).

A Coke Plague

A more recent and sophisticated example of the construction of a drug problem--a graph of a growing "Coke Plague"--is shown below. This visual image was constructed by a graphic artist, Christoph Blumrich, for an article featured on the cover of the March 17, 1986 issue of Newsweek, "Kids and Cocaine: An Epidemic Strikes Middle America." The text that appeared next to this graph made the following claim:

There is simply no question that cocaine in all its forms is seeping into the nation's schools. An annual survey conducted by the Institute of Social Research at the University of Michigan shows the percentage of high-school seniors who have ever tried cocaine has nearly doubled in the past 10 years, from 9 percent to 17.3 percent (p. 63).

A Reconstruction of the Plague

The following series of diagrams traces the steps in Blumrich's construction of a graphic epidemic from data that showed little actual change in the prevalence of cocaine use among high school seniors from 1980 to 1985. These figures and other examples of claimsmaking about the cocaine crisis of 1986 appear in Orcutt and Turner (1993).

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