Image via Wikimedia Commons user Pato Garzo
As usual, on this Halloween drug users will be ruining everything for everyone. Police in Colorado, where cannabis is now legal, have released a video warning parents that idiotic weed fiends might put cannabis-laced gummy bears into children's trick-or-treat bags. They advise parents to sift through all their kids’ Halloween candy and to discard any that look sketchy.
The video acts as both a fresh spin on the razor-blade-in-the-apple urban myth and a neat way for police and the media to cast stoners as potential child poisoners. The story’s gone global, but this isn’t the first time police in the US have issued warnings about the possibility of people dishing out cannabis-spiked sweets at Halloween. (Appropriately, it’s a seasonal scare story.) Yet apart from the time a Californian dentist handed out candy-coated laxative pills to trick-or-treaters in 1959, there are no documented cases of kids being handed drugs disguised as treats at Halloween.
Unless you live in Oldham, England, that is. On Halloween night in 2012, Donald Junior Green horrified himself after he failed to give a group of young trick-or-treaters the contents of his left pocket (small bags of candy) and instead dropped into their upturned witches' hat the contents of his right pocket (small bags of cocaine). When he shut the door and realized his mistake, he leaped into the night to try to find the kids, but to no avail. The children got home and handed over the strange powder to their dad, who happened to be a police officer, and Green was found guilty of possession.
Fortunately, for the curtain-twitchers of the world, the lack of true stories about "child-catcher" types giving kids drugged candy is more than compensated for by the made-up ones. The classic of the genre is the blue-star-tattoo myth.
Between the 1980s and mid 2000s, a memo in the form of a flyer, and later an email, was widely circulated in the UK and US warning parents about lick-and-stick kids' tattoos soaked in LSD. The memo said that the tattoos—of a blue star or Mickey Mouse—were being handed out at school gates by dealers hoping to get kids "hooked" on acid.
Even though the story has been debunked more times than a 9/11 conspiracy theory, hundreds of police departments, community groups, and publications around the world issued the bullshit warnings. Eventually, the scare story was traced to a flyer distributed way back in 1980 by confused members of a Seventh Day Adventist church community in New Jersey, who misunderstood a police report on LSD blotter images.
After the blue-star-tattoo myth came the one about "Strawberry Quik meth." In 2007, a warning began to spread about pink, strawberry-scented crystal meth that was apparently being sold to kids as popping candy by dealers eager to corner the middle school market. Health services, youth groups, local papers and schools were all shocked into circulating the email about Strawberry Quik. Oxfordshire police alerted 80 schools. But the story was a myth. Even so, the panic that ensued in the US led senators to draw up a new bill, the Saving Kids from Dangerous Drugs Act, which would have jail sentences for people caught making or selling drugs designed to look like sweets (it died in committee).
British journalists had always been desperate to find the school-gate drug peddler. Fewer have actually managed to do it. In 2003, under the headline "On Sale at School Gates: Kiddie Coke at 50p a Go," the People newspaper revealed in a series of snaps how “a surly 19-year-old dressed in ripped jeans and a leather jacket” was “cynically targeting youngsters with pills.” But it turned out that the "dealer" in the pictures was in fact the teenage son of the newspaper’s photographer who had been press-ganged into posing for the story by his dad. The scam was exposed by the boy’s angry mother, who called the paper to complain. Unsurprisingly, the two hacks involved were fired.
Turning swarthy druggies into predators driven not by money but by a dark desire to ensnare rosy-cheeked innocents is an easy plotline to follow for newspapers, because it’s always been the story. A century ago the alleged corruptors were Chinamen, Negroes, and Mexicans. Things haven’t changed much. From crack-addicted squirrels and dealers putting brick dust in heroin, to cannabis being as addictive as heroin, to meth-fuelled cannibals, drug-scare stories have helped sell newspapers around the world for decades.
American sociologists Craig Reinarman and Ceres Duskin looked into this phenomenon and concluded that lurid tales of evil drug-world denizens were what people wanted to believe. What is more, they conveniently camouflaged the root cause of the drug problem: inequality.
In 1981, "Jimmy’s World", a hard-hitting Washington Post investigation into parents injecting their kids with heroin in rundown housing projects, won a Pulitzer Prize. Then it was found to be a pack of lies. The fantasy sailed past Bob Woodward and the other Pulitzer judges because, say Reinarman and Duskin, “They were rendered incapable of differentiating the truth from the myths and scare stories that had been built around the drug trade—by the media."
The classic Brass Eye "cake" sketch
The satirist Chris Morris proved the UK is equally stupid in 1997, when he persuaded public figures and politicians to get involved in a campaign against his ridiculous made-up drug, "cake." Despite its absurd street names ("Joss Ackland’s spunky backpack," "chronic Basildon doughnut"), these people believed every word because they were blinded by their own ignorance. “Cake stimulates the part of the brain called Shatner's bassoon,” Noel Edmonds told the camera. “A second feels like a month. It almost sounds like fun—unless you're the Prague schoolboy who walked out into the street straight in front of a tram. He thought he'd got a month to cross the street.”
Coincidentally, those papers with the most scare stories about vampiric dealers eager to corrupt little innocents are also the ones with the oldest readerships. And while this means they also tend to have the largest political clout, the mainstream media has surrendered its mandate to talk to young people about drugs.
In my personal experience, the internet and the changing face of drug use mean young people have the knowledge to call bullshit on tabloid hype. They know that ecstasy and cocaine aren't as dangerous as heroin, that one puff of weed won't turn you insane, and that drug dealers aren't necessarily evil. As such, these kinds of stories will likely soon die out—which, in one sense, is a bit of a shame, as many of them are hilarious.
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