Fall is in full swing, and Halloween is on the horizon, along with the urban legends that surround it. One particular legend or myth that often circulates is that children’s Halloween candy needs to be checked because addicts will allegedly hand out drugs disguised as candy to naive trick-or-treaters. Apparently, this is a tactic to get the child addicted or sent to the hospital. This is, of course, wildly inaccurate, and not based in reality in any sense of the word. However, if that’s the case, where did this story come from?
The answer is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the war on drugs. Conceptualized and launched by the Nixon administration, it quickly became a global effort that sought to discourage the creation, distribution, and consumption of illegal drugs. While it sounds harmless, the tactics and darker motivations of this war were devastating for hundreds of thousands of Americans.
Instead of offering support systems for those suffering from drug addictions or considering the legalization of relatively harmless substances like marijuana, the Nixon administration opted for harsher punishments for those caught with illegal substances. The war on drugs, as a result, inspired mass incarceration of offenders and longer prison sentences. Specific areas and populations, such as those living in lower-income communities, were mercilessly targeted by the resident police force. This targeting especially was a crippling force for those of lower socioeconomic standing, whose family members and friends were jailed for an exuberant amount of time for allegedly having a small amount of a controlled substance on them. The long-term destruction of families was one inevitable result of this war on drugs. Not only that, but with these long sentences came spots on their record that could hinder employment opportunities and increase the possibility of a longer sentence should they have any future offenses.
Today, over 350,000 people are incarcerated for drug possession and drug-related convictions. That is 1 out of every 5 people incarcerated. As such, this war wasn’t on drugs, but on drug addicts. Jail time was chosen over rehabilitation, the federal prison system was swamped with hundreds of thousands of more people.
This war was not even waged with good intentions, as we will see. John Ehrlichman, who worked closely with Nixon, said that Nixon utilized the war on drugs to inadvertently criminalize black and hippie communities. Ehrlichman is famous for saying, “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.” Perhaps the most important thing is that the war on drugs did not work. The Leadership Conference Educational Fund said that the war was a failure and should be replaced by decriminalization strategies grounded in science, health, security, and human rights.
Back when the war on drugs was popular, however, and was believed to be a more positive influence, the idea of contaminated being handed out to children during Halloween evolved. Termed Halloween sadism, this phenomenon has been studied in-depth since the mid 1970s. Joel Best, a professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware, searched for incidents relating to contaminated Halloween treats and was unable to find a report of “a child being killed or seriously injured by a contaminated treat picked up in the course of trick-or-treating.” Out of the few stories about a contaminated treat he has been able to find, it was either a hoax or the treat was found before the child had consumed it, avoiding any physical harm. Best calls Halloween sadism a contemporary legend, which means that it is told as true even if there is no/little evidence that the story actually happened.
Fears of contaminated Halloween candy, like any contemporary legend, spring from social conditions. For example, if the general public feels unsafe after a national incident, such as the terrorist attack of 9/11, they will want to express their feelings of unsafety and unrest in a tangentially related anxiety, such as through Halloween candy. If the general public feels unsafe, they will start looking for ways to express their anxieties in other ways. Halloween candy just became an unlikely victim of these societal anxieties.
Though Nixon himself did not perpetuate this myth, his contribution to the cultural circumstances that birthed this idea should not be discounted. The heightened public awareness of drugs that Nixon created was one of the conditions that allowed Halloween sadism to take such a deep root in the American consciousness. As a result, the myth lends itself to the ultimate goal of the Nixon administration: to vilify drug addicts and treat them as a threat to the innocent children of America.
Fortified by every national incident and security matter, the myth lives on today as evidenced by a 2011 Harris Interactive poll. It found that, of parents of children 12 and under, 24% had concerns about poisoned treats. However, now that we have explored the origins and cultural context surrounding the creation of this myth, we know that contaminated treats are only a boogeyman just like all the other ones walking around on All Hallows’ Eve. So this Halloween, feel free to eat your candy in peace.
By: Lucian Van Fleet
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