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This essay analyzes the cultural politics of a late-1970s Valium addiction scare in the context of other episodes of American drug hysteria. Since the days of "Demon Rum," antidrug campaigns in the U.S. typically associated drugs with marginal populations such as immigrants, nonwhites, or the urban poor. The "drug menace" helped dramatize the threat posed by such "dangerous classes" to "our" society, while mobilizing state police power to control it. The Valium panic was a different matter, involving a quintessentially middle-class drug prescribed legally by reputable physicians for their respectable patients, and popularly recognized as an entrenched part of life in the comfortable classes, especially for women. Its emergence signaled important but little-examined changes in American drug politics, and raised the prospect of a new kind of antidrug warrior.
Central to creating the Valium addiction scare were certain white, middle-class segments of the diverse "second-wave" feminist movement, who redeployed the powerful cultural tools of the drug war for their own agendas. They revised classic drug-scare narratives to sensationalize Valium addiction as a central symbol of sexism, and held up liberation from the "mother's little helper" as an archetypal story of self-emancipation through feminism. This was a remarkable campaign, earning new audiences for feminist political messages and challenging the punitive logic of the 20th century's "war against drugs." It was also, however, limited in important ways by the class and race dynamics of American drug politics. The stories about Valium addiction they constructed for popular consumption traded on assumptions of white, middle-class women's essential innocence in a way that excluded—and even reified—the "dangerous classes" as a different sort of drug user. And yet, their success in reworking the anti-drug tradition for their own ends challenges us to imagine exactly that: a "war against drugs" rebuilt as a civil rights campaign, challenging rather than reinforcing cultural stereotypes.