Books for the News, Commentary, History

Alexandra Chasin on the history of the drug war

Below follows an excerpt from “Our Aggressive ‘War on Drugs’ Is Not Actually about Drugs,” by Alexandra Chasin, author of Assassin of Youth: A Kaleidoscopic History of Harry J. Anslinger’s War on Drugs, at Alternet.


Trump inherits a very old war on drugs in the United States, one with prisons almost as overpopulated as Duterte’s detention centers, where the “insanity” of the “purely repressive approach,” “counterproductive and cruel,” is the law and practice of the land. This war on drugs goes back before Nixon’s famous declaration and the Rockefeller Drug Laws of the 1970s.  Our national commitment to drug prohibition goes back almost as far as our commitment to alcohol prohibition, a thirteen-year disaster that dramatized all the perils of a strategy of suppression but somehow did not persuade us not to use the same one with narcotics.  With the installation of Harry J. Anslinger as Commissioner of the newly established Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930, the federal government began a campaign of drug prohibition which, during his three decades in office, in making into federal law.

So why, if it only took us thirteen years to prove that alcohol prohibition was both costly and ineffective, have we failed to question the warrant for a strategy that has failed for over seventy years and counting?

We maintain a drug prohibitionist policy and law in the United States because there is a socially desirable result, although reduction of drug traffic and use is not that result.  It is precisely because of the efficiency of racist and classist enforcement and administration of drug laws in effectively disenfranchising and disadvantaging huge cohorts of young African American and Latino men, those convicted of minor nonviolent drug offenses.  The damage to these men – and women are also affected, of course – and their communities is extensive; their disenfranchisement hurts everyone, or again, serves a regressive social agenda.


To read more about Assassin of Youth, click here.