Justice  /  Book Review

The Suburbs Made the War on Drugs in Their Own Image

Matthew Lassiter’s history plays out in ranch houses, high school parking lots, and courtrooms from Shaker Heights to Westchester to Orange County.

Rather than aiming to limit the harmful effects of the most addictive and potential deadly substances, Lassiter proposes, the war on drugs focused relentlessly on protecting white youth from the fictional perils of cannabis. That many of these drug warriors were sincere in their beliefs hardly matters, for these campaigns didn’t curtail drug use. Instead, they functioned first and foremost to give white suburban voters a sense of security, and to lay blame for a range of social dysfunction on outsiders and urban communities of color. And so, in order to understand the twisted logic and resultant failures of these policies, he argues, we have to look at the aspirations and anxieties of America’s white suburbs.

Although the term “war on drugs” dates to the Nixon era, America’s drug war has a long prehistory. An important precedent was the criminalization of alcohol from 1920 to 1933. Like the war on drugs, Prohibition began with local and state legislation and reformers who saw alcohol abuse as a working-class moral failing. As in later political campaigns to pass harsh drug laws, Prohibition was linked to middle-class women establishing their own political authority, both in the pre- and post-suffrage eras. And as in later policing, enforcement was uneven and corrupt. Poorly trained agents of the newly created Bureau of Prohibition established an important pattern, turning a blind eye toward middle-class and wealthy consumers, who drank in their homes and in private clubs, while conducting often lethal raids against rural moonshiners and storefront dealers.

Even as Prohibition failed, President Herbert Hoover stubbornly applied the same approach to the trade in narcotics, which soon became a robust source of income for organized crime, as bootlegging had been. In June 1930, Hoover appointed former railroad detective and Prohibition agent Harry Anslinger commissioner of a new Federal Bureau of Narcotics. This as yet feeble government agency became the foundation for what we know today as the Drug Enforcement Administration, and operated on the same principle as Prohibition. It controlled and criminalized narcotics and marijuana by requiring federal tax stamps on imports and sales. In other words, drugs themselves were not illegal or even more than loosely controlled in the United States, until much later.