“The Nation” on Drugs

The Nation on Drugs

Our special issue considers the casualties of the War on Drugs, as well as the unprecedented opportunities to make amends.


What did you do during the War on Drugs, Daddy?”—that question terrified many a boomer parent. Especially since, in my case at least, the truthful answer would have been: everything. If you could sniff it, smoke it, snort it, swallow it, or inject it, then I probably did. Having passed between the Scylla of addiction and the Charybdis of HIV/AIDS—losing friends to both—into respectability, I can admit that dumb luck, and white privilege, had a lot to do with my survival. Like Tavian Crosland, who found that dealing weed was his only shot at economic independence, I also sometimes sold drugs. Because even on a full scholarship and with a work-study job, I needed the money just to pay my bills in college. Thanks to Nelson Rockefeller’s punitive drug laws, getting caught back then could mean life in prison.

Of course, the front line of the drug war lay elsewhere. As Richard Nixon’s adviser John Ehrlichman later admitted, and as Zoe Cormier notes in this issue, the War on Drugs was aimed squarely at Black America and at the emerging counterculture. It also helped demonize Mexican immigrants and drew the US into decades of complicity with Latin American dictators and the death squads they relied on to remain in power. But as Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill (sponsored in the Senate by Joe Biden) demonstrated, the war—and the mass incarceration it led to—was always a bipartisan project.

This is why any real attempt to end the hostilities must begin with reparations—to the individuals and communities whose lives were maimed—and restitution. The coming consumer boom, previewed here by Aída Chávez, offers opportunities for treatment, recreation, and rehabilitation—plus the tax revenue to fund repair. But only if corporate greed can be restrained.

P.E. Moskowitz’s powerful cautionary tale offers a stark warning of what happens when Big Pharma’s capitalist incentives skew research and treatment, while Jessica Loudis illustrates why, when it comes to corruption, the illegal drug trade remains very much a Global North problem.

However, as Karen Polinger Foster, Diana Stein, and Sarah Kielt Costello vividly remind us, there has always been another way. Kali Holloway highlights the hidden Black history of psychedelics.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World of a passive populace too stoned on Soma to resist state control might not be our future. We are, writes Maia Szalavitz in this special issue’s introductory essay, in the midst of a sea change. Let’s make it a change for the better.

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