New Book Offers Comprehensive History of the War on Drugs

Many people think that the war on drugs, as we know it today, started with Ronald Regan in the early 1980’s; however, the enforcement-first approach to dealing with substance abuse and addiction goes back almost 90 years. A new book explains the slow-acting genesis of the war on drugs and the cultural elements that led to its ultimate proliferation. Assassin of Youth: A Kaleidoscopic History of Harry J. Anslinger’s War on Drugs is the latest book by Alexandra Chasin, associate professor of literary studies at the New School in New York City discussing, among other things, the man who fired the first shot in the war on drugs.

Chasin tells the story of Harry Anslinger, the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger stayed with the bureau from its establishment in 1930 until his retirement in 1962. She connects how Anslinger’s policies shaped how we think about drugs today. Many speculate that Anslinger’s policies and perceptions directly influenced the emergence of the stigma of addiction as a moral failing rather than a medical disease, a stigma that has spilled over into real-life policy that endures today. This perception has become an increasingly urgent issue as more and more of our friends and family members have fallen victim to opioid crisis consuming the United States.

Only recently has the pendulum begun to swing in a more compassionate direction. More and more people are realizing that prisons are overcrowded with non-violent drug offenders who often face lengthy prison terms for simple possession charges, rather than getting the treatment they need to rebuild their lives and their relationships with their families. More than 20 percent of inmates are currently locked up on drug charges. Many of these are non-violent offenders who were booked for possession. In their quest to curb addiction through force, the United States has established an unfortunate legacy of criminalizing sickness.

The future of addiction care remains unclear. The current attorney general has made little secret of his plans to take a comparatively harder-line stance on drug addiction than his predecessor. Many experts are forecasting a return to the traditional war on drugs that continues to cost the country over $1 trillion over its tenure. While the criminal prosecution of dealers is an essential component of national drug prevention, this approach must be combined with increased treatment access to have lasting success and help patients overcome chemical dependency.