Karl Marx is credited with observing that, “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” It is hard not to remember this insight when reading the brilliant Addicts Who Survived two decades after its initial publication. After all, the year the book was published, 1989, was the same year Bush Sr. announced that the $2400 bag of crack he had in his hand was purchased (gasp!) directly across from the White House. Of course, the dealer – a high school student – had been lured to that spot by DEA agents in order to produce the theatrical prop. In the years preceding this stunt, crack had entered the public consciousness as it burned through poor inner city communities. The government had responded by setting mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and creating a legal disparity between crack and cocaine that led to imprisonment of the most vulnerable and stigmatized drug users. Meanwhile, HIV/AIDS rates were ballooning exponentially, and injection drug use was increasingly the mode of transmission. The most popular response to the problems associated with drug use and addiction was Nancy Reagan’s 1984 campaign to “Just Say No.” Her husband remained silent on the subject of AIDS until 1985, when he expressed skepticism about allowing HIV-positive children to attend school. Although early forms of harm reduction were emerging in the UK and junkies were unionizing in the Netherlands, the movement did not take significant form in the US until the mid- to late-1980s.
So when I bring Marx’s quote to mind, it is with the painful recognition that every farce is still a tragedy.