Editor’s Note: Today’s post is the first in a three-part series on “Teaching the Drug War” that will run throughout this month and into January 2021. It comes from Sarah Baranauskas, who works at the University of Colorado Boulder and lives in Lyons, Colorado. You can follow her on Twitter @sandequation or check out the podcast she co-hosts What the Folk Pod.
There’s a famous quote from former Nixon administration advisor John Erhlichman that serves as a stark illustration of how a major aspect of the U.S. “war on drugs” has been a war on information. As he was quoted in Dan Baum’s 2016 piece in Harper’s:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” [emphasis added]
As misinformation (and outright propaganda) have been features of the drug war from day one, as well as the suppression of research resulting from prohibition, I see clear intersections between my work as an academic librarian and as an advocate for drug policy reform. For starters, two of the major ethical foundations of my profession are intellectual freedom and access to information. These ethics inform all aspects of librarianship, from front-line circulation services to collection development. In my role providing undergraduate information literacy instruction, which includes supporting classes that study drug policy and the therapeutic or medicinal applications of psychoactive substances, I see opportunities not only to uphold these professional ethics, but also to provide pedagogical resistance to the (mis)information tactics of the drug war.