The War on Drugs: From Book to Website

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post is from Dr. David Farber, Roy A. Roberts Distinguished Professor of Modern U.S. History at the University of Kansas. He is the editor of the recently published, War on Drugs: A History (NYU Press, 2021).

Over the last 36-and-a-half years I have done what research-oriented history professors of my generation were supposed to do: I wrote books and published articles. What I did not do—until now—was produce a website. Defying the ageist canard about old dogs and new tricks—albeit admittedly in collaboration with my much younger colleagues Clark Terrill and Marjorie Galelli—I’m happy to report that the War on Drugs Project website is now live.

This pedagogically-oriented site—with resources for teachers, students, and readers—is a spin-off of the War on Drugs book that I worked on with an all-star cast of drug historians. The original plan, though, did not include a website. At the beginning, all I knew was that I wanted to have a bunch of drug historians come to the University of Kansas in April 2020 for a weekend conversation to see if we could collaborate and produce a book about the history of the war on drugs.

War on Drugs Project

The (overly) optimistic publication hook was the fiftieth anniversary of President Nixon’s June 1971 declaration of an “all-out offensive” against drugs—arguably the origin point of the most recent iteration of a US war on drugs. NYU Press history acquisitions editor Clara Platter agreed to give us an advance contract for the project, which helped me line up contributors.

Then came Covid. We canceled the in-person workshop, but, amidst the chaos and uncertainty of the early pandemic, we persevered and joined the ranks of Zoom. We met through the digital ether and pushed ahead. The roster shifted here and there, in part, as a result of Covid. Somehow, we pulled off the manuscript. Special kudos to those contributors who managed to find the time to write despite unexpected home-schooling responsibilities (hooray for Emily Dufton), as well as those with administrative responsibilities who knocked out manuscript pages even as they found themselves creating a virtual university on the fly (Dean Elaine Carey, I am thinking of you).

Really, hooray for everybody involved in the book project for stepping up amidst these trying times: James Bradford, Elaine Carey, Emily Dufton, Erika Dyck, Kathleen Frydl, David Herzberg, Peter Pihos, Michael Polson, Lucas Richert, Aileen Teague, and Alexis Turner.

War on Drugs Cover

The book is now available and, all modesty aside, it is a real showcase of modern drug war history and historiography. The introduction and eleven chapters are divided into five sections. The collection covers the background to the modern war on drugs; issues of supply and demand; the war’s domestic front; the war’s international front; and, in the concluding section, alternatives to “war.” We have not crafted an encyclopedia or textbook—but rather a series of essays.

These essays seek to historicize and make sense of America’s war on drugs—as well as to understand the civil war between illegal drug users and those who insisted Americans better “just say no” to drugs . . . or else.  The book will be useful, we hope, for our fellow scholars as a course book, par excellence. We also hope that it will be an instructive text for activists, policymakers, and the proverbial reading public.

As is said at the Jewish holiday of Passover: Dayenu—it would have been enough.  But as I worked my way through the molasses-like publishing process and waited impatiently for the book to arrive, I thought: it’s not enough.

With hat in hand, I went to the conference’s original major funding sponsor, Professor Beth Bailey, director of the University of Kansas’s Center for the Center for Military, War, and Society Studies (CMWSS). I asked if her Center could help develop (i.e., pay for) a website to accompany the War on Drugs book, because I knew that the CCMWSS already had a sophisticated website, including an amazingly useful section about teaching military history. Luckily, she agreed.

A website, I figured—much like somebody reinventing the wheel—could turn the inert book into an interactive tool that would be much better attuned to course adoptions and would be instructive, as well, for anyone who wanted to better understand the US War on Drugs.

So, here’s what we did. I came up with a three-part structure: (1) book teaching guide, (2) war on drugs timeline, and (3) war on drugs primary sources reader. Then I got smart. I hired University of Kansas dissertation student and ADHS member Clark Terrill to devise and deliver the content. CMWSS Associate Director and newly minted KU history PHD Marjorie Galelli took on site design. I, of course, carried on as hard-working supervisor. 

The teaching guide is, I think, a great tool for instructors who adopt the book for course use. But it also provides general readers a way to engage with the text—like those book-group questions that now seem ubiquitous in paperback best sellers. The guide’s chapter-by-chapter breakdown of “key terms,” “themes,” and “questions” offer readers a friendly introduction to each chapter’s content as well as the types of historiographical and scholarly questions with which we all wrestle.

For example, in my chapter on drug dealers, Clark asks readers to ponder four questions, including this one:

“Farber describes an increasing level of violence in the drug trafficking business over the course of the 1970s and into the 1980s. How might one explain the decline of the “Robin Hood era of dope dealing,” and its replacement by a more violent and capitalistic drug trade?”

A cheerful topic, yes? And, more seriously, an important one.

Farber Drug Dealers section sample
Image of the “Terms/Themes” from David Farber’s Drug Dealers section of the War on Drugs Project website.

Offering a customized timeline struck me as especially useful given the admittedly sometimes vertiginous quality of our book—which does not provide readers with a tidy chronological narrative but rather offers a multi-dimensional overview of key aspects of the War on Drugs. Plus, I really did not like the timelines I found when scavenging the Net. And ours has lots of pictures!

lsd blotter full sheet
Image of LSD Blotter (DEA) from the War on Drugs Project Timeline.

Finally, the primary sources are selected specifically to supplement the essays. I’m biased, given my book Crack, but I think no course on Drugs in America is complete without a listen to N.W.A.’s “Dope Man” and “Too $hort’s “The Ghetto.”

“Dope Man” by NWA.
“The Ghetto” by Too $hort.

And yeah, we have Nixon’s 1971 Drug War speech and the 2020 Purdue Pharma court decision, too.

I hope AHDS members, allies, and Points Readers find the whole kit and kaboodle—the book and the website—useful. And if you see something on the website that needs editing or if you have suggestions, please email me as the site is an evolving creature.

I hope you’ll check it all out!

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