Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University.
We have told ourselves the “opioid crisis” is an exception to past drug scares. In the past century, the narrative goes, we relied on law enforcement and punishment to curb widescale drug use, but our country now has turned over a new leaf—one centered on public health and compassion. Had it not been for Purdue Pharma, a uniquely bad actor, the spread of addiction and overdose deaths would have never occurred.
None of this is true. Rhetorically, yes, smart politicians now deemphasize the punishment aspect in public speeches. But law enforcement plays a greater role than ever before in regulating the use of drugs—from the zealous policing of some people who use illegal drugs to expansive prescription monitoring programs and from the detailed cataloging of the dosage of Americans’ medications to DEA to threats to doctors who fail to obey their dictates. Such strict and exacting regulations often leave elderly patients and patients with chronic pain out in the cold unable to secure necessary drugs. Yet, at the same time, prohibitionist drug control measures have also done little to stop the proliferation of black-market drugs.
Far from being a deviation, this has long been the norm and with often devastating results. Regardless of your thoughts about current events, this post will let us look back and travel to the past to try to clarify why overdose deaths continue to increase now despite a dramatic recent decrease in opioid prescriptions. And why this situation unlikely to change under current conditions. For about the last century, the United States government has abided by a philosophy that seems to prioritize drug abstinence and the strict policing of drug use at the expense of saving lives. To investigate this continuity, I will briefly examine two episodes: a 1930s critique of an early version of the war on drugs and the government’s opposition to needle exchanges during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.