Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by Dr. David Herzberg, as associate professor of history at SUNY Buffalo and the author of Happy Pills in America (2010) and his forthcoming project The Other Drug War: A History of Prescription Drug Abuse. Enjoy!
Most American drug policy historians are familiar with the 1962 Supreme Court decision Robinson v. California, which held that addiction was an illness and not a crime. The case involved a California man sentenced to jail not for buying, possessing, or using narcotics, but for the condition of being a narcotic addict. In striking down the law, the Court declared that addiction was an illness, and that—in Justice Potter Stewart’s memorable words—“Even one day in prison would be a cruel and unusual punishment for the ‘crime’ of having a common cold.” (Stewart would probably be glad to know that at least one group of people, however small, remembers him for this quotation rather than his “I-know- it-when- I-see- it” definition of “hard-core pornography,” which he later feared would adorn his tombstone.) For historians the decision serves as a convenient marker of the broader shift away from the punitive policies of the “classic era” of narcotics control and towards more medicalized approaches to addiction.
Of late, drug policy historians have been placing this shift under increasing scrutiny. Complementing the vast and growing literature on medicine as a form of social control, historians like Eric Schneider and Points’ own Claire Clark have begun to focus more on how medical approaches harmonized with, rather than diverged from, punitive ones. Methadone maintenance, for example, was implemented primarily as a crime control measure and was evaluated on that basis, and thus ultimately complemented rather than upended prison-based approaches. Meanwhile, therapeutic communities’ tough-love philosophies could lead to “scared straight” type tactics that, in many cases, were much harsher and farther-reaching than simple imprisonment. Historians’ increased focus on the disciplinary dimensions of medical treatment may be due, in part, to the increasing visibility and intellectual availability of “harm reduction,” which also draws parallels between medical and criminal control of drug use.