The War on Drugs

December 1, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Whatever happened to the war on drugs?” a friend asked, “Did we win?”

We were having lunch at a Greek restaurant a few weeks ago, and she was being facetious. This is someone who knows a lot about crime, law-enforcement, and sociology. She also knows that drugs haven’t exactly disappeared from American society. Her point was that without any big decrease in actual drug use, the “war on drugs,” so important for so long, is now something we rarely hear about.

From the perspective of 2006, that war now looks more and more like part of a “moral panic,” a change in public consciousness when real events, like the crack boom of the late 1980s, evoke an apparently hysterical response. The moral panic and the officially declared war that went with it saddled the US with policies that seemed more designed to make us feel that we were taking a strong stand against evil than to reduce drug use. These policies were also very expensive and wasteful. After all, when you are conducting a morality-based war against Evil, you cannot compromise. You cannot drive out the devil with treatment, only with harsh punishment, and damn the cost. At least that seemed to be the logic behind much of the legislation and enforcement. The war on drugs also fell most heavily on minorities, and it shrunk the usual protections that the Bill of Rights afforded to all citizens.

When 9/11 gave us a new enemy, a new source of Evil, war on drugs just couldn’t compete. The moral troops of our collective consciousness had to be moved to a new front.

It’s not that actual drug enforcement has faded. Thanks to laws passed in those decades, we’re still locking up inordinate numbers of people. But the urgency, the moral panic, seems to have subsided.

I remembered this question — whatever happened to the war on drugs?— when I was watching “House” on TV this week. Besides the usual medical problems that come up each week, “House” now has a continuing plot thread that involves a drug-fighting cop who does everything in his power to convict drug-law violators. The interesting thing is that he’s the bad guy. His zeal is portrayed as harmful, and he himself has no redeeming qualities (at least not yet). Dr. House, the drug violator, and his fellow doctors who try to shield him are portrayed as virtuous victims of the cop’s doggedness. Would a major network have aired such a story in the 1980s or 90s?

Over a century ago, Durkheim maintained that a society needs a certain level of deviance. By reacting against deviance, we strengthen social solidarity. So when the level of deviance falls, we will either expand our definition of what’s deviant, or we will find a new threat that requires us to reinforce our moral boundaries.

It seems unlikely that the moral panic about drugs, only recently subsided, can be quickly revived. The war on terror — at least as it has been carried out in Iraq— now looms as a very costly mistake. If there are no new terrorist attacks, the US may need to find a new moral threat on the home front. My friend predicts that it will be gangs. (Keep tuned to your local media and politicians to see if she’s right.)

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