Kathleen J. Frydl

The War on Drugs in America, 1940-1973

Cambridge University Press 2013

New Books in American StudiesNew Books in HistoryNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in Public PolicyNew Books Network May 9, 2013 Marshall Poe

In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a “War on Drugs.” We are still fighting that war today. According to many people, we’ve lost but...

In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a “War on Drugs.” We are still fighting that war today. According to many people, we’ve lost but don’t know it. Rates of drug use in the US remain, by historical standards, high and our prisons are full of people–many of whom are hardly drug kingpins–who have violated drug laws. And, of course, it all costs a fortune. What to do?

In her book The War on Drugs in America, 1940-1973 (Cambridge University Press, 2013), historian Kathleen J. Frydl argues that there is a better way to control drugs. She points out that prior to the “War on Drugs” the Federal government had controlled the distribution of narcotics and other drugs largely (though not entirely) by means of taxation. The “Federal Bureau of Narcotics” was a branch of the Department of the Treasury. The run up to Nixon’s “War on Drugs” and the war itself changed all that: enforcement of drug laws was transferred to the Department of Justice. Essentially, the Fed had criminalized drug distribution and use and told the states to aggressively pursue distributors and users, or else.

According to Frydl, this was a disastrous move. Better, she says, to de-criminalize and even legalize drugs, control them by means of taxation, and support prevention and treatment initiatives. It’s a controversial position, and near the end of the interview we debate it at some length. I hope you enjoy the discussion.

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