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A “Gentler Drug War”

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by guest contributor Michael Brownrigg, a history Ph.D. student at Northwestern University focusing on American foreign relations. He is particularly interested in drug policy and the influence of US political culture on the nation’s efforts to regulate the global drug trade. Michael received a BA from the University of Iowa and an MA from Villanova University. Enjoy!

The DEA Museum

The DEA Museum

While on a recent trip to Washington D.C. to do research for my dissertation on the emotional aesthetics of drug addiction in the early twentieth century, I decided to take a quick detour in an effort to escape the archives for a while. My desire for a little diversion took me to, of all places, the Drug Enforcement Agency’s museum. Given my methodological focus on broken American individuals and families who had experienced the trauma of addiction and publicly disclosed their stories of suffering in various cultural forums, I was immediately struck by an emotional appeal to everyday citizens from the head of the DEA, Chuck Rosenberg, that opened the exhibit. “I need your help,” he pleaded when explaining the immense scope of the drug problem in America, “We have an epidemic in this country and you can help ensure that your family and friends make their own good decisions.” Although Rosenberg assures visitors that the agency is marshaling all possible resources to stem the rising tide of addiction, he admits that “we cannot do this alone. We need you to be a leader in your schools and in your community. Get the word out . . . Help us reduce the desire that fuels these criminal gangs.”

A few weeks before I had stumbled across the state of Iowa’s edition of the Nixon Administration’s “Drug Guide,” an educational publication distributed throughout the nation that sought to explain, well, just about everything one needed to know about drugs and drug users in order to bolster and impart a sense of urgency to the fledgling drug war. After viewing the DEA’s exhibit, I returned to the document’s preface written by Ray A. Fenton, Iowa’s County Attorney at the time, remembering that I had encountered a similar sentiment in that early artifact of the nation’s longest war. “Let’s all concern ourselves,” he exhorted the “young and old alike,” “drugs and their abuse, use, or misuse, is your problem, my problem . . . a real community problem.” Like Rosenberg, he too elicited help from an educated, “enlightened community” in an attempt to enlist ordinary Americans in what is often portrayed as an existential battle to secure the integrity of individuals, families, communities, and the nation. These urgent injunctions, separated by nearly half a century, demonstrate how authorities have consistently sought to appeal to the emotions of Americans in their endeavor to forge informal affective alliances with nonstate actors that imparts legitimacy to the government’s War on Drugs.

An image from the New York Times story, "In Heroin Crisis, White Families Seek Gentler War on Drugs," 30 October 2015

An image from the New York Times story, “In Heroin Crisis, White Families Seek Gentler War on Drugs,” 30 October 2015

These appeals for familial and communal forms of activism have materialized in recent years in an unprecedentedly dramatic fashion, with unforeseen consequences for drug policy. In chronicling the heroin epidemic currently afflicting white families across the country, for example, The New York Times illuminated the emotional politics of addiction fomented at the grassroots level that has sought to transform the way we talk about and treat the victims of drug abuse. In a recent article documenting a widespread movement for a “gentler war on drugs,” loss and trauma is foregrounded to show how emotions such as sorrow, grief and mourning have been mobilized or put to work to reorient the drug war. “The growing army of families,” the article claims, “of those lost to heroin — many of them in the suburbs and small towns — are now using their influence, anger and grief to cushion the country’s approach to drugs, from altering the language around addiction to prodding government to treat it not as a crime, but as a disease.” A “club of shattered parents,” intimately bound together by their shared pain, have found solace and companionship not only in local sites of interaction such as churches, but also in national organizations such as UNITE to Face Addiction. The affective dynamics circulating throughout these communities of mourning and suffering have engendered impassioned forms of activism that agitate for more nuanced and tolerant attitudes toward addiction and policies in which “punishment is out and compassion is in.”

Although many commenters on the paper’s website celebrated this emotional turn in drug policy, many more deplored the blatant hypocrisy displayed by officials when discussing the sudden imperative for reform. Former undercover narcotics agent Eric Adams’s remarks proved particularly inflammatory, revealing for many readers the racial assumptions underlying the variety of attitudes toward addicts. “The way I look at addiction now is completely different,” Adams exclaimed, “I can’t tell you what changed inside of me, but these are people and they have a purpose in life and we can’t as law enforcement look at them any other way. . . They need help.” Although we can’t know for sure what exactly was responsible for his revelation, the disparities in public reactions toward the contemporary drug epidemic and those of the past are remarkable, a vivid illustration of the complex emotional dynamics at work in what Elizabeth Spelman has called the “economy of attention” that defines who is considered deserving of sympathy, and to what extent. Or, as Judith Butler has shown in her work on mourning, how some lives are socially determined to be more “grievable” than others.

Yet there are clear signs that the push for a more caring approach toward the white addicts described above can possibly enable meaningful structural and attitudinal change with more widespread effects. Before the terrorist attacks in Paris and California focused voters’ attention squarely on national security, activists succeeded in making drug policy a major, and in some cases the dominant, issue in the 2016 presidential campaign. At first this was largely due to the politics of place. Candidates hoping to capture New Hampshire, the epicenter of the current heroin epidemic and a key state in the political race, fielded pointed questions about drug policy reform while listening to painful stories of loss. The amount of concern about drug abuse articulated in town hall meetings compelled Hillary Clinton to formulate a $10 billion proposal to “end this quiet epidemic once and for all,” promising to allocate funds for education and training, as well as overhauling the criminal justice system. As curbing addiction became a national, bipartisan issue, candidates on both sides of the political divide have offered solutions, sometimes framed by their own intimate experiences with drugs. Jeb Bush, for instance, expressed empathy for the family members of addicts by sharing his daughter’s troubles with crack cocaine, telling the audience that addiction “is the most heartbreaking thing in the world to have to go through.” Combining political issues and personal convictions, Chris Christie has called for a “pro-life” approach to addicts that eschews punishment and favors tolerance and treatment. It appears, for now at least, that, rather than ratcheting up fear, politicians are choosing to speak to and from the heart, perhaps making the upcoming election one in which the war on drugs is reimagined. A gentler war, maybe, but still a war.



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