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The Points Interview — Kathleen J. Frydl

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editor’s Note: Kathleen Frydl’s new book, The Drug Wars in America, 1940-1973, is just out from Cambridge University Press. Points welcomes her timely and enlightening interview.


I tell the story of how and why the US government became “addicted” to the modern drug war, choosing prohibition and punishment over treatment and regulation. I argue that the logic behind the particular shape and targets of the drug war (including that which was not targeted) had less to do with crime or addiction, and more to do with the management of state power.

2.  What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

To be honest, probably not that much. At several points, I rely on that scholarship, but I can’t say that I actually contribute to it. For readers of this blog, it might be interesting — maybe even troubling, but hopefully stimulating — to hear the story of the drug war narrated through a different voice.  I hope it is viewed as a complement to the literature.

That said, there are some parts of the book that may be of interest. In chapter 5, I argue that methadone clinics lost support for a variety of reasons. Proponents of punishment, recovery movements, and various groups on the left imposed standard medical — as opposed to public health — criteria on maintenance: built around “a crisis followed by a cure” paradigm. This is somewhat different from the goals of harm reduction. Under this more demanding paradigm, the fact that every recovery victory could be celebrated  compensated believers for so much failure. In the public health lens, on the other hand, successful maintenance meant only less to be dismayed about. The outcomes were not so heroic and the narrative not so redemptive. Whether it was the Black Panthers or traditional recovery movements, certain advocates criticized maintenance precisely because it staved off the “crisis” which they felt was needed in order to proceed to the “cure,” whether that cure was sobriety or revolution in the inner city.

I also argue that treatment options presented no broader utility in the exercise of state power, whereas prohibition and punishment did. Maintenance might be great at reducing crime associated with drug use — and it is, and that’s supposedly one of the reasons we are fighting this “drug war.” But it does not provide a set of tools with which to police the inner city, nor does it help to justify and execute US power abroad.

As I conduct interviews in support of the book’s release, I emphasize treatment in a variety of ways. But, although I don’t mention it, this tension within the world of treatment between sobriety and maintenance still exists in my mind, and I would love it if readers of this blog can disabuse me, or point me to ways in which these approaches can be reconciled. 


3.  Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

There are a lot of little moments I like. Quiet observations, I guess you could call them, and my analysis of public health versus punishment (above) is one of them. But in a number of ways, I am most pleased with my positioning of Washington DC as at the center of the federal government’s efforts to craft the modern drug war. There is great work on this for the 1980s, but it was actually a dynamic that has a longer history. And I tried not to make it a one way story:  the federal government imposed various policy instruments on the District, but people in the District reacted or defied these instruments in a number of ways.

4.  Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

Well, there should be more in the book regarding the 1971 convention, and the ways in which the logic and imperatives of the Controlled Substances Act played a role in crafting it. But even more, apart from the various conventions, I hope someone takes my consideration of the international drug policy portfolio’s importance to the developing world one step further. We’ve had important works already consider it from the perspective of the cold war or modernization theory, but I still feel that the work that this particular portfolio does in the structuring and execution of US global influence has not been fully treated, including in my own work.

And I’d love to see more historical work on police in the United States. I often say that police are the everyday face of the state. They embody the legal monopoly on violence. It’s hard to write a good history of any given department, or any given moment, but we should try. I know about some great work on the San Francisco police (Agee), but it focuses mainly on relations with the community. I’d like to see a political or institutional historian tackle the police, especially for the post World War II era.

5.  BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?

Definitely a woman, preferably someone with range and depth. I think Angelina Jolie has a great voice: deep but musical. My voice sounds good to me only first thing in the morning. 

I think it should be a woman not just because I am one, but because I stand with Virginia Woolf in her Three Guineas. Women can do more than just align themselves to various components of the public world created largely by men; they can dissent. My book is a very traditional one focused on political economy, and it is written from a largely internalist perspective which performs critique by leveraging the “road not taken,” or other options available at the time. But, in its way, it is very radical.

So definitely a woman should read it.


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