Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Jordan Mylet, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of California, San Diego. This is Part 1 in a series on The Addict and Addiction Treatment Before the War on Drugs. The next installment will come in March.
It is common today to think about drug addiction as an illness or disorder, and the opioid epidemic as a public health crisis that deserves a robust medical response. This framework is often paired with an implicit (or not) rebuke of past ways of dealing with addiction as a sin or a crime, something to be shamed and punished. The fact of mass incarceration, which has filled jails with hundreds of thousands of drug offenders, predominantly of color, since the early 1970s, has rightfully precipitated a renewed emphasis on treating addicts as people in need of treatment, not prison time.
However, if one looks closely at the long history of medicalizing drug addiction in the United States, they might conclude that applying a treatment framework to addiction does not necessarily lead to clear-cut or even humane solutions. In fact, the mid-twentieth century architects and enforcers of narcotics control policy—with its street-level raids and mandatory sentences—also espoused a belief in addicts’ sickness and need for medical treatment. When public concern about drug addiction skyrocketed in the postwar years, the dilemma facing policymakers and medical professionals was what was to be done with the addict, given that she was sick. In this way, debates over addiction and rehabilitation were also clashes about the responsibilities of the state to its citizens and the limits of individual liberty.