Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones; Bloomsbury (384 pages, $28.00)
First declared by President Nixon, the war on drugs was always already political. Nixon aide John Erlichman later commented on its origins:
The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black. But by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
A decade later, President Reagan announced that illicit drugs were a national security threat. “We’re making no excuses for drugs—hard, soft, or otherwise. Drugs are bad, and we’re going after them. As I’ve said before, we’ve taken down the surrender flag and run up the battle flag. And we’re going to win the war on drugs.” Announced three weeks before the 1982 midterm elections, Reagan’s initiative both intensified and militarized the drug war.
Not all drugs were bad, of course. The Reagan administration lavished benefits on Big Pharma, and Congress passed laws that extended patent protections and monopoly rights for brand-name drugs. But even with illegal narcotics, the Reagan administration applied a double standard. As we know from the Kerry Committee report of 1989, CIA officials knew that Nicaraguan drug dealers were selling powder and crack cocaine in Los Angeles during the 1980s. Nobody lifted a finger to stop it. They also knew that the profits supported the Nicaraguan contras, whom the Reagan administration actively (and illegally) aided in their efforts to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government.
As the drug war dragged on, it netted users who didn’t fit Erlichman’s description. A decade ago, we learned that Rush Limbaugh abused Oxycontin, a prescription painkiller also known as hillbilly heroin. He was arrested but served no jail time; Palm Beach prosecutors dropped the charge after Limbaugh agreed to continue his treatment. “I actually thank God for my addiction to pain pills,” he told Fox News in 2009, “because I learned more about myself in rehab than I would have ever learned otherwise.” In particular, he realized he had been trying too hard to be liked in his personal life. But after seven weeks of treatment, he emerged with “zero feelings of inadequacy.” Limbaugh’s skirmish in the drug war turned out to be a voyage of personal growth and self-discovery.
While the Limbaugh story played out, many American cities were experiencing large increases in the use of black tar heroin imported from Mexico. These weren’t cities previously associated with that drug; rather, they were places like Salt Lake City, Boise, Charlotte, Portland, and Columbus. For years, local law enforcement noticed unarmed dealers making home deliveries in small quantities. Even when they made arrests, the cases were minor and often led to deportation. And because police officers rarely communicated with their counterparts in other mid-size cities, they failed to see the larger pattern.