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Transcript - Hooked: Drugs, Prohibition, and American Cities

a group of men during prohibition and an image of marijuana plants

Since the 1970s, the "War on Drugs" has absorbed billions of dollars, fueled armed interventions overseas, imprisoned millions of individuals, and stigmatized inner city communities--all without appearing to have produced a measurable impact on actual drug use. In this episode of History Talk, hosts Patrick Potyondy and Mark Sokolsky interview three experts on the history of drug and alcohol regulation in America: Scott Martin on 19th century temperance and alcohol prohibition, Steven Siff on the illegalization and legalization of marijuana, and Clay Howard on the “urban crisis” of the 1980s and drugs, race, and disparities in enforcement. In each segment, they consider why drugs were made illegal in the first place, whether the fight is worth the cost, and what insights history may have for addressing drug use in America today.

[Listen to the podcast here.]

Transcript Begins Here:

Patrick Potyondy   
Welcome to History Talk, where we explore the deep background behind what's going on in the news. I'm your host, Patrick Potyondy. Among the most important initiatives undertaken by United States law enforcement at all levels, for more than the past half century, has been an attempt to suppress the use, sale, and trade of drugs deemed illegal by lawmakers in society, known as the War on Drugs since the 1970s. This effort has absorbed many billions of dollars, led to armed intervention overseas, produced the incarceration of millions of individuals in the United States, and stigmatized inner-city communities of color among many other effects. But why did drugs become illegal in the first place? Is the War on Drugs worth the cost? And what insights does history offer into how we might confront the problem of drug use?

Patrick Potyondy   
On today's show, we offer three conversations. In our first, host Mark Sokolsky speaks with Scott Martin, of Bowling Green, on America's most concerted attempt to ban a mind-altering substance, Prohibition. Martin challenges the idea that the modern War on Drugs can be likened to Prohibition, arguing that the differences between the two far outweigh the similarities. Next, I speak with Stephen Siff, of Miami University of Ohio, about the illegalization of marijuana. Siff explains how marijuana was made illegal in the first place in the early twentieth century and some reasons why attitudes have been so difficult to change since then. And in our last segment, Mark Sokolsky sits down with Ohio State's Clay Howard, to discuss when drugs first became a matter of public concern, pointing out that federal and state governments became involved in the suppression of drugs only gradually. Then Howard highlights the relationship between drugs, race, and America's urban crisis of the 1970s and '80s to help us understand why we see such vast disparities in drug enforcement between white communities and communities of color. We have three great interviews for you today, so stay tuned on History Talk, produced by Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective.

Mark Sokolsky  
Joining us now is Dr. Scott Martin, professor of history and American cultural studies at Bowling Green State University. Dr. Martin, thank you for joining us today.

Dr. Scott Martin       
Thanks for having me.

Mark Sokolsky  
So, you know, lately we hear a lot in the news about the legalization or illegalization of drugs in general, and specifically, marijuana, and occasionally people sort of bandy about comparisons between the War on Drugs and Prohibition. Would you say this is an apt comparison? Or are there big differences here that we should bear in mind?

Dr. Scott Martin       
I think there are big differences. And the thing to keep in mind is that the comparison of the War on Drugs to Prohibition has long been a staple of the pro-legalization movement. And however you feel about legalization or having things remain illegal, the fact remains that this is a bad analogy, it's not an apt analogy. And for those in favor of legalization, I think it serves more of a rhetorical function than an actual analytical tool or something like that. Basically, I think there are two major problems with it. The pro-legalization movement would argue that Prohibition and its supposed failure demonstrates that you cannot ever prohibit things that the public wants, like alcohol, that they will find a way to get them, whether it's through speakeasies, or marijuana dispensaries, or whatever you want to call it. And I think there are two problems with that, aside from the obvious one, that we prohibit all sorts of things that people want, whether it's exceeding the speed limit, or income tax evasion, or child pornography, or bigamy or anything like that, those prohibitions don't completely eliminate that behavior. But I don't think anyone is saying we should, then they're a failure, we should just completely eliminate the laws that make those things prohibited. So there's that. The law itself, the prohibition amendment, and then the Volstead Act, which actually enacted it, are a very different animal than the War on Drugs. A couple of big differences. The prohibition amendment in the amendment itself gave what was then called "concurrent authority" for the states and federal government to enforce prohibition. This meant that both the states and federal government were supposed to enforce it, each in their own way and hopefully, in complementary ways as well. When it came right down to it, in various places, particularly in urban areas, prohibition turned out to be unpopular for a variety of reasons. And so city mayors, and in some cases, state governors, didn't want to enforce Prohibition. The problem with that was that the federal government was relying on the states and localities for manpower, for all sorts of resources, to do this. So there hadn't really been sufficient resources allocated at the federal level for an enterprise of this magnitude.

Dr. Scott Martin       
Now, there was a Federal Bureau of Prohibition that did have agents that went out and looked for stills and speakeasies and things like that. But it was a relatively small, a couple of 100 men in the Prohibition Unit, much too small to make up for a lack of enforcement activity in any one city or state, let alone the entire country. The other problem with the prohibition agents was that initially, when the Volstead Act was set up, being a prohibition agent was not a civil service position, it was an appointed position. So in other words, if you wanted to work for the post office, or the federal agency, generally there were requirements, you might have to take an exam and demonstrate that you were in fact fit to do this. Such was not the case, at least initially, for the Federal Prohibition Bureau. And it unfortunately, devolved into cronyism, so that a prominent person would get his cousin or, you know, his brother-in-law appointed, even though they had no background in this. And this led to corruption, inefficiency, all sorts of things.

Dr. Scott Martin       
So I think those are two areas in which, you know, there are big differences between the War on Drugs and Prohibition. And also when you when you add in the fact that Americans, and the Anglo-American world generally, we have centuries of experience with using alcohol that has been a part of Anglo-American culture and African culture and Latin-American culture, all, pretty much, all the Western world for centuries. We don't have that much experience with drugs like heroin, or LSD or, or even for that matter, marijuana. So there's a...going to be much harder to uproot something that's been around for centuries, if not millennia, than it is to prohibit something of relatively recent vintage.

Mark Sokolsky  
But would you say that there are...are there any lessons coming out of Prohibition for the War on Drugs or our approach to legalization/illegalization now?

Dr. Scott Martin       
It's always hard to draw direct lessons from history. I think one thing to point out, though, is in the public mind, Prohibition is an abject failure. There was nothing good about it, it bred organized crime and speakeasies and contempt for the law. When in fact, if you look at it closely, and you actually tried to measure the results of it, you could make a case that Prohibition didn't do too badly considering the handicaps that it labored under that we've just been talking about. For example, by all accounts, when statisticians and others have tried to assess how much did it actually cut down on drinking, the best estimate is that it cut down Americans drinking by about 70 percent, which is a considerable amount, and all the attendant measures of that, like cases of cirrhosis of the liver and arrests for drunkenness and various things like that. Not only did it make this huge decrease in drinking, but it took something like four decades, into the 1970s, before the level of American drinking, the amount that people drank, reached pre-Prohibition level. So it not only had an immediate effect, but it had a very long-term effect as well. So that, to simply and blindly say, well, prohibition doesn't work, because you want to argue for the legalization of drugs, there are enormous problems with that. It just isn't a good analogy.

Mark Sokolsky  
Okay. Are there other sort of takeaways from Prohibition that we can think about as we approach the drug question today?

Dr. Scott Martin       
I think just that policymakers need to be very clear about what their objectives are. Is it harm reduction? Is it a total prohibition of this? Is there some middle ground? Do we want to lump together people who use drugs with people who sell drugs? You know, that's from Prohibition. If the problem is Al Capone and organized crime, what if you would just crack down on Al Capone and organized crime and not worried about people who are using it, using alcohol, buying alcohol? And I guess the argument today would be, you can't criminalize addiction or abuse, because that puts us in this mass incarceration situation that that we're in now.

Dr. Scott Martin       
But I think for Prohibition, the thing...one other lesson that we might take away from it is part of the argument of the legalization movement, particularly for marijuana, but for other drugs as well, is that this can be a positive thing in that it will remove these negative consequences like law enforcement excesses, and huge rates of incarceration. But that would also, if you legalize it, regulate it, and tax it, it becomes a public good, and it generates tax funds and revenue and all sorts of things like that. And I think the thing to remember, that may in fact be true, but even when you legalize and regulate something, it doesn't mean there won't be a black market in it, just as there's still moonshining. Today, there's still sales of untaxed liquor. Cigarettes would be another example. Even though cigarettes are legal, heavily regulated, heavily taxed, they are one of the major contraband items on the black market. I think several years ago, there was an estimate that like a quarter of the cigarettes sold in New York City are not taxed. They're black market cigarettes. So a lot of the problems that pro-legalization advocates would argue will go away, will not necessarily go away, or they won't go away completely, or as completely as perhaps they would hope.

Mark Sokolsky  
Okay. Did people deploy the sort of public health type arguments that we hear now, in favor of prohibition? Was that common? Or is it more of a moral...they were moral arguments primarily?

Dr. Scott Martin       
They were probably more moral arguments. There would be an economic argument that drinking led to squandering of resources, it led to the impoverishment of families, that the saloon was a particularly evil place that drained the wages from workers and thus damaged their families and children and all sorts of things like that. But it was also a moral argument that no one can use liquor safely, that even one drink is enough to set you on a road to drunkenness and death and disease and all sorts of horrible things. In that sense, I think prohibition and repeal are something of a watershed in that the focus shifts away from the substance itself, alcohol, to the user of it. And you begin to think about, well, are some people different in that they can't use alcohol successfully? And this, if you think about it, it's in the '30s that Alcoholics Anonymous emerges as the primary and then really only treatment available for alcoholics. And their argument is some people can drink like gentlemen, and if they can, then, you know, God bless him, but we can't. So this enables, culturally, in the culture, I think, a shift away from moral arguments to more medically-based and public health arguments about the impact of liquor and the policy questions that surround it.

Patrick Potyondy   
That was host Mark Sokolsky interviewing Scott Martin, professor of history at Bowling Green State University. Among many other publications, he is the author of the Long Shadow of Prohibition: U.S. Drug and Alcohol Policy in the Twentieth Century, and the Oxford Handbook of American Political and Policy History. Next up, I welcome Steve Siff of Miami University to discuss the illegalization of marijuana. Welcome, Steve Siff, to History Talk. Thanks for coming on the show. To start, I just was wondering if you could introduce us to how drugs like marijuana were viewed in the nineteenth century?

Dr. Steve Siff     
Well, in the nineteenth century, at least in the United States, marijuana was probably not very well known by most people, although there was certainly some use in the Southwest. And also it was available through pharmacies, as a product and a bunch of different forms, I think as a tincture and also in a sort of solid form of cannabis or hash, but I don't think it was...it wasn't widely used or widely known by most Americans. And then I think it became increasingly well known in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, both related to immigration and also to publicity around the drug use, around the use of cannabis, particularly among immigrants from Mexico and also in black communities in the South.

Patrick Potyondy   
And so that's what marijuana became associated with then, in the early twentieth century, and so was there kind of like a racial or xenophobic or maybe even class-based dynamic to how marijuana came to be viewed and did that play a role in its kind of eventual illegalization?

Dr. Steve Siff     
Definitely, all three of those things. You know, it was viewed as being used by ethnic minorities, it was viewed as being used by lower class people. And it was viewed as being associated with sort of crime and vice and other, you know, kind of unpleasantness, and all of this certainly contributed energy to the laws, first local laws, and then subsequently state and federal laws banning the drug's use. I mean, it's interesting to contrast the prohibition of marijuana with the prohibition of alcohol.

Patrick Potyondy   
Ok, great.

Dr. Steve Siff     
Of course, alcohol prohibition, the Volstead Act was in effect during the 1920s. And the federal prohibition of marijuana took place in the 1930s, in 1937. So the federal prohibition of marijuana actually took place after the federal prohibition of alcohol. And it's kind of interesting to contemplate that, for the Volstead Act to go into effect, it required a constitutional amendment, with state legislatures or US states approving prohibition. And this took place over a period of decades before national prohibition could be put in place. At the same time, the prohibition of marijuana, which took place actually, after alcohol prohibition was repealed, didn't seem to require any of this legalistic kind of baggage. The federal law was done under the authority, under the federal government's taxing authority, and although it tried to, although it really had the same effect as alcohol prohibition, or it was laws of a very similar effect, putting in very similar mechanisms, the prohibition of marijuana was allowed to take place without...I don't know, I guess, much more conveniently, the federal government, or the forces in favor of this didn't have to jump through the kinds of hoops that were necessary for the failed alcohol prohibition.

Patrick Potyondy   
Was that partly because it was less well known than alcohol and less maybe ubiquitous? Or why do you think that might have been?

Dr. Steve Siff     
Well, it was certainly less well known and certainly less ubiquitous, those things are both true. And, you know, I think one reason was because the Wets, the people for alcohol use were...there's a large number of very easily identified people, you know, basically, I mean, the alcohol prohibition can be seen largely through the lens of sort of evangelical Protestants, who don't have a tradition of alcohol use, moving against immigrant groups, and Catholic immigrant groups, in particular, who did have a long tradition of alcohol use. You know, and often this is seen in sort of ethnic, kind of, through an ethnic lens as alcohol prohibition, kind of pushing against the political power and the political machines of German immigrants, of Irish immigrants, of these groups that were really kind of culturally tied to alcohol use, and also pushing against their, you know, the taverns and the bars, which were their centers of social life and also their centers of political life. There wasn't the same sort of organized opposition to marijuana.

Patrick Potyondy   
Right, same kind of cultural place of marijuana in some ethnic enclaves or things like that, right?

Dr. Steve Siff     
Yeah, I think that's absolutely true. And then whatever ethnic enclaves did use it, they didn't have the same kind of cultural power as the  -

Patrick Potyondy   
Right. Okay.

Dr. Steve Siff     
The same kind of voting power.

Patrick Potyondy   
And so did legislators and lawmakers think that illegalization would solve certain problems and were those problems identified as the same problems as alcohol prohibition?

Dr. Steve Siff     
Different problems. Behind alcohol prohibition was these sort of issues of politics, and concern about political machines and politics being run through taverns and bar rooms. And so there was this big subtext there, to Prohibition, as well as the sort of racial subtext. I think it was a little different with marijuana prohibition, because unlike alcohol, which of course, was a very, very common drug. Everyone had at least seen it or seen a tavern, right? With marijuana in the '30s, I believe that wasn't the case. I think it was still fairly exotic to most people and scary. I think the reason that alcohol prohibition was so popular or caught steam wasn't as much because it was solving some sort of problem in particular, as that it was offered a set of tools to empower local police and law enforcement.

Patrick Potyondy   
Oh, interesting. Okay.

Dr. Steve Siff     
So and most of these tools were the same tools that had been developed in use during Prohibition. You know, things like the ability to stop someone on the street and search them -

Patrick Potyondy   
Okay, the roots of that are here.

Dr. Steve Siff     
- To sort of police...Yeah, the roots of those things are all you know...and the roots of that are in marijuana prohibition. The roots of that are in alcohol prohibition also, I mean, alcohol prohibition...and Lisa McGirr writes about this very compellingly in her recent book about prohibition, the extent to which law enforcement on the local level use prohibition law as a means to, or as a set of tools to crack down on minority and immigrant groups and also for more aggressive policing in general.

Patrick Potyondy   
Right.

Dr. Steve Siff     
So I think a lot of the impetus for the early anti-drug laws really came from the police departments, came from the bottom up rather than from the federal government. And, you know, obviously, Prohibition came from the top down in the states that did not sign the, that did not ratify the Volstead Amendment, but -

Patrick Potyondy   
And, you know, jumping ahead a bit here to some later decades, it seems like marijuana had a, gained a much higher profile, especially with President Richard Nixon's administration, and then President Ronald Reagan's administration. And I'm wondering if you could kind of talk about how it became so well-known and maybe a little bit of how the role played by the media and/or those presidencies played in making sure marijuana had such a negative reputation?

Dr. Steve Siff     
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, marijuana use began increasing dramatically during the '60s, of course.

Patrick Potyondy   
Okay, right.

Dr. Steve Siff     
And began increasing dramatically, not only among minority groups or lower-class people, people, not only among, in cities, and among the people you associate with drug use, but of course, among college students, the other people we associate with drug use.

Patrick Potyondy   
Right.

Dr. Steve Siff     
And during the late '60s, there was actually a lot of sympathy towards, a lot of ambivalence about drug, the prohibition of marijuana or strict enforcement, strict criminal enforcement of drug law, when it came to marijuana, as so many white middle-class kids became involved with the drug. And I think, and on the federal level, at least, legislators were anxious about creating, about criminalizing a large swath of youth. So why the illegal, why the prohibition of marijuana continued through the '60s and '70s is a good question too, considering these attitudes. You know, most of the rhetoric regarding illegal drugs, by the '60s and '70s, were really formed with opiates, with heroin in mind. So when Nixon for example, in the 1970s, talks about his War on Drugs, and the need to...that drug use is public enemy number one, it's heroin use that everyone is most concerned about. But the sort of definition of drugs into an illegal category made it, tended to, everything was sort of lumped together.

Patrick Potyondy   
Right, marijuana became wrapped up in that, right?

Dr. Steve Siff     
Yes, marijuana became wrapped up in that, you know, because once a drug is illegal, part of the objection to people using it has nothing to do with the danger of the substance or anything like that. It has to do with the law-breaking behavior that we're trying to discourage and so -

Patrick Potyondy   
And President Nixon, and it seems like, you know, President Reagan, but also First Lady Nancy Reagan, were really against that sort of attitude of...That, you know, this is the law, one can't break the law.

Dr. Steve Siff     
Yeah, "Just Say No." Yeah, I mean, a really, a purely prohibitionist sort of attitude. Yeah.

Patrick Potyondy   
And so, you know, I wanted to ask you, what were some of the, you know, as we look to wrap up here, what were some of the effects of that kind of strictly prohibitionist stance against you know, marijuana and/or other drugs and what can we maybe learn from some of the places like Colorado or Washington that have decriminalized marijuana specifically?

Dr. Steve Siff     
Well, you know, one of the interesting messages, one of the interesting pieces of news from Colorado and Washington has been the decrease in use of prescription drugs and these prescription painkillers in particular.

Patrick Potyondy   
Oh, interesting. Okay.

Dr. Steve Siff     
Yeah. And I mean, it's really awfully early to draw lessons, of course, right, because it's only been a couple years, so I don't think the effects of these changes have fully been seen yet. But one thing that seems to be happening in these places is that doctors are prescribing less, less painkillers, opiate painkillers, which are, of course, potentially very dangerous drugs, because people seem to be using legal marijuana as an alternative.

Patrick Potyondy   
Right. Right. And has there been any signs that some of the violence that is often associated with a black market, illicit trade, has that decreased at all? Or is it still really too early, as you say, to tell?

Dr. Steve Siff     
I haven't seen anything compelling on that.

Dr. Steve Siff     
Okay. One would hope, I suppose. But -

Dr. Steve Siff     
One would hope. Yeah, one would hope that some of the, that any violence that was driven by the marijuana trade would be diminishing. I suspect that it is because I suspect that the transporter marijuana trade is probably diminishing.

Patrick Potyondy   
Oh, right. Okay.

Dr. Steve Siff     
With the increasing availability of legal growth sites in the United States, one might imagine that there is more domestically grown marijuana that's seeping into the black market. And so it seems reasonable that there would be less cross-border trade, but I haven't seen anything empirical about that.

Patrick Potyondy   
Great. Well, Steve Siff, thank you for joining us on History Talk today.

Dr. Steve Siff     
Well, thank you very much. I appreciate your time this morning.

Patrick Potyondy   
That was Steven Siff, Associate Professor in the Department of Media, Journalism and Film at Miami University of Ohio. He is the author of "Acid Hype: American News Media and the Psychedelic Experience," as well as the origins.osu.edu article, "The Illegalization of Marijuana: a Brief History." In our final segment, Mark Sokolsky sat down with historian, Clay Howard, in our studio on Ohio State's Columbus campus, to discuss the complex linkages between race, the drug war, and the urban crisis of the 70s and 80s.

Mark Sokolsky  
Joining us now is Clay Howard, assistant professor of history at The Ohio State University. And we're going to talk a bit about drugs in American cities and American communities in the twentieth century. So Clay, I wondering if, just to start off, you could tell us a bit about when sort of drugs, broadly conceived, became a major issue of public concern in the United States.

Dr. Clay Howard 
It's a tough question to answer, in part because, to varying degrees, drugs have always been with us, and that a lot of the drugs that we consider illicit also have medical functions now. So like, heroin, also is related to morphine and various other kinds of opiates, painkillers. And a lot of the drugs that we use in things like dentistry, have their origins in cocaine as well. And at least originally, maybe 50, 60 years ago, it was not uncommon for doctors to prescribe cocaine. And so to some degree, the question of, you know, when have drugs become a problem, is that drugs have always been something that has been both healers and social problems at the same time.

Mark Sokolsky  
And so when do we see it become a sort of police matter? A matter of criminal justice? It's always been that way, or it's something more recent?

Dr. Clay Howard 
Well, to varying degrees, yeah, it's always been that way. But I'd say that over the course of the twentieth century, you've seen a big upswing in state and federal regulation of drugs. So all the time periods in which the federal or state governments have expanded have also been periods in which the regulation of drugs and policing of drugs has also expanded. So the barring of marijuana during the New Deal, right after the end of Prohibition, after World War II, there was a great deal of anxiety about narcotics peddlers in places like California, and all sorts of acts prohibiting the sale and trafficking of drugs. And then, of course, in the 1980s, you get the biggest upswing in the policing of drugs, with the War on Drugs and the anxiety about crack.

Mark Sokolsky  
You know, given the crossover with medicine, did the medical community have much say in what became illegal at these various turning points?

Dr. Clay Howard 
Yeah, they've been important arbiters and in fact that, in many ways, groups like the American Medical Association built their reputation on being able to determine between what is a good and what is a bad drug. So one of the first federal laws regulating drugs, heroin and cocaine in particular, required that basically only doctors could prescribe those things. And if you were not a doctor, and you were selling it, then you were in fact breaking the law. So to some degree, the passage of the law not only banned those substances, but also like enhanced the authority of doctors themselves.

Mark Sokolsky  
So it sort of goes hand in hand with professionalization and medicine?

Dr. Clay Howard 
Yeah, absolutely.

Mark Sokolsky  
And as a sort of institution. Interesting. Okay. And how do we see the War on Drugs translate into drug use or enforcement of anti-drug policies in American cities?

Dr. Clay Howard 
Well, you know, one of the kind of consistent problems around the policing of drugs is that communities of color have always kind of suffered from either under policing or over policing. So to some degree, the lack of police in poor neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color have often allowed the drug trade to kind of flourish there. And in other moments, the kind of heavy crackdown on drug users has disproportionately put African American men in particular in prison. So that's been a kind of long-standing problem going all the way back to the '50s, if not earlier.

Mark Sokolsky  
The '50s, so at that time, what drugs would have been the target? So marijuana or?

Dr. Clay Howard 
Yeah, marijuana, heroin. Like I think they call them like benzos. They're kind of like amphetamines. Things like that.

Mark Sokolsky  
Yeah, yeah. And you mentioned the '80s is this big shift, why do you see that as a turning point in this War on Drugs?

Dr. Clay Howard 
Well, I mean, only in the sense that the Reagan administration, sort of institutionalized trends that have been kind of accelerating over the course of the twentieth century. And the 1986 crack crackdown, the federal law, I'm blanking on its name right now, made it much easier and had mandatory minimums for people going to prison. And then in the '90s, states like California and the federal government had three strikes laws. So the kind of cumulative effect of that was that people sort of going to prison for much longer.

Mark Sokolsky  
Okay.

Dr. Clay Howard 
And more often.

Mark Sokolsky  
Three strikes though, was that specifically about drugs? Or is that any felony?

Dr. Clay Howard 
No, it's about any felony. And, you know, it's actually, it's in California, its origins was around the, I think, the rape and murder of a little girl, Polly Klaas was on America's Most Wanted, and that's when California passed a law and then Bill Clinton championed it at the federal level. But, you know, as the federal government and state governments have classified more and more kinds of drug use and sales as felonies, it adds up.

Mark Sokolsky  
Okay. You know, I'm not sure if you know this, but why was it that crack exploded in the '80s? Was there a certain, was there like a technological change that people figured out how to make it more cheaply? Or what drove that? Do you know?

Dr. Clay Howard 
That's my understanding. And so I'm not an expert on crack, per se, no, but I mean, the thing is that crack is cocaine, right? So cocaine has been around in various forms for a really long time. And so my sense is that the '80s, it became widely available, I guess, for two reasons. One would be that the packaging, the selling of cocaine with other adulterants, making it crack and easier to smoke. But also, I think that the urban crisis, widespread unemployment, large numbers of people who either needed jobs and worked in the drug trade, or people who were not working and thus available to use drugs of one kind or another, I think that combination of factors made it so combustible.

Mark Sokolsky  
And the kind of crack epidemic in the '80s is often taken as an example of discrepancy between sort of white users of drugs and those of color. I was wondering if you could speak a little more broadly about that discrepancy across, you know, different sorts of drugs?

Dr. Clay Howard 
Well, I mean, the way that I think about this is that very often white youth who have used drugs, and we know that whites and blacks and Latinos use drugs roughly at the same rates, and because whites are demographically a majority, whites are also a majority of drug users. We know that very often, whites have often seen white young people, other whites using drugs as victims, either of like peddlers, drug pushers, a public health crisis, but have seen youth of color as criminals, predators, threatening, so and that was true back in the '50s, as well as in the '80s. Another example that I think of is that in the '80s, part of the anxiety about crack was about so-called crack babies, you know, mothers giving birth to babies allegedly addicted to crack, and all kinds of states passed laws, making it a felony to use crack when you were having a child, when you were pregnant. And we now know that although it's medically not good to smoke crack when you are pregnant, that actually alcohol use when you're pregnant is far, far, far, far worse. And that a lot of the anxiety about crack babies ended up being unfounded and has everything to do with the perception of crack as being this poor person's drug, this black person's drug.

Mark Sokolsky  
Is there anything comparable in terms of the sort of racial or ethnic disparity that we see?

Dr. Clay Howard 
Yeah, I mean, the example I think of was the first federal law prohibiting, the one I spoke about earlier, prohibiting the sale of heroin and cocaine was in the kind of moment of highest immigration in US history, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. There's a lot of anxiety not only about Irish and Germans bringing alcohol over with them and you know, ruining cities, but also, Chinese opium was one of the justifications for excluding the Chinese in the 1880s and other groups from Asia.

Mark Sokolsky  
And do you think that given this kind of discrepancy and treating one type of drug use or drug use by certain types of people as a threat and in other cases as a public health issue, do you see more of a shift now away from one toward the other, toward more of a public health perspective? Or are we still kind of in the same kind of mixed-up territory?

Dr. Clay Howard 
It's a good question. I mean, my sense is that there is sort of bipartisan support for rolling back the War on Drugs if for nothing else in that it's gotten to be too expensive. And there's definitely a lot of stories now about white communities that are worried about things like painkillers and heroin, and that's leading to an upsurge in treatment for addiction and like treating addiction as a health concern instead of a criminal concern. The New York Times has had a lot of stories about that recently. But I think that, to understand why so many people of color have gone to prison since the '80s, you have to also understand that there were a lot of white people who were using drugs or were getting caught, who were getting steered towards things like recovery. right. And so I think there's a more public conversation about that. And yet, that's also been a long-standing trend, right? The idea is that white youth have a future and so we need to collectively help them.

Patrick Potyondy   
Clay Howard is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Ohio State University. His book, “The Closet and the Cul-de-Sac: The Politics of Sexual Privacy in Northern California,” is forthcoming from the University of Pennsylvania press. That's it for today's episode. Thanks to all our guests and remember, you and your friends can subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher and on our website origins.osu.edu. And you can leave a review if you're so inclined. As always, thanks for listening.

Mark Sokolsky  
This episode of History Talk podcast is brought to you by Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, an online publication of the Public History Initiative and the Goldberg Center in the history department at The Ohio State University in Columbus and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Our main editors are Steven Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle. Our executive producer is David Staley. Our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer. Our audio producers and hosts are Patrick Potyondy and Mark Sokolsky. Song and band information can be found on our website. You can find our podcasts and more at our website, origins.osu.edu, on iTunes and on Soundcloud and as always, you can find us on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. Thanks for listening.