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A History of America's Romance with Illegal Drugs

by Jill Jonnes

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-684-19670-0
Publisher: Scribner

 A history detailing how, as a society, we have both used drugs and tried to suppress them. From Jonnes's sometimes numbing welter of facts a two-stranded history emerges. One strand follows major clusters of drug users, from the 19th-century ladies with their spiked elixirs, to impoverished, rootless men who became ``pleasure addicts'' after WW I, to young blacks who, excluded from postWW II, middle-class hopes of getting ahead, turned to drugs as a way to be hip, becoming ``deliberate outsiders''; to middle-class whites who took drugs mainstream in the '60s and '70s, with Hollywood adding an aura of glamour to it all. Another, largely separate narrative strand follows large-scale trafficking and our half- hearted efforts to stop it. Although Jonnes discusses criminals, notably Arnold Rothstein, who in the 1920s established a drug-supply system superseded only by that of the Colombian cartels in the 1970s, more fascinating is our government's ambivalence about trafficking. For years the Bureau of Narcotics was led by Harry J. Anslinger, who was more interested in seeming tough than getting results; he ignored corruption in his agency and discouraged scientific research into addiction. Meanwhile, high-level US cold warriors could overlook drug trafficking provided it was conducted by anti-communists, such as members of French military intelligence in Indochina in the 1950s or, more recently, the Contras in Nicaragua. Oddly, after recounting how governmental unreliability and corruption have compromised efforts to reduce addiction, Jonnes puts her faith in law enforcement to reduce the supply of drugs, a move she sees as crucial to long-term change. But the toughest question remains: Will a law-and-order approach produce results or just more Anslingers? Duller than a book on the ``romance'' of drugs should be; but still better on what has happened than on what to do about it. (8 pages b&w photos, not seen)