Book Review:

America's Longest War: Re-Thinking our Tragic Crusade against Drugs

by Stephen Duke and Albert Gross (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1994)

Reviewed by Kevin McHale

The failure of the drug war has been the subject of numerous magazine and journal articles and, in the last few years, an increasing number of both popular and scholarly books. Although now six years old, America's Longest War remains one of the best overall treatments of the subject.

Written by Yale law professor Steven Duke with lawyer/writer Albert Gross, it is both comprehensive and accessible, devoid of academic jargon, yet detailed in its historical treatment and analysis. The author's subject, in the broadest sense, is how and why the formulation of America's drug policy purposefully ignores scientific data and requires rejection of historical perspective.

The origin of our laws that emerged against particular intoxicants at the beginning of the century was overwhelmingly racial. The blatant nature of their racist origin belies today's oft-repeated mantra of drug laws as the state's protection of the public's health, especially "the children." The first American laws against intoxicants were regulations against the smoking of opium, promulgated to repress the Chinese in California.

While almost exclusively a Chinese practice, the smoking of opium was outlawed; but the drinking of freely available opiate patent medicines and tinctures of opium by the majority of opium users - primarily white, middle-class women - was not. These laws were followed by legislation against cocaine that was, incongruously, directed toward southern black Americans.

Like the Chinese with opium, it was widely claimed that cocaine caused blacks to rape white women. (The wide circulation of the .38 revolver into southern police forces at the time has also been credited to "Negroes being impervious to .32's while on cocaine."). Alcohol prohibition followed right on the heels of narcotic and cocaine regulation.

Once again, criminalization was based on the ethnic nature of the user, not the drug itself: as Irish and Italian Catholics became a growing political power, their use of alcohol became a convenient scapegoat for the threatened white Protestant majority. While cannabis was an extremely popular ingredient in medicine in the 19th century, the Bayer Company's introduction of its trademarked Aspirin in 1898, and Heroin in 1899, eclipsed it.

It was not until racial animosity toward Mexican migrant workers arose during the Great Depression that smoked cannabis, "marijuana," became an issue of sudden concern. Indeed, few involved in drafting the legislation (including the American Medical Association) knew that cannabis, even then considered a relatively benign and helpful drug, was the same plant as marijuana.

While our present drug laws are based on earlier issues of racial and cultural control, their modern evolution is more complex. The role of the State as the protector of public health has emerged as the acceptable replacement for minority control. The rise of this new "public protector" rationale and the political institutions that accompany it are what give such resilience to the drug war in the face of such blatant failure. The contradictions of that rationale, and the inevitable social and constitutional costs required to maintain it, have become overwhelming.

The authors clearly present the absurdity of our present distinctions between legal and illegal drugs based on public safety. Their discourse on the impact of the drug war on civil liberties is very well articulated, one might say depressingly so.

The inevitable failure of what Steven Duke and Albert Gross call "America's Longest War" is cogently argued, as are a number of alternatives to the present regime. In such a broad undertaking, inaccurate assumptions are inevitable, as are reiterations of government "facts" that are misleading. Nonetheless, they are limited in this writing, and America's Longest War remains one of the best general books written on the Drug War and its implications to date.