Drug War Dissents: Robinson v. California

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by Dr. David Herzberg, as associate professor of history at SUNY Buffalo and the author of Happy Pills in America (2010) and his forthcoming project The Other Drug War: A History of Prescription Drug AbuseEnjoy! 

Most American drug policy historians are familiar with the 1962 Supreme Court decision Robinson v. California, which held that addiction was an illness and not a crime. The case involved a California man sentenced to jail not for buying, possessing, or using narcotics, but for the condition of being a narcotic addict. In striking down the law, the Court declared that addiction was an illness, and that—in Justice Potter Stewart’s memorable words—“Even one day in prison would be a cruel and unusual punishment for the ‘crime’ of having a common cold.” (Stewart would probably be glad to know that at least one group of people, however small, remembers him for this quotation rather than his “I-know- it-when- I-see- it” definition of “hard-core pornography,” which he later feared would adorn his tombstone.) For historians the decision serves as a convenient marker of the broader shift away from the punitive policies of the “classic era” of narcotics control and towards more medicalized approaches to addiction.

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Of late, drug policy historians have been placing this shift under increasing scrutiny. Complementing the vast and growing literature on medicine as a form of social control, historians like Eric Schneider and Points’ own Claire Clark have begun to focus more on how medical approaches harmonized with, rather than diverged from, punitive ones. Methadone maintenance, for example, was implemented primarily as a crime control measure and was evaluated on that basis, and thus ultimately complemented rather than upended prison-based approaches. Meanwhile, therapeutic communities’ tough-love philosophies could lead to “scared straight” type tactics that, in many cases, were much harsher and farther-reaching than simple imprisonment. Historians’ increased focus on the disciplinary dimensions of medical treatment may be due, in part, to the increasing visibility and intellectual availability of “harm reduction,” which also draws parallels between medical and criminal control of drug use.

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“From Whence It Came”: Rethinking the Federal Role When Discussing the War on Drugs

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Matthew June, a PhD candidate at Northwestern University. June’s current work studies the sources of federal power to prosecute national drug laws.

The United States has a massive prison problem. As more attention has been drawn to this stark reality, it has become equally clear that there are no simple solutions or easy explanations. Nonetheless, while many have cited the “war on drugs,” others have dismissed this as too small a part in the larger problem. Last summer a Washington Post Op-Ed argued, “ending the war on drugs would not end mass incarceration.” Taking these back of the envelope calculations a step further, Slate highlighted how reforming the federal system wouldn’t help the country’s 1.3 million state prisoners. This proposition has again come to the fore in debates over Hillary Clinton’s responsibility for the rise of mass incarceration. Arguing against such a conclusion, German Lopez of Vox recently insisted, “Federal policy is not the cause of mass incarceration” because “federal prisons house only 13 percent of the overall prison population.”

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As there are “lies, damn lies, and statistics,” there are many ways to look at these numbers – especially the fact that over half of all federal prisoners are there for drug charges. While it is reasonable to note how this is only a small step for criminal justice reform, changes in federal drug sentencing could benefit nearly 1 out of 20 people under some form of local, state, or national supervision. Put another way, releasing every federal drug offender might not bring us out of the top spot for world incarceration rates, but even a five percent dent in our overall numbers cannot be dismissed. Just ask my students if they wouldn’t mind dropping from an “A-” to a “B+” and you will get a pretty good sense of how just a slim percent difference can seem mighty important to those directly affected. But this somewhat flippant re-examination of the statistics only belies a small sliver of the overall federal role in the “war on drugs” and its impact on mass incarceration. The 105,000 men and women behind bars for federal drug charges are just the most visible part of the federal role in the national “war on drugs.” And the causes and consequences of that role demand ongoing attention from scholars and others.

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The Islands of New York City: How a Real Estate Boom is Turning Former Homes of Crime and Contagion Into Boho-Chic Living—Except for One Tiny Island Off the Bronx (Guest Post)

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post is a is a modified excerpt from Jessica Diller Kovler’s upcoming book, The Boys of the Bronx, to be published in 2015. Kovler is part of the History of Science program at Harvard University and currently teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the City University of New York. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Forbes, and Discover magazines. 

In my city—which, as you may have heard, doesn’t sleep—some nonetheless lethargic neighborhoods have had an awakening of sorts. Many New Yorkers are forgoing the bustling city centers for the far-flung shores of Manhattan as well as some of the city’s 41 adjacent islands, neighborhoods previously considered “The Devil’s Stepping Stones.” (Legend has it that indigenous New Yorkers chased the Devil across the waters of New York, and every time the Devil stepped down on the water, an island was born.) These areas were so removed from the grid that they were used to house the city’s derelict, destitute, profligate, and banished—drug addicts, criminals and those deemed too mentally or physically ill, or even too dangerous to live in “mainland” New York City.

Take Roosevelt Island, where Nellie Bly penned her work on the infamous Woman’s Lunatic Asylum; that island is now home to luxury rentals, with Cornell University planning an extension campus for 2017. Randall’s Island and Wards Island, home to cemeteries, asylums, and contagion hospitals, are now home to Little League games and the Electric Zoo festival.

Amidst this transformation, one island has been forgotten, though thousands of New Yorkers have (reluctantly) called it home. The last inhabitants of North Brother Island comprise a lost chapter in the story of urban institutionalization, a faded memory of a city grappling with a perceived epidemic of both juvenile delinquency and adolescent narcotics addiction. Now abandoned, its buildings fading behind overgrowth, the island nonetheless reveals why New York institutionalized drug-addicted teenagers, even as a nationwide movement towards deinstitutionalization was beginning to gain momentum.

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