Book Examines ‘Forgotten’ War on Drugs

America may have just gotten out of one war and is still involved in another, but a third longstanding war has been largely forgotten during the war on terrorism, according to a University of Illinois at Chicago social-work scholar.

That forgotten war is the “War on Drugs,” according to James Swartz, associate professor in UIC’s Jane Addams College of Social Work. He is the author of a new book, “Substance Abuse in America: A Documentary and Reference Guide” (Greenwood Press).

In the book, Swartz sorts through the historical and social contexts of drug policy and drug abuse in the U.S. to inform public debate.

Swartz, an expert on substance-abuse issues, says much of U.S. drug policy has been reactionary to whatever the latest ‘epidemic’ was.

“We have failed to take into account past policy mistakes and continue to mischaracterize epidemics,” Swartz said. We continue to “proselytize for the latest miracle drugs, which eventually turn out to be not so miraculous after all, and to be highly addicting in their own right.” He cited as examples heroin, amphetamines, barbiturates, Oxycontin and Valium.

The book examines the history of U.S. drug policy from the early 1900s through the current day, covering topics such as patent medicines, Prohibition, “Reefer Madness,” the Psychedelic 60s, Nixon’s War on Drugs, and the powerful warring Mexican drug cartels that currently threaten political instability in that country.

In each chapter, Swartz analyzes a primary-source document that illuminates U.S. drug policy at the time, as well as the reasons for the waxing and waning popularity of different drugs.

Swartz also explains perceptions about substance abuse in American history, and draws parallels from different time periods to show that much of what may seem new and unique to the present generation has a historical precedent.

Swartz said he wanted to make the book about how policy and drugs directly affect people. Prominent people and others who played important roles in drug and drug-policy history are featured in sidebar stories.

Swartz’s interest in drug policy began when he was director of research at Illinois’ Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities program, an agency that provides case management to substance-abusing convicts.

UIC ranks among the nation’s leading research universities and is Chicago’s largest university with 27,500 students, 12,000 faculty and staff, 15 colleges and the state’s major public medical center. A hallmark of the campus is the Great Cities Commitment, through which UIC faculty, students and staff engage with community, corporate, foundation and government partners in hundreds of programs to improve the quality of life in metropolitan areas around the world. More information about UIC.