Protecting Some and Policing Others: Federal Pharmaceutical Regulation and the Foundations of the War on Drugs

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This dissertation demonstrates how related initiatives to reform narcotics laws and protect consumers from dangerous medicines – taking hold in the 1950s and institutionalized in the mid-1960s – created the foundation for a massive expansion of federal policing of illicit drugs. Centered on the history of the Food and Drug Administration and congressional use of its power to regulate commerce, the dissertation argues federal programs designed to protect consumers of legitimate pharmaceuticals ultimately constructed the authority to classify and police unapproved uses and users of all drugs. Grounding a history of policy, policing, and regulation in the shifting social and cultural climate of the long 1960s, this dissertation recovers the legal underpinnings of the contemporary carceral state. Many still argue that President Richard Nixon launched the war on drugs in 1971 as a part of his “law and order” backlash politics. This work tells a different story in which the modern drug war emerged from mid-century consumer protection politics and the legal reforms they inspired. Charting the institutional and constitutional basis for the federal war on drugs also highlights how, in the past half century, the federal government has taken power intended to regulate corporations and reapplied it towards the policing of people. The consumer protection origins of the war on drugs illustrate and illuminate this process, revealing how and why U.S. laws now police some Americans with power originally intended to protect others. This history of the transfer of power from regulation to policing in turn promises new ways for analyzing how the contemporary war on drugs expanded in lockstep with the unchecked explosion in the misuse of prescription painkillers.

Last modified
  • 04/09/2019
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