At the heart of Donna Murch’s analysis is a warning: the drug war is not dead. For Donald Trump, after all, getting tough is the answer to most problems, from trade deficits and violent crime to protesting football players. Even in the midst of an opioid crisis that has been characterized as a “gentler drug war,” Trump has explicitly placed toughness at the center of his response. At a speech in New Hampshire in March 2018, for example, he invoked the death penalty as a way to contain the opioid crisis. “We have to get tough on those people,” he said. “If we don’t get tough on the drug dealers, we’re wasting our time.”
The president’s invocation of a hyper-masculinized vision of political authority is no historical aberration. While Trump takes this performance to a cartoonish extreme (stating, for example, that he would beat Joe Biden in a fist fight), toughness has long shaped—and corrupted—our political discourse, posing the foil of softness as a potentially fatal liability. It was the drive to appear tough on crime that has helped fuel the mass incarceration targeting low-income African American and Latino communities since the 1970s. Legislators and prosecutors engaged in punitive bidding wars, ratcheting up the intensity and duration of punishment for street crime. Many politicians used votes for harsh punishment to showcase their own resolute, muscular political authority or to shield against charges of softness. For decades there appeared to be no upper limit on toughness, despite the fact that harsher sentences were shown to be ineffective deterrents of crime. Throughout the period, the same gendered and racialized logics that privileged prisons and policing were used to defund the welfare state. Opponents of social programs disparaged them as feminine: overly permissive, coddling, and ultimately pathologizing.
It is tempting to conclude that these dynamics have run their course. Activists have transformed mass incarceration into a pressing political problem, in part through laying bare its racist operation and exorbitant costs. Within Democratic Party politics, some politicians are discovering their past support for harsh sentencing to be a liability. In contrast to the draconian state response to crack cocaine, the response to the contemporary opioid crisis is oriented toward treatment.
While these are welcome changes, Murch suggests that celebration would be premature. Compassion is no innovation of the contemporary drug crisis, she shows; it has always been extended along racial lines. White people comprised a minuscule number of those charged with crack-related violations at the federal level, despite making up a majority of the people who used the drug. Conversely, the punitive impulse is hardly absent today. About twenty states now have “drug-induced homicide laws” that allow prosecutors to file murder charges against people who sold drugs that led to an accidental overdose. In 2017 thirteen states considered legislation that would implement or strengthen the ability to charge fatal overdoses as homicides. In many cases, prosecutions targeted an immediate friend or family member that was using drugs with the person who overdosed.
For a half century, almost all participants in drug policy debates have seen a role for both treatment and punishment; they fight over the appropriate balance between them. The struggle is deciding who deserves sympathy, care, and treatment and who requires incarceration, ostracization, quarantine, or death. In sites ranging from courtrooms to hospitals, people tease apart victim from perpetrator or addict from criminal. Yet these categories do not correspond to objective distinctions; the sorting is inevitably contested and subjective. A person’s social location—race, ethnicity, neighborhood, gender, and class—has a profound influence over where they fall in the state’s taxonomy.
This scheme does not simply shunt users down divergent tracks. It also allocates blame and breeds pernicious social narratives. In the midst of anxiety about suburban drug use in the mid-twentieth century, the visions of a redeemable white drug user depended on the character of the malevolent African American or Latino “pusher” who foisted drugs and addiction onto innocent victims. This is one of many reasons that getting tough remains so effective politically: it identifies easy culprits and sets the terms of debate, helping to sculpt “common sense” about suspect groups by presenting them as manageable only through punishment or physical containment. Trump knows this all too well. His official rhetoric draws an explicit causal link between “illegal aliens” and a whole suite of social ills—“reduced jobs, lower wages, overburdened schools, hospitals that are so crowded you can’t get in, increased crime, and a depleted social safety net,” as he said in his State of the Union address this year. He also holds them responsible for the “tens of thousands of innocent Americans . . . killed by lethal drugs that cross our border and flood into our cities.”
Getting tough exploits a gender hierarchy to naturalize those state strategies, policies, and institutions portrayed as masculine. In this vision of legitimate power, social order is protected by a patriarchal, resolute authority figure at the helm of a resolute, disciplinary state. This logic serves to reproduce a world where men remain the most respected state actors, and traditionally masculinist institutions—the military, police, prisons—are the dominant, most legitimate state tools to manage society. This scheme not only disadvantages the women who hope to gain access to traditionally male-dominated halls of power. It also subordinates state tools that are cast through this gendered rhetoric as “soft,” such as cash assistance, social welfare programs, drug treatment, and other branches of the so-called “nanny state.”
The supremacy of tough policy and tough politicians impoverishes political discourse. When disputes over drug policy focus on who deserves punishment, the debate is trained on interventions at the level of individuals, obscuring root causes and constricting imagination about alternative futures. Getting tough remains attractive because it is easy; cracking down on drug sellers and undocumented immigrants is simpler than addressing structural inequality and confronting enormously powerful interests, such as the pharmaceutical and health insurance lobbies. To truly transform the dynamics of race, profit, and dispossession that so intensify the harms of drugs, we must subvert the preeminence of macho political authority and resist the impulse to parse out blame at the level of individuals.