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Law Enforcement, Psychiatrists, and the Racialization of Drug Addiction in Postwar America

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Washington University in St. Louis historian Sonia Song-Ha Lee, who regularly teaches classes about the civil rights movement, recalls being struck by the discrepancy between triumphant accounts of the history of desegregation and the more sobering realities of present day mass incarceration in the United States.

The Sentencing Project estimates that 2.2 million individuals are presently in jail in the U.S., a figure that soared over the past decades largely due to the incarceration of Black and Latino drug offenders. Somewhere along the process between the mostly successful civil rights marches of the 1950s and 60s and the disastrous “War on drugs” campaigns of the 80s and 90s, something had gone woefully wrong, thought Lee.

Lee’s curiosity about this question eventually lead her to a Kluge Fellowship at the Library of Congress, where she used the rich manuscript collections of the American Psychological Association, as well as the private papers of Kenneth Clark, the first black president of the American Psychological Association and a prolific researcher on race, child development, and social psychology.

Kluge Fellow Sonia Lee
Kluge Fellow Sonia Lee presents a lecture on the racial politics of drug addiction treatment in postwar America, August 7, 2014. Photo by Amanda Reynolds.

While the criminal justice side of this story has been meticulously researched, Lee worked with original manuscripts to shed light on the history of debates within the field of psychiatry–which she argues became thoroughly intertwined with the broader narrative of law enforcement.

One of the transitions she has been studying was the introduction of methadone as a method of drug treatment in the 1970s. What she uncovered is helping her give shape to a picture full of irony and unintended consequences. Introduced by psychiatrists as a way to blunt the euphoric effects of heroin, methadone was rapidly adopted by policymakers across the country who viewed it as an effective tool of crime reduction, as well as by psychiatrists who saw it as a useful psychopharmacological treatment.

Drawing on scientific journals, press accounts, and psychiatric examination reports, Lee argues that this change in approach to treatment had unintended consequences, perhaps most significantly in helping advance a shift from a politics of rehabilitation to a politics of containment. This, she contends, undermined the sense of responsibility felt by mental health experts and public policy makers to approach drug offenders as whole individuals with the potential for full restoration to community life. Instead, drug offenders became a threat to be neutralized and isolated at the lowest possible cost to the tax-payer.

Lee was a Kluge Fellow at the Kluge Center from December 2013 – August 2014. She is currently working on a book project that includes this research.

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