An Interview with Anne L. Foster

The scholar talks addiction, drug policy, and why it’s never a good idea to declare war on a noun.

An Interview with Anne L. Foster

An associate history professor at Indiana State University, Anne L. Foster is also the author of — or contributor to — multiple books, including Projections of Power: The United States and Europe in Colonial Southeast Asia, 1919-1941 and The American Colonial State in the Philippines: Global Perspectives. Although her newest book, The Long War on Drugs, is equally erudite, it differs from her earlier titles in that its birth can be traced directly to the classroom.

You write in your acknowledgements that this book grew out of a course you taught. Can you elaborate?

I teach a course by the same name as my book, The Long War on Drugs, to undergraduates at Indiana State and was dissatisfied with my options for a textbook. There are many terrific books on the topic of drugs history, but all either seem to be trying to make a political argument for a particular policy or are too narrowly focused on an aspect of drugs history. I wanted to help students see that this is a complex, wide-ranging issue with no simple solution. And I wanted something reasonably short, with short chapters, to help assure they would read it! I gave them draft chapters and asked for feedback. Some were brave enough to give me suggestions, all of which improved the book.

Was the “war on drugs” ever something we as a society could win? In other words, was the framing of the issue as a war a mistake?

Not to be flip, but I think that declaring wars on nouns is a losing proposition. Poverty, drugs, terror. None of those wars has been won, or is likely to be. More seriously, we cannot win a war on drugs, and viewing drug policy through the lens of war encourages tactics which are harmful to people, the environment, our system of laws, and foreign relations. The war framing, even if a metaphor, encourages punishing, even killing, those on the “wrong” side of the issue, rather than offering treatment. It also promotes the idea that this war can be won, meaning the drug problem can be solved once and for all. There are medical uses for some version of nearly every drug which has been prohibited for recreational use. The drugs will, therefore, exist. And so long as they do, people will find them and take them. The best drugs policy would work to minimize the harmful use of drugs without causing other societal harms.

While illegal drug use was once seen as a moral failing, it’s now generally viewed — through the lens of addiction — as an illness. What caused this shift?

As long ago as the early 19th century, people like Benjamin Rush, physician and signer [of] the Declaration of Independence, viewed addiction as a disease. But many people who accepted it was a disease still thought there was a moral-failing component to the disease. They thought, and many people still think this, that some people are more susceptible to the disease of addiction because of a personal moral failing or weakness. Our ability to understand the chemical and neurological effects of drugs improves each year, showing that addiction is a disease. Yes, some people are more susceptible, just as some are more susceptible to heart disease. And yes, personal choices can mitigate the effects, as with many other chronic illnesses. But addiction is a disease.

From the wide support for legalized marijuana to the growing interest in using psychedelics to treat depression and other conditions, Americans seem far more sophisticated in our understanding of drugs than we were in the past. Is this the result of better education, better PR, or something else?

One thing I hope people will take away from The Long War on Drugs is that Americans have used drugs for decades to address medical problems, both with and without a prescription from a doctor. Medical knowledge about how and why drugs work, for what, and with what side effects…has developed over these decades. We now would give ibuprofen, not laudanum, for a headache! But in 1880, laudanum was one of few options. So, I think that the current growing knowledge of and support for using psychedelics like marijuana, psilocybin, and LSD to treat depression or PTSD, among other ailments, are similar to developments we have seen before.

Both medical researchers and ordinary Americans want effective treatments for debilitating illnesses. Ordinary Americans will try substances that don’t have medical approval if they are not getting relief from ones that are approved. And, despite difficulties due to the fact that hallucinogens are mostly on Schedule I, meaning the U.S. government has deemed them to have “no currently accepted medical use,” some researchers have begun to do rigorous experiments to see what medical benefits there are. To your broader point, though, I think that the medical-marijuana campaigns that took off during and after the peak of the HIV/AIDS pandemic helped to bring empathy and reasonableness to discussions of drugs and their effects. There is plenty of hyperbole and misinformation out there, of course, but on balance, the quality of discussion is better.

What’s next for you?

I’m just getting started on a book project about the history of the idea of feeling safe, focused again primarily on the United States but always with an eye to the broader global context. I am curious about why, in this time when we are probably safer than we ever have been, so many people use a language of feeling “not safe.” And I’m equally curious why we seem to be so bad at identifying the things that really threaten our safety and instead focus on the harms of things that are highly unlikely to happen, or to really hurt us if they do. A kind of complicated project, but I like a challenge.

[Editor’s note: Anne L. Foster will appear at the Gaithersburg Book Festival on May 18th in Gaithersburg, MD. Learn more here.]

Holly Smith is editor-in-chief of the Independent.

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