You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation
Mean Streets

The Suburbs Made the War on Drugs in Their Own Image

Matthew Lassiter’s history plays out in ranch houses, high school parking lots, and courtrooms from Shaker Heights to Westchester to Orange County.

In 1956, Jane Tompkins of Maplewood, New Jersey, waged her own war on drugs. Tompkins, who was then the state director of the New Jersey Commission on Narcotic Control, had a difficult job. As she raised the alarm about drugs, she had to persuade the white voters who had moved to the safety of the suburbs that their children were in danger. Although Maplewood was a “first class suburban area,” she acknowledged, she warned that drug users and dealers—members of “economically and socially deprived minority groups,” nurtured in deteriorating cities—could travel to upscale communities to commit crimes.

The answer? A law like one that had just been adopted in Ohio, where civic groups had banded together to protect the suburbs and suburban children from urban drug pushers. New Jersey’s Democratic Governor Robert Meyner saw the flaw in these tough laws—that white youth, temporarily corrupted by outsiders, could easily end up in the prison system—and Jane Tompkins’s campaign failed. But it highlights an important, and often overlooked, aspect of America’s decades-long war on drugs. Although many works on the subject focus, rightly, on its devastating effects on cities and particularly on communities of color, these harsh policies were a phenomenon of suburbanization.

The Suburban Crisis: White America and the War on Drugs
by Matthew D. Lassiter
Princeton University Press, 680 pp., $39.95

Matthew Lassiter’s The Suburban Crisis is a history of the war on drugs that plays out in ranch houses, high school parking lots, and courtrooms from Shaker Heights, to Westchester, to Orange County. Lassiter’s last book examined the silent majority in the Sun Belt, and he is one of several authors who have in recent years paid close attention to the outsize political power of the suburbs, from Lily Geismer’s 2014 study of Boston suburbs, Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party, to Willow Lung-Amam’s Trespassers?: Asian Americans and the Battle for Suburbia. The panic over drug use after World War II was crafted, Lassiter argues, to recruit and serve middle-class Americans who had fled the cities for the good schools and safe streets of the suburbs. Most importantly, he places at the center of this story the policing of marijuana—the drug to which suburban teens had the easiest access.

Rather than aiming to limit the harmful effects of the most addictive and potential deadly substances, Lassiter proposes, the war on drugs focused relentlessly on protecting white youth from the fictional perils of cannabis. That many of these drug warriors were sincere in their beliefs hardly matters, for these campaigns didn’t curtail drug use. Instead, they functioned first and foremost to give white suburban voters a sense of security, and to lay blame for a range of social dysfunction on outsiders and urban communities of color. And so, in order to understand the twisted logic and resultant failures of these policies, he argues, we have to look at the aspirations and anxieties of America’s white suburbs.

Although the term “war on drugs” dates to the Nixon era, America’s drug war has a long prehistory. An important precedent was the criminalization of alcohol from 1920 to 1933. Like the war on drugs, Prohibition began with local and state legislation and reformers who saw alcohol abuse as a working-class moral failing. As in later political campaigns to pass harsh drug laws, Prohibition was linked to middle-class women establishing their own political authority, both in the pre- and post-suffrage eras. And as in later policing, enforcement was uneven and corrupt. Poorly trained agents of the newly created Bureau of Prohibition established an important pattern, turning a blind eye toward middle-class and wealthy consumers, who drank in their homes and in private clubs, while conducting often lethal raids against rural moonshiners and storefront dealers.

Even as Prohibition failed, President Herbert Hoover stubbornly applied the same approach to the trade in narcotics, which soon became a robust source of income for organized crime, as bootlegging had been. In June 1930, Hoover appointed former railroad detective and Prohibition agent Harry Anslinger commissioner of a new Federal Bureau of Narcotics. This as yet feeble government agency became the foundation for what we know today as the Drug Enforcement Administration, and operated on the same principle as Prohibition. It controlled and criminalized narcotics and marijuana by requiring federal tax stamps on imports and sales. In other words, drugs themselves were not illegal or even more than loosely controlled in the United States, until much later.

The move toward tougher, more punitive policy would be powered by grassroots activists, who had state and local laws in their sights. Anxieties about drug-addled juvenile delinquents and the porous Mexican border made drugs a major preoccupation of suburban Californians by the mid-1950s. In April 1950, Los Angeles
newspapers began to report on “wolf gangs” and “rat packs” of Mexican American youths, smuggling drugs and spreading lawlessness. A prominent narcotics prevention group warned of dealing at “bowling alleys, drive-in restaurants, malt shops, and pool halls,” Lassiter writes. Threats to suburban conformity lurked all around. Articles in popular magazines and much-discussed movies like Rebel Without a Cause (1955) warned that thrill-seeking behaviors—petting, drinking, and sneaking off to jazz and rock and roll clubs—could escalate into life-threatening criminal acts. The children suburban parents had rescued from deindustrializing cities, moviemakers warned, were inexplicably alienated, bored, and angry. And increasingly, smoking pot seemed to accompany these teenage antics.

In California, a range of actors, from Republican Governors Earl Warren and Goodwin Knight to the California Federation of Women’s Clubs and the California Congress of Parents and Teachers, mobilized to implement tougher state penalties for the possession and sale of cannabis and institute a school-based drug awareness curriculum in 1951. In 1958, California Attorney General Pat Brown (who, not coincidentally, would go on to become the governor of California the following year) launched a narcotics awareness campaign, directly appealing to white middle-class parents. A year earlier, the California Citizens’ Advisory Committee on Crime Prevention had presented him with a report that recommended distinguishing between “hard core incorrigibles” and “those who would reasonably profit from rehabilitative treatment.” In Washington, in the 1955 to 1956 term, the Senate established a committee to study the drug problem. A change in the law also doubled penalties on the sale and possession of heroin and marijuana, implicitly categorizing the two substances as equally dangerous and addictive.

A sensationalist press added to parents’ fears. In 1965, Life magazine profiled a young, white couple who had fallen from their racial and class privilege through drug use. Controlled by her addiction to hard drugs and living in “teeming slums” (code for poor, Black neighborhoods), Karen had once been part of a Midwestern family. Now, she “worked as a prostitute to pay for their dope, and expected to die on the streets.” Karen’s boyfriend, John, as Lassiter writes, “started smoking marijuana at age thirteen, supported his smack habit with petty theft, and occasionally operated as a ‘junkie pusher’” (a term that described an addict who sold, not to exploit others, but to support his own habit). In this framing, drugs represented an explicitly racial danger, a stubborn, residual connection to the ethnic neighborhoods and poverty that white suburbanites believed they had left behind and that now, they believed, were coming for them.

Amid this mix of anxiety and animosity, the stage was set for ever-harsher policies that would deepen racial inequality and offer little help to those affected by actual problems with drug use.

A stark divide between the treatment of white middle-class kids and working-class people of color charged with drug offenses had already begun to emerge in the Anslinger era, which ended in 1962. Local and state laws gave judges broad sentencing discretion, and white offenders, seen as victims who required treatment and care, rarely received the harshest punishments. In overwhelmingly white Nassau County, New York, between 1967 and 1971, 66 percent of those arrested had their cases dismissed outright, 17 percent were sentenced to probation, and only 6 percent to confinement. Low-level marijuana arrests were often reduced to a public intoxication charge, “a simple violation that did not leave a criminal record.”

Across the country, courts “almost always released college-bound youth to the custody of their parents,” Lassiter writes, preferring to recommend “internal family discipline and often private psychiatric counseling.” Suburban judges downgraded white teens’ violation of felony drug laws to misdemeanors, agreed to dismiss charges in exchange for therapy, and could even erase the record of an arrest that might hinder admission to college. Authorities were open about why: White, suburban teens were not criminal by nature; they were good kids, from good families, who had only gotten caught up in illegal activity by accident.

Young people of color, meanwhile, did not benefit from the same lenience. As Lassiter shows in two graphs compiling “racial characteristics and total number of boys referred to the probation department for delinquent acts” in California and Los Angeles County, youth contacts with the police and the justice system skyrocketed under enhanced enforcement between 1954 and 1964, with young men of color disproportionately affected. During this period, the share of Black teens under confinement or court supervision in Los Angeles County rose by 9 percent, while the share of white teens dropped by 6 percent. Lassiter points to egregious sentences, such as the 40-year prison term handed to Samuel Williams, an African American man who had sold a single joint to a 16-year-old white teen who had solicited him in a Seattle restaurant in 1967.

Perhaps it is no accident, given California’s early and aggressive posture on drugs, that it was a career politician from the state who discerned that he could ride to the White House on suburban fear. Making his second run at the presidency in 1968, Richard Nixon promised a crackdown on drugs but also signaled that his policies would not be aimed at the children of white suburbanites. At a campaign rally in conservative Anaheim, outside of Los Angeles, the candidate “pledged to stop marijuana and heroin importers at the border, arrest the drug traffickers, and rehabilitate their youthful victims.”

Nixon’s promise resonated with white suburban parents nationwide; Democrats across the nation crossed party lines to vote for him, particularly in the South where white suburbanites were removing their children from public school rather than have them mingle with Black students. As president, Nixon delivered on his pledge by building up a more robust and extensive machinery for cracking down on drugs. The 1970 Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act created the schedule system, placing marijuana in the same category as LSD and heroin.

Liberal Democrats in Congress knew what their suburban constituents wanted. They flocked to empower a war on drugs that has never ended—and never succeeded. Borrowing a phrase from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, Nixon labeled narcotics “public enemy number one” and appointed psychiatrist Jerome Jaffe the first “drug czar.” On the campaign trail in 1972, Nixon contrasted his own “tough on crime” stance to that of his Democratic opponent, South Dakota Senator George McGovern, a darling of a New Left who had vowed to decriminalize but not legalize marijuana. Once reelected, Nixon moved federal anti-drug operations into a new, stand-alone federal agency, the Drug Enforcement Administration.

By the time he resigned under threat of impeachment in 1974, Nixon had succeeded in establishing a potent political strategy: Tough drug policies could mobilize suburban parents and serve as a route to the presidency for Republicans. While Nixon fought Congress’s Watergate investigation, laws at the state level intensified as other candidates looked ahead to 1976.

One of these aspirants was New York’s Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a liberal who saw a path to win over voters to his right by promoting a package of anti-drug laws that were even harsher than Nixon’s. A chart issued by New York state in 1973, headlined “See how this new law affects you,” describes four classes of felony charges for narcotics sale and possession that could result in life imprisonment; possessing an ounce of marijuana could cost the unlucky offender 15 years. Under these new sentencing guidelines, New York sent thousands of Black men to prison. The Rockefeller laws, and other state laws patterned on a “zero tolerance” approach, contributed to an extraordinary rise in the national prison population, from 330,000 to 2.3 million over the next several decades. Yet the 1973 chart also points to a loophole for some: at the very bottom, the possibility to treat the possession of “any amount” of “any controlled substance” as a class A misdemeanor, which carried only a one-year maximum, with the possibility of probation.

Although Rockefeller never won the Republican nomination, he created a map for a man who did. President Ronald Reagan renewed the call for a national war on drugs and in his second term created the Office of National Drug Control Policy to coordinate anti-drug initiatives that reached across multiple branches of government. His efforts were bolstered by the first lady. In 1981, Nancy Reagan rolled out an ­anti-drug campaign, officially adopting the slogan “Just Say No” in 1985. In September 1986, she addressed parents directly with an established, racially coded message that reassured white suburbanites that the government was on their side. Families needed to be on guard, she warned sweetly, against “ingenious” drug dealers determined to “steal our children’s lives.”

Predictably, Reagan’s war on drugs only accelerated the flow of youth of color into the nation’s prisons. By the time he left office, drug arrests and incarcerations had more than doubled from their level 11 years before. The share of Black people among those arrested increased from 22 to 42 percent. Meanwhile the share of white people apprehended fell from 77 percent to 58 percent.

The disparity wasn’t because white kids learned to say no and Black kids didn’t. Rather, the war on drugs was shifting away from pot, and toward the heroin and cocaine that were more widely available in urban neighborhoods. Lassiter reports that “between 1978 and 1989, the proportion of marijuana to all drug arrests declined from 70 to 29 percent.” In any case, by the 1970s, some white parents had ceased to believe that pot was dangerous, or that it led their children to harder drugs, or that—consumed in moderation—it interrupted a teenager’s trajectory toward success. In the 1973 documentary An American Family, suburban matriarch Pat Loud’s children were routinely stoned on camera, and it was clear that she knew they were high. While some parents in the PBS audience may have been shocked by this breach of maternal responsibility, many others weren’t. A few years after this series aired, Republican first lady Betty Ford, and then her successor, Democrat Rosalynn Carter, acknowledged publicly that their children had smoked pot. Two of these children—Jack Ford and Chip Carter—went to work to decriminalize pot with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Because The Suburban Crisis ends with Reagan, Lassiter does not devote full chapters to George H.W. Bush’s militarization of drug policing, say, or the rocketing incarceration rated that accompanied the Clinton crime bill. A book that stretched closer to the present might even have concluded with an upbeat chapter, documenting the first steps toward the legalization of marijuana. For, while still illegal under federal law, marijuana is now fully legal in 22 states, and only fully illegal in seven. In the 2021 fiscal year, Massachusetts collected more tax revenue from pot than alcohol; in 2022, only 261 people were arrested for possessing and selling it illegally.

Yet as the drug war eases off on marijuana, it has shifted to fentanyl, and relies on all the same tropes: the idea that this intoxicant is a blight on the suburbs, and that foreign enemies—Mexican cartels, Chinese manufacturers—prey on ordinary well-meaning Americans. Politicians push this narrative, even though it was the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of Purdue Pharma’s highly addictive OxyContin in 1996 that laid the foundation for a national opioid addiction crisis and a booming market for the deadly synthetic opioid, fentanyl. The penalties for fentanyl-related crimes are steep: Currently, a dealer can receive a sentence of up to 40 years in prison and a fine of up to $5 million, and Republican Representative Paul Gosar has introduced legislation that would make fentanyl trafficking subject to the death penalty. Meanwhile, the owners of Purdue Pharma have faced no criminal charges for their actions and, pending a decision from the Supreme Court later this year, may even secure personal immunity from further civil suits.

A true effort to help Americans out of addiction and substance-related issues would mean accepting the fact that people, often very high-functioning ones who live in the suburbs, take drugs whether we want them to or not. Today’s fentanyl deaths and sprawling networks of prisons demonstrate that the United States is no closer to implementing proven solutions that improve public health—decriminalization, education, treatment, and monitored use.

This necessary shift might also require something else: a national reckoning with the damage U.S. drug policies have done to the poor, the working class, and communities of color who have not, like white suburbanites, had the resources, social prestige, or political clout to defend themselves from the government’s war on them.