Speed Reads

History Lesson

How did U.S. drug laws go so awry? Retro Report examines 40 years of heroin in America.

There's a growing bipartisan push to reform America's "War on Drugs" and the harsh prison sentences that came with it. When proponents of criminal justice reform want to highlight the problems with the mass incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders, they often focus on people caught selling marijuana. But Retro Report points out that the War on Drugs — declared by President Richard Nixon and given its punitive jail terms by New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller (R) — was spurred by a less socially acceptable drug, heroin.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, heroin addiction and the accompanying rash of thefts was widely seen as a problem of inner-city black and Latino men, and the short version of the 14-minute Retro Report video might go something like this: Now that a new spike in heroin addictions is recognized as primarily afflicting young white people in the suburbs, lawmakers are focusing more on treatment and less on locking the problem away. The video is much more nuanced, of course: We learn that Nixon's plan initially called for treating addicts, for example, and that Hollywood played a big role in drumming up fear of heroin users and burying Washington, D.C.'s successful methadone treatment experiment. People learn from past mistakes.

If you watch the video, you'll meet John Dunne, an original sponsor of Rockefeller's harsh drug laws who has since become a leading critic; Kurt Schmoke, the former Baltimore mayor who introduced needle exchanges; and Rebecca Hogamier, an official at the Washington County, Maryland, health department who started a program to treat jailed heroin users with a drug called Vivitrol. You won't really hear from anyone who thinks the War on Drugs has succeeded, but you'll probably get a better understanding of how the U.S. got here, and why this new heroin epidemic may be handled more humanely. Peter Weber