COOL CLASSES: “Law and Anthropology: The War on Drugs”

This course explores anthropological approaches to the law and legal regimes, with special emphasis on the relationship between law, power and politics, social hierarchy, and the institutionalization of inequality in the United States in the context of the War on Drugs.

Class Name: “Law and Anthropology: The War on Drugs”

Taught By: Visiting Instructor of Anthropology Nadja Eisenberg-Guyot

Says Eisenberg-Guyot:

My class is about the race, gender, and class politics of the so-called War on Drugs, which is actually not a war on drugs at all, but a war waged on people, primarily working-class Black and brown people, as part of the apparatus of mass criminalization and imprisonment that emerged after the Civil War to reproduce racial hierarchy. From this perspective, the perspective of Critical Race Theory, the War on Drugs is just one element of how the law is used to produce and reproduce race and racism in the United States. We’re approaching the topic ethnographically, by trying to understand not just what the law says, but what it does, from the perspective of those impacted by its effects—criminalized people who use drugs. 

There are a couple things I want students to take away from this class. The first thing is historical: we can’t understand the development or scope of the War on Drugs in isolation from the broader systems of policing, surveillance, and incarceration in which it is entangled, and through which the War on Drugs helps to maintain white supremacy. I don’t think it’s possible to decriminalize substance use or end the War on Drugs without radically altering these broader social and political conditions. The second is methodological: what does it mean to study the politics of mass incarceration from within the University, an institution that has historically been tasked with producing forms of knowledge (in disciplines like criminology, psychology, sociology, and anthropology) that have justified mass imprisonment? Finally, I want my students to feel empowered to take collective action to challenge mass criminalization and imprisonment in our society. 

I created this course for several reasons. First, my own research explores the intersections of medical and criminal approaches to substance use, and how ideas about rehabilitation and recovery are often used in contradictory ways to expand the carceral state and the policing of people who use drugs. For example, “court-mandated” drug treatment—while often conceptualized as a therapeutic “alternative” to jail or prison—relies on policing, judicial authority, and the threat of jail time and punitive sanctions: in other words, it relies on the very carceral apparatus it purports to oppose. So, the course is very much in line with the things I am writing about and thinking about all the time.

Second, the course is timely. It addresses several mass social movements of the past several years: the movement to defund the police, the movement to abolish prisons, and the movement to decriminalize drugs, and, I hope, gives students a theoretical and historical foundation for understanding these movements and their demands.

Finally, I hope that the course gives students some resources to push back against popular framings of the overdose crisis, which paint it as a problem of the overprescription of opioid medication by unscrupulous doctors, rather than as an inevitable outcome of the dynamics of drug prohibition. Drug prohibition not only accelerates the manufacture of ever-more-potent drugs (to evade detection by police and border patrol), but forces people who use drugs to do so in unsafe, isolated conditions, without the resources they deserve to keep themselves safe and alive while using drugs.

In fact, a series of racist moral panics surrounding drug use—the notion that unsuspecting (white) youth were being tricked and seduced into drug use by dangerous “Others”—propelled drug prohibition in the first place, at the turn of the 20th century. Rather than viewing drug use as a social problem to be quarantined, controlled, and surveilled—or even “recovered” from—I’m interested in providing students with the resources to think about drug-user autonomy, health, and wellness without replicating these stigmatizing frames that treat people who use drugs either as criminals or as fallen innocents who need to be redeemed. 

I hope that this course provides students with novel frameworks for thinking about criminalization and what true alternatives to our current system of policing and imprisonment could look like. 

Learn more about other courses offered by the Department of Anthropology.

Cool Classes

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