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A New Look at the War on Drugs

Feb. 21, 2017
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The War on Drugs began in the 1930s when the director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger, launched a scare campaign equating pot with heroin and convinced Congress to outlaw marijuana. Martin Torgoff’s Bop Apocalypse: Jazz, Race, The Beats, & Drugs (Da Capo) shows that race was a front in the war from the start. Anslinger castigated marijuana for its links with “filthy Central American and West Indian ports” and warned it was an aphrodisiac that would lead to sex between blacks and whites.

Torgoff manages to pull several streams of thought together into a coherent if partial history of a subject—the spread of illicit drugs in the U.S.—that has lent itself more to hysteria and romanticism than sober analysis. The author can’t entirely dampen down the romance. Certainly, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac can be seen as pioneers of a new American frontier through drug-induced derangement of the senses; Charlie Parker’s complex rhythms, unusual time signatures and daring melodic lines were fueled by heroin. But as Torgoff acknowledges, Ginsberg was disappointed with the drug culture that emerged in his wake, the legion of stoners preoccupied with partying, not enlightenment; and despite his music, Parker aged fast, died young and left behind a decrepit corpse.

Torgoff’s account cuts across a large expanse of pop culture with insight. “As reefer was associated with swing, heroin marked the transition from swing to bop,” he notes. Not every bebop great was thrilled by the connection. Dizzy Gillespie, “determined to move the country ahead racially as well as musically,” was fine with pot but condemned, as he put it, “the drug scourge of the forties [that] victimized black musicians first, before hitting any other large segment of the black community.”

Before the 1930s America was, even in Prohibition, a nation of drinkers. But soon enough, pot spread from Latinos and blacks near the southern border into jazz circles and from there to the intelligentsia that gave birth to the Beats and inspired the 1960s counterculture. Heroin crept from seedy backrooms into the lives of many of the most estimable jazz musicians before gradually going mainstream. The lesson to be found in Bop Apocalypse is that criminalization not only failed to halt the spread of intoxicants unfamiliar to most Americans a century ago, but has also caused whole new sets of problems for individuals and society.


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