White Suburbs and Drug Wars

To understand the racism of the drug war, in other words, we must look to the ways policymakers sought to protect white suburban youth.

Since the 1950s, the drug trade in cities—with all its racialized connotations—has motivated much of America’s multidecade drug war. But this deadly assault on cities obscures that there was a corresponding, deep-seated desire to protect the suburbs: home to America’s “otherwise law-abiding” “innocent victims,” “addict-victims,” or “impossible criminals.” The drug war may have raged in America’s cities, but it was driven by suburban interests. Why?

Predictably, the answer comes back to racism. Policymakers were often responding to pressure from below. White suburbanites mobilized at the grass roots, especially in Southern California, to push liberal politicians, such as Governor Pat Brown, to crack down on the racialized “pushers” who they believed threatened their white kids and teenagers. White liberals were often the primary drivers behind the escalating drug war, pushing get-tough solutions for the supply side of the drug war and coercive rehabilitation for the demand side. They were driven by a reoccurring fear of suburban crisis: the alleged vulnerability of innocent white youth, whom parents and policymakers believed were under constant threat from drug pushers but also in need of social control.

Saving these “innocent victims” is the subject of Matthew D. Lassiter’s groundbreaking new book, The Suburban Crisis: White America and the War on Drugs. By reorienting the traditional narrative of the drug war—away from the cities where the war was at its most punitive and to the suburbs where the war was designed to be preventive—Lassiter adds needed political and spatial nuance to the history of the war on drugs. Often, that history is focused on the singular story of the ratcheting up of punitive policy and impact on communities of color. But Lassiter shows how that punishment was doled out at the same time as gentler policies of rehabilitation were carefully constructed for white communities in the suburbs. Taken together, the punitive and preventive sides of the drug war were mutually reinforcing and, in the process, exacerbated the drug war’s racially unequal consequences.

Suburban white felony lawbreakers elicited sympathy from policymakers, parents, and police at the local, state, and federal levels, which drove escalation of the drug war at every stage from the 1950s through the 1980s. Protecting these innocent victims lay at the heart of every piece of major drug war legislation, ranging from the amendment to the Narcotic Drugs Import and Export Act in 1951, which led to enhanced mandatory minimum penalties for dope peddlers, to the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act that put in place the 100:1 crack to powder ratio.

Meanwhile, the desire to protect white victims meant overtly punitive outcomes were reserved for the implicitly racialized inner-city “pushers,” Mexican “wolf packs,” or “predatory ghetto addict.” As Lassiter argues, “State institutions and American political culture have consistently waged the war on drugs through the framework of suburban crisis and positioned white middle-class youth as impossible criminals who must be protected from the illegal drug markets and then shielded from the consequences of their criminalized activities.”

The multitiered consequences of the drug war had deep roots in postwar America, which becomes especially visible when the field of vision is focused on white middle-class users instead of the oft-vilified nonwhite pushers and addicts.


The innocent white suburbanite has been a key figure in the history of the drug war but has often been hidden in plain sight. Take, for instance, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA)’s 2017 remake of the Partnership For a Drug-Free America’s iconic 1997 “This Is Your Brain on Drugs” public service announcement featuring Rachel Leigh Cook, a white actress. In the original version, Cook smashed an egg (representing your brain) with a cast iron pan (heroin) and then proceeded to destroy every fragile thing in the kitchen representing your family, friends, money, future, self-respect, and life, ending with the final phrase, “Any questions?” It was an explicit statement of the zero-tolerance message of the devastating consequences of drug use—even if used just once—and reinforced the dominant “Just Say No” ethos of the era. Although policymakers on both sides of the aisle could not have agreed more with the message, over time the advertisement came to be associated with the racism of the modern war on drugs.

By contrast, the recent version, entitled, “This Is Your Brain on Drug Policy,” focuses squarely on drug policy and the drug war’s consequences. In a narrated animation, Cook describes how one American, represented by a brown egg, is several times more likely to be arrested for a drug crime, be incarcerated, and experience the criminal punishment system’s vast collateral consequences. Another American who also used drugs, represented by a white egg, does not face the same consequences let alone get arrested. Cook concludes by stating that “the war on drugs is ruining people’s lives,” disproportionately impacts people of color, costs billions of dollars, and, quite simply, does not work. This message forthrightly critiqued the racism of the drug war, which treated white youth differently than their nonwhite counterparts, and implicitly criticized the 1997 ad for exacerbating the racial disparities created by years of bad drug policy.

Despite stark differences in messaging (one critiques drug use, the other drug policy), both PSAs rely on the vulnerable “innocent” white suburban youth to explain who needed to be protected, who was punished, and the resulting racial disparities. To more fully understand the important role that protecting white suburban youth played in the construction of the modern drug war, it is instructive to explore where it all started, which Lassiter locates in the sunbaked postwar suburbs of Southern California.

To understand the racism of the drug war, we must look to the ways policymakers sought to protect white suburban youth.

In order to reorient the history of the drug war, Lassiter uses the framework of “suburban crisis.” For parents, residents, and lawmakers—from the 1950s through the present—the utopian vision of the postwar American dream, exemplified by the suburban single-family home, is threatened by the dystopian suburban reality of drug use and white youth criminality. Although many readers are likely familiar with Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign and its message of drug prevention, albeit simplistic and often mocked in hindsight, rarely do Americans think about how drug prevention programs worked hand-in-hand with punitive, get-tough policy. However well intentioned such preventive messages may have been, Lassiter shows how the desire to protect white youth linked punitive policy targeting racialized “pushers” with coercive public health and rehabilitative measures aimed at controlling white youth. The hard and soft sides of the drug war were nothing but intertwined.

After reading The Suburban Crisis, there is no mistaking that “Just Say No” certainly was no joke. White youth were politicized so as to advance unequal policy outcomes; simultaneously, they were depoliticized, downgrading them from independent actors with rights and responsibilities.

But these innocent white victims were not in need of “saving,” as so many parents, police, and politicians seemed to think. As Lassiter deftly points out, they were much more savvy observers—and navigators—of drug markets and use than their self-appointed defenders understood. Rather than predatory drug pushers from inner cities or foreign traffickers invading the suburbs, many white youth in Southern California, for instance, described how they got their drugs from friends who drove to Mexico to obtain them. While these independent youth actors do make appearances, especially in the ways that they described how they obtained drugs from friends, in comparison to the ways that the “suburban crisis” motivated politicians and parents to demand action on their behalf, they are relatively minor players in the narrative.

Similarly, Lassiter makes a crucial argument that the most structurally racist element of the drug war consensus was “the statutory exemption of the licit and illicit circulation of corporate-manufactured pharmaceuticals from felony laws.” But The Suburban Crisis falls short of fully exploring the extent of big pharma’s role in the story of suburban crisis. There is no reason to doubt that Lassiter is correct about the ways the pharmaceutical industry deflected from the crisis they created and the ways that prescription drugs drove use but went uncriminalized. That was certainly the case in the 1980s and 1990s when Purdue Pharma engaged in an aggressive marketing campaign to promote opioids while local police forces waged an all-out war on drugs in neighborhoods of color across the country. Yet, these corporations and interests make only sporadic appearances in a story where the center of gravity revolves around the political mobilization of the white suburban innocent victim and nonwhite criminal to ratchet up punitive drug policy.

Rather, what Lassiter highlights is that the major players in this story are, actually, the politicians and parents pushing forward policies that escalated the drug war at every contingent moment. What is also notable is that the desire to protect white suburban youth was not the result of a conservative turn but rather a bipartisan affair to protect supposedly vulnerable white suburban youth: the politics of consensus at work. It brought together Republicans and Democrats from across the country, ranging from Democratic Senator Thomas Dodd of Connecticut, the chair of the Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, to hardliners in the Nixon and Reagan administrations, in a singular purpose to expand punishment for racialized criminals and offer alternatives for its innocent victims. As a result, drug policy led to disparities in punishment based on race.

Many popular understandings of the drug war portray it as a racist targeting of nonwhite communities, which it certainly was. But that racial disparity was driven by a bipartisan desire to protect white youth from the punitive consequences of drug policy. To understand the racism of the drug war, in other words, we must look to the ways policymakers sought to protect white suburban youth.


The political potency of the suburban crisis served different functions over time. White youth were routinely at the center of political debates, but the problem they presented for politicians varied.

The suburban crisis unfolded in three distinct phases between the 1950s and 1980s. Yet each era was driven by concerns surrounding marijuana usage by white middle-class youth, which produced increased penalties for the racialized pusher, and either diversion or the backup of coercive public health for the white users.

In the first phase in the 1950s, fears of juvenile delinquency led to calls for a crackdown on foreign “pushers.” These people, law enforcement and drug warriors believed, introduced white youth to marijuana, which led them on the quick descent to heroin or crack cocaine. Marijuana use fueled a “reefer madness”–style rise in violent Mexican “wolf packs”—who then preyed on white youth—even as the white kids would inevitably be led to more dangerous drug use.

This early iteration of the drug war centered on Southern California, especially due to the perception created by sensationalist media coverage in the Los Angeles Times and Harry Anslinger’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics that drug pushers from Mexico were crossing the border to prey upon suburban youth. Media, law enforcement, and politicians routinely pointed to stories of innocent white girls lured into drug use who then engaged in prostitution to support their habit. Concern for these “innocent victims” fueled the expansion of laws targeting drug trafficking and sales; but, crucially, these same concerns enhanced diversionary possibilities for white youth, ensuring they did not face incarceration.

The 1960s marked the second phase of the suburban crisis. Now, the innocent victim took the form of concern for a generation of “suburban rebels” who experimented with drugs, especially in college, but who parents and politicians did not see as deserving of punishment. Marijuana use by these suburban college kids, described as part of a “generation gap,” came to be defined as a political issue rather than a criminal one. They needed discipline and a commitment to a capitalist work ethos instead. Although using marijuana, they were the “otherwise law-abiding” youth who politicians worked to divert from the real consequences of drug laws, such as the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970.

And so, policymakers and law enforcement instituted racially discriminatory systems of street-level drug enforcement; at the same time, they established “discretionary procedures to divert detained college-bound youth from ‘good families’ and white middle-class neighborhoods without scarring them with a formal juvenile record.”

In the wealthy suburbs of New York, this disparity between urban punishment and suburban leniency was especially stark. White youth in Nassau County, for instance, engaged in a reverse migration from suburb to city to be “turned on” and to engage in countercultural drug hangouts. As these youth experimented with marijuana, judges and prosecutors relied on discretion and diversion to avoid sentencing wealthy suburban youth, whether caught in the city or the suburb, to prison. “In sum,” Lassiter argues, “the more that Nassau police arrested white middle-class youth for smoking pot, the more the judicial system effectively decriminalized marijuana possession for the majority of offenders who fit the racial and class profile of ‘otherwise law-abiding citizens.’” Even when white youth became ensnared in the carceral system, law enforcement and judicial discretion ensured that they would be diverted from its most serious repercussions.

This is not to suggest that suburban youth got off scot-free while youth of color faced punishment. Discretion and diversion for white youth often led to coercive rehabilitation and arrest. “As an expanding component of the carceral state,” Lassiter writes, “federal policy in the war on drugs merged criminal justice and public health into a comprehensive, discretionary system for the arrest, diversion, and compulsory rehabilitation of recreational drug users and addicts alike.”

Coercive rehabilitation was not the same as incarceration, something that Lassiter rightly acknowledges but that bears emphasizing. Nevertheless, it was part of a racial state-building project that expanded the carceral state. As Lassiter points out, both policies of punitive incarceration and coercive rehabilitation existed under the same carceral umbrella aimed at controlling youth.

By the 1970s, new decriminalization efforts, especially those promoted by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), which made a distinction between marijuana and more “dangerous” hard drugs such as heroin. Yet these fueled a vehement response from suburban parents.

the punitive and preventive sides of the drug war were mutually reinforcing and, in the process, exacerbated the drug war’s racially unequal consequences.

During this third phase of the suburban drug war, NORML had suggested that decriminalization of marijuana would enable the government to focus more directly on hard drugs such as heroin and international traffickers. The Carter administration was convinced.

But suburban white parents were aghast. They deplored the deemphasis on the perceived harms of marijuana that came with decriminalization policy and rhetoric. These “moral entrepreneurs” organized themselves into a powerful political movement and lobby that influenced federal drug policy during the Carter and Reagan years. Led by women like Marsha Keith Schuchard and Joyce Nalepka, white suburban parents jumped on statistics that marijuana use by 12- to 17-year-olds had increased over the 1970s and demanded that politicians focus on the supposed health impacts of marijuana use, especially the repackaging of the “amotivational syndrome” that had gained popularity in the 1960s and exacerbated fears of generational rebellion, family breakdown, a rejection of capitalist productivity, and national decline.

These parents-turned-activists formed the National Federation of Parents for Drug-Free Youth (NFP) in 1980. In so doing, they became perhaps the most influential grassroots group shaping federal drug policy of the decade. They were celebrated in the 1980 GOP platform and became key supporters—and shapers—of Reagan’s drug policies. The NFP called for greater crackdowns on youth who smoked marijuana and ultimately derailed what had been a promising decriminalization movement.

Yet, these parents did not want their kids to be incarcerated, however. Rather, they pushed for coercive rehabilitation in the form of tough love programs such as ToughLove chapters and Straight, Inc. Empowered white parents wielding outsize influence on drug policy facilitated the continued criminalization of nonwhite “pushers” and innocent white “victims.” In the process, they ensured marijuana enforcement remained at the crux of the drug war.

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Let’s return to the present moment. The drug war is alive and well. And the dynamic of protecting innocent white youth and criminalizing the nonwhite addict and pusher continues to shape drug policy to this day. While there has been a move toward marijuana legalization in many states across the country, it fits within the narrative of concerns over marijuana usage by white middle-class youth. Indeed, the ACLU’s report “A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform” suggests that racial disparities in marijuana arrests are stark, as Black people are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested than white people. Even in an era of marijuana legalization, it appears that both the trope and consequences of suburban innocence and nonwhite criminality remains, making The Suburban Crisis an especially timely, useful, and must read work.

Instead of continuing this multitiered drug war that expands the carceral state through both punitive and coercive public health measures, Lassiter’s story suggests the solution may very well be to listen to those, such as the Drug Policy Alliance or young people themselves, who have called for an end to the drug war in the present.

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This article was commissioned by Geraldo Cadava.

Featured image: Display of Anti-drug Campaign Items at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library (2008). Photograph by Pigby / Wikimedia