- Hurt: Chronicles of the Drug War Generation by Miriam Boeri
By Miriam Boeri
University of California Press, 2018, 288 Pages. https://www.ucpress.edu/book.php? isbn=9780520293472
Forty years into the American War on Drugs, a wide body of literature has developed on its punitive and racially disproportionate outcomes. Still, despite the increasing decriminalization of cannabis and calls for a public health approach to the opioid epidemic, drugs remain a central criminal justice priority and an important contributor to our enduring system of mass incarceration. In Hurt: Chronicles of the Drug War Generation, Miriam Boeri qualitatively illustrates how it is the War on Drugs—rather than drugs themselves—that wreaks the most havoc in drug users' lives. In doing so, she calls for a humanized and contextualized understanding of drug use and addiction—a welcome contribution to a field of research that has too often relied on removed methods and pathologizing perspectives. Urging a paradigm shift beyond individual-centered perspectives on drug use and a societal move toward social and structural solutions, Boeri successfully weaves rich narratives with astute analysis into an immensely readable, yet scientifically rich, account of babyboomer drug-use trajectories and the pain caused by the War on Drugs.
Hurt draws from The Older Drug User Study (ODUS) funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH), a mixed-methods parent study of drug users between the ages of 45 and 65. Combining ethnography, in-depth interviews, and a retrospective survey, the ODUS utilized innovative data instruments, interview techniques, and methods of analysis to examine the life histories and drug-use trajectories of 100 current and former users of heroin, cocaine, crack, and/or methamphetamine. Hurt describes general patterns gleaned from all, with a focus on the experiences of 38 particularly representative participants—evocative stories that are expertly woven through broader discussions of structural barriers and social context.
ODUS findings are supplemented by the personal experiences of Boeri and her brother, a long-time drug user with an extensive history of involvement with the criminal justice system. While personal attachment is sometimes framed as a source of research bias, Boeri's specific positionality is a strength of this book, lending insider knowledge to a nuanced analysis that moves beyond tired conceptions of drug use and addiction. Furthermore, considering the wide reach of the various drug "epidemics" that have surfaced over the past forty years, as well as the unprecedented breadth of the criminal justice system under the War on Drugs, countless Americans now have personal attachments to the oft-devastating outcomes of criminalized drug use, making Boeri's positionality more representative than one may think.
While drug use has most often been portrayed as a moral failing or pathological illness, Hurt emphasizes the structural conditions and personal circumstances in which drug use occurs. By employing a contextually-situated life-history approach, Boeri is sensitive to the various phases in drug-use trajectories, as well as the ways that these phases are influenced by historical setting, personal relationships, and major life events. She argues that the well-substantiated "maturing out" model of drug use does not apply to the current generation of aging drug users, as the War on Drugs has barred so many of them from the major life transitions and social role development that work to prevent prolonged problematic drug use.
In the current schema, guided by drug war prerogatives and the panics that support them, illicit drug users are largely pathologized as addicts, who must be punished and/or cured. In contrast, Boeri's findings reveal common and lengthy periods of "functional use"—times when drug use is controlled enough to successfully fulfill mainstream social roles—as well as extended periods of non-use throughout the life trajectories of almost all study participants. Time and time again, the stories in Hurt show the key role of criminal justice system marking and surveillance—combined with intertwining structures of race, gender, and class—in impeding the prolongment of such functionality. From the heightened targeting experienced by poor, homeless, and Black participants, to bars on treatment for heroin dependence and the revoking of child custody based on...