Policing knowledge in the war on drugs: a Foucauldian analysis of the marijuana discourse in the late 1960s and early 1970s


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A thesis Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of MASTER of ARTS in HISTORY from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Many histories of marijuana prohibition see the 1960s and 1970s as a time of relatively lax attitudes towards marijuana use. Scholars have argued that higher rates of usage and the fact that marijuana was being used by an increasing number of middle-class whites led to a softening of the penalties for low-level offenses. However, focusing solely on policy and failing to scrutinize how the discourse on drugs worked to marginalize users and underwrite enforcement efforts overlooks the extent to which this era represents a time of increasing obsession with controlling marijuana and other drug use. Michel Foucault’s work on the relationship between knowledge and power provides a useful framework through which this discourse can be elucidated. Foucault describes discourse as both productive and disciplinary: it produces categories of knowledge and simultaneously regulates what can be known through what it includes, excludes, or limits. Thus, it exerts a power distinct from the coercive power of the law: the power to determine the acceptability of a behavior and what is known about it. To analyze this discourse, I rely on two main forms of sources: print media and drug education materials. Newspaper and magazines provide a sense of how the “drug problem” was framed in the media, while government-sponsored drug education efforts are crucial to examining how the prohibitionist discourse was propagated and institutionalized. The popular discourse on marijuana and other drugs constituted an official discursive “truth,” a body of knowledge that justified the mechanisms, including law enforcement and drug education that enforced and normalized a prohibitive stance towards marijuana in the late 1960s and early 1970s. A Foucauldian approach to marijuana prohibition is significant because it considers discourse as a form of power that produced categorical frameworks through which drug use was perceived, rather than only considering legal restrictions. We must move beyond a policy-centered approach and look at discourse as a form of disciplinary power that can regulate and define citizen bodies and actions, and direct our attention to the ways this discourse itself is policed in order to understand how the systems of power that supported prohibition were maintained.
College of Liberal Arts