America’s War on Drugs — 50 Years Later

By Ignacio Diaz Pascual

This month marks the 50th anniversary of America’s War on Drugs, a government-mandated operation beginning in the early 1970s that has completely failed in its stated objectives of curbing drug use and ending the drug trade. To understand why, we need to take a trip through the past.

Drug use has been prevalent in American society since the mid 1880s, when narcotics like morphine and laudanum were marketed to consumers as cure-all medications. They could be found in all types of products, ranging from asthma medications to teething syrup for infants. Opium, imported from China, was also regularly prescribed as a painkiller. Yet as the 1900s dawned, presidential administrations started to adopt a restrictive approach toward the recreational use of various drugs. For instance, the Smoking Opium Exclusion Act of 1909 — which targeted Chinese immigrants — banned the importation and use of opium for smoking, while in 1914, Congress passed the Harrison Act, which taxed the production and distribution of cocaine and various opiates. Even the medical use of drugs began to be highly regulated. By 1938, more than 25,000 American doctors had been arraigned due to the illegal prescription of drugs.

In the 1960s, medicinal and recreational drug use in the United States started to become a major security issue. A rise in the countercultural movement for recreational drug use led to fears of a drug epidemic, despite surveys finding drug consumption was relatively rare: a 1969 Gallup poll found that 48 percent of respondents believed drug use was a “serious problem” in their communities, but the same survey revealed only 4 percent of American adults had tried cannabis.

Richard Nixon exploited these fears among socially conservative voters and, as a result, was elected president in 1968. His policies capitalized on public concern about high rates of drug use among American troops returning from Vietnam. Heroin use in particular was prominent. As a result, in 1970 Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, which created five schedules within which to regulate different drugs based primarily on risk of addiction. The following year, in June 1971, Nixon officially declared a War on Drugs, telling Congress that drug addiction had become “a national emergency” and that drug abuse was now “public enemy number one.” Following this announcement, drug use officially became a criminal issue, and Nixon began proposing strict measures for drug-related crimes, including mandatory minimum sentences for both drug possession and distribution. Two years later, his administration founded the Drug Enforcement Agency, a special police force designed to target illegal drug use and smuggling in the United States.

Since then, the War on Drugs has contributed to a systemically unequal prison system that continues to oppress Black and Brown people today. Indeed, the War on Drugs was never really a long-term policy goal: According to President Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, the Nixon campaign did not intend the legislation to be about drug reform itself, but was instead meant to oppress “the antiwar left and black people.” This revealed the truth about the War on Drugs: It was essentially a war on the poor and other marginalized people. This brazenly racist and anti-democratic agenda has manifested itself into one of the most pernicious government-mandated operations of the 20th and 21st centuries.

The War on Drugs, after a brief pause under the Carter administration, continued again in the 1980s as a crack cocaine epidemic began to sweep the nation. Fears of this epidemic prompted newly elected President Ronald Reagan to reinforce and expand many of Nixon’s anti-drug policies, arguing that drug use was a “repudiation of everything America is.” His administration’s most notable piece of anti-drug use legislation was the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which granted $1.7 billion for law enforcement to fight the drug war and established further mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. Much of this legislation was racially discriminatory. For example, possession of five grams of crack cocaine, which was disproportionately consumed by African Americans, triggered an automatic five-year jail sentence, whereas 500 grams of powder cocaine, which was mostly consumed by richer, white demographics, merited the same punishment.

Harsh drug sentencing continued into the 1990s. President Bill Clinton was elected after running on a ‘tough on crime’ platform, and in 1994 his administration passed the Crime Bill, a $30 billion piece of legislation that funded 125,000 new state prison cells, mandated life sentences via three-strikes laws, and added 60 new crimes worthy of the death penalty. Between 1980 and 1997, the number of people locked up for non-violent, drug-related crimes rose from 50,000 to 400,000.

The War on Drugs’ punitive effects continue to this day. In the last 40 years, the number of people convicted of drug-related crimes has risen more than 500 percent, now making up almost half of the federal prison population. Within America’s prisons, the policies have perpetuated cycles of poverty and unemployment in low-income communities while disproportionately impacting people of color. Black people are more than 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than their White counterparts, despite both groups using the drug at similar rates, and African Americans and Hispanics now make up more than 60 percent of the prison population.

While incarceration is offered as a tool that helps reduce drug use, there is little evidence to suggest that locking people up reduces drug consumption in the long-term. Since 1980, despite the significant increase in incarceration rates, studies have found no statistically significant correlation between drug imprisonment rates and the rate of drug use across most states. In fact, while around 65 percent of incarcerated individuals meet the medical criteria for drug addiction, only 11 percent receive treatment. The penalties for violating drug laws also extend far beyond imprisonment. The job market, for example, routinely discriminates against people with prior drug offenses. This leaves many without the possibility of meaningful employment. In fact, half of formerly incarcerated people are unable to find jobs in their first year after leaving prison.

The drug war has harmed people in America for decades, and drug crackdowns have been treated as a response to an imminent moral and societal threat instead of an evidence-based health intervention. And due to the tireless and painstaking efforts of justice advocates calling for an end to the drug war, the United States has made recent improvements in decriminalization efforts: 15 states have legalized recreational cannabis, while voters in Oregon recently approved an initiative to decriminalize possession of small amounts of illegal drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine.

The War on Drugs, and the criminalization of drug-related offenses, must end immediately to allow people who are struggling with addiction to seek the health treatment they need without fear of police intervention. It is past time that we treat drug use and abuse as the public health crisis that it is. Decriminalization, which will focus our precious resources on investments in treatment and supportive interventions, will keep our communities safer than ever before. Reform is popular with the general public, too: A recent survey found that 83 percent of Americans think the War on Drugs has failed and that 66 percent of voters support eliminating criminal charges for drug possession.

In order to achieve long-lasting policy change, a move toward harm reduction strategies is critical. Harm reduction relies on the premise that there will never be a drug-free society, and that government policy should focus instead on prioritizing the safety of people in America by reducing deaths and societal harm caused by drug use. Harm reduction policies are intended explicitly for those most impacted by the War on Drugs and include evidence-based practices like syringe exchange programs, increased access to methadone clinics, and safe, supervised drug consumption spaces.

Before pursuing harm reduction policies, the government must first accept that social problems, like substance use disorders and poverty, should not be treated as criminal-legal system issues, but as public health matters that should be managed by public health professionals. This means overhauling the DEA, removing criminal penalties for drug possession, expunging records, and, ultimately, reinvesting the millions put into the drug war toward the communities that have been hurt most.

Ignacio Diaz Pascual was a fall 2020 and spring 2021 undergraduate intern at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.