President Richard Nixon declared the war on drugs in 1971, which caused the federal government to intervene and enforce programs to educate people about the negative effects of drug abuse. The government also passed legislation for mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants.
The drug war has continued in every presidency since the 1970s, regardless of societal feelings toward drug use.
In a 2016 article published in Harper's Magazine, former Nixon adviser John Erhlichman admitted that the war on drugs was began to incite anger toward "hippies and Blacks."
“You want to know what this was really all about," Ehrlichman said in an interview conducted prior to his death in 1999. " ... The anti-war left and Black people. … We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. … Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, rates of incarceration increased due to his expansion of the war on drugs. The number of inmates convicted for nonviolent drug charges skyrocketed from 50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 by the end of 1997, as stated by Drug Policy Alliance.
One of Reagan's most notable qualities was his stance against drugs. First Lady Nancy Reagan even coined the term “Just Say No” during her husband’s time in office. This phrase was meant to encourage teens to refuse drugs. Her campaign painted all users as criminals and grouped all substances, from alcohol to cocaine, as immoral.
The Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E) program seen at many elementary and high schools around the country uses the phrase “Just Say No” to dissuade students from substance use. That saying, and the D.A.R.E program as a whole, don’t actually work, as according to Scientific American as students involved in the program are just as likely to use drugs as those not involved.
During his 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton advocated for treatment instead of incarceration, but didn’t take any action once he got into office. In fact, Clinton escalated the drug war by rejecting a recommendation from the United States Sentencing Commission to eliminate the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing.
The unjust system is truly exposed when it is broken down.
People caught with powder cocaine and charged with possession and intent to sell would receive a mandatory five-year sentence — but only if they were caught with over 500 grams. However, crack cocaine carried a mandatory 5-year sentence when the person charged is caught with only five grams, and on the first offense, according to The Sentencing Project.
To further examine this, take a look at the rates of arrests in certain communities; within these statistics, there’s a racial disparity according to U.S. News. The article reported 79% of people charged with crack cocaine possession in 2009 were Black.
Because crack cocaine is cheaper than powder cocaine, members of low-income communities are more likely to use it over the powder form. Furthermore, people of lesser socioeconomic status are more likely to be comprised of People of Color.
As a result, a disproportionately large number of Black people are incarcerated for charges related to cocaine, even though rates of use are generally on the same level between communities.
This disparity was only recently addressed in 2010 with the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act. To get a five-year sentence, those caught with crack cocaine need 28 grams — as opposed to five — in addition to the legislation eliminating the five-year sentence mandate for first-time simple possession offenders.
It is not the greatest revision, as there are still differences in punishment between various forms of the same drug. As long as racism continues in the U.S., so will the war on drugs.
Americans have former President George W. Bush to thank for the militarization of domestic drug law enforcement. By the end of Bush’s two terms, there were about 40,000 paramilitary SWAT raids on American citizens every year, and according to the Drug Policy Alliance, they were mostly for misdemeanors.
The U.S. government must have spent a large sum of money on these raids, and mostly for misdemeanors. If the funds used on domestic raids that led to misdemeanor charges were allocated to target international drug trafficking, the U.S. could have seen an actual decrease in rates of use.
It would be better to distribute capital to rehabilitation and counseling rather than paramilitary forces, thus allowing facilities to afford more staff, improve accommodations and extend treatments options for patients. If affordable and accessible choices were available to those struggling with addiction, substance abuse would subside. Overall, it would bring better options than incarceration for nonviolent drug charges.
The war on drugs is targeting Americans when it should be focused on stopping substances from entering the country in the first place.
It is well known President Donald Trump built the wall to fight against drug trafficking from neighboring countries, but it was constructed for another reason, as well: To keep immigrants out. In America, the drug war and racism are completely intertwined.
There was a huge win against the war on drugs in 2020, when Oregon voters approved Measure 110 and decriminalized all drug use. This legislation gives drug offenders the opportunity for rehabilitation or health services, rather than incarceration.
I believe the rate of drug use, addiction and incarceration for drug-related charges would decrease if federal law followed the same regulations as Measure 110.
Given the amount of money the U.S. has spent on the drug war, the results are not satisfactory. In five decades since the start of the Vietnam War, the stigma around recreational drug use has decreased, yet the time, money and energy spent on the war on drugs has only increased.
Drug use continues to rise, and so do incarceration rates. If incarceration is meant to act as a deterrent, why are drug use rates also climbing? The war on drugs isn’t getting the U.S. anywhere; it is simply dumping a trillion dollars from the economy.
Recreational and medical use of marijuana is rapidly being legalized around the U.S., with 21 states legalizing recreational use since 2012. Marijuana is still illegal on the federal level, with mass incarceration rates for marijuana possession.
The rates of arrests show a clear racial bias, as Black people are four times more likely than white people to be arrested on possession charges nationally.
The war on drugs was never meant to control drug use or trafficking. Rather, it was started to control minorities. Today, the war continues to target those communities and contributes to racial disparity and mass incarceration in the U.S. Furthermore, it has created a dynamic of mistrust between citizens and law enforcement that is proving to be extremely difficult to repair.
Progress can only be made if our administration ever decides to end this war and stop targeting its own citizens.