Seeking to eliminate the cultural divide of the 1960s, President Richard Nixon christened a new program to eradicate drugs from the United States. He called the program the “War on Drugs,” and hoped that it would produce a drug-free country that would allow the United States to prosper. However, the war on drugs has failed to achieve its intended goals, and many studies indicate that drug abuse is higher than it has ever been
From its beginning in the 1970s to the present day, the drug war has been a controversial subject for many Americans. While some embrace the war on drugs, finding it to be a necessary, noble battle, an increasing number of citizens would like the war to end. Arguments for ending the drug war include the right to personal freedom, medical necessity, and dissatisfaction at the high price of the effort. While the federal and state governments of the country have changed their specific policies over time, the drug war facts show that the basic principles of the policy remain unchanged. Here’s a look into the history of America’s War on Drugs.
Timeline of the War on Drugs
America began adopting drug prohibition laws and policies as early as the 1870s. These first laws criminalized opium, but were not part of a comprehensive drug-eradication program. It was not until over 100 years later that President Nixon formally launched America’s war on drugs in June of 1971. A few years later, presidential candidate and former governor Jimmy Carter included marijuana decriminalization as one of the key components of his platform. However, once in office, Carter did little to change the laws in place. The drug war was at its peak during the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan. First lady, Nancy Reagan, began her famous “Just Say No” campaign in 1986, though she had been working to prevent children from using drugs since 1982.
As prohibition continued, drug prices, and therefore the profits made from their sale, skyrocketed. This caused international drug trafficking rings to attain greater power and influence. In some cases, such groups bribed or blackmailed the leaders and officials of many Latin American nations, allowing them to operate with impunity inside their home countries. In the 1990s, the war on drugs started to become increasingly militarized. The US Coast Guard began attempting to intercept drug shipments headed for the United States. Inside the country, paramilitary SWAT team raids became commonplace. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, a non-profit foundation that draws support from many high-visibility individuals including former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, media mogul Arianna Huffington, and Congressman John Conyers Jr, 40,000 such raids occurred each year during the 1990s.
In 2000, President Bill Clinton, eager to stem the flow of cocaine into the United States, provided over 1 Billion Dollars to the nation of Colombia. The funds paid for the use of herbicides to kill coca plants, attack-style helicopters, and training. More recently, the legislature of some states has decriminalized marijuana for medical purposes. Beginning with the state of California in 1996, several other states quickly followed suit. By the year 2012, 20 states and the District of Columbia adopted some provision for the medical use of marijuana. Despite such state laws, marijuana remains illegal according to Federal Law. However, in 2009, President Barak Obama directed the United States Justice department to defer to the laws of the states and stop pursuing users of medical marijuana.
Results of the War and Public Perception
While the war on drugs has failed to extricate drugs from the US, it has had an enormous impact on US culture and society. A 2008 survey found that approximately 27% of adults in the US have a criminal record, most of which are for drug offenses. According to DrugWarFacts.org, in 2012, law enforcement officers arrested approximately 1.5 million citizens. In addition to the many people incarcerated courtesy of the drug war, the policy bears an enormous price tag. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, the drug war costs taxpayers over $51 billion dollars annually. Public perception about the war on drugs has fluctuated over time. In September of 1989, surveys indicated that 64 percent of Americans considered illegal drugs to be the nation’s biggest problem. However, less than 12 months later, the number had plummeted to approximately 10 percent of Americans.
To date, the war on drugs has cost US taxpayers over $1 trillion dollars. While the war on drugs may be well intentioned, it has arguably caused more harm than good. The drug war facts demonstrate that while the US government has spent billions of dollars on the battle, usage has stayed relatively consistent. Opponents of the US drug war are optimistic that changing public perceptions and the rise of medical marijuana will help end the policy in the near future. However, others remain undeterred by the problems associated with the policy, and remain steadfast in their support for the program.
- Overview of the Drug War
- A Brief History of the War on Drugs
- Breaking With the Past – A 21st Century Drug Policy That Works
- Crime, Arrests and US Law Enforcement
- Count the Costs: 50 Years of the War on Drugs
- Incarceration, the War on Drugs and Public Health
- FBI: The War on Drugs PDF
- DEA Fact Sheet PDF
- War on Drugs Timeline
- Richard Nixon Addresses Congress 1971
- Timeline of Marijuana Prohibition
- Nancy Reagan: “Just Say No”
- Timeline: The U.S. War on Drugs in Latin America
- States with Medical Marijuana Laws