The War on Drugs is a phrase used to refer to a government-led initiative that aims to stop illegal drug use, distribution and trade by dramatically increasing prison sentences for both drug dealers and users. The movement started in the 1970s and is still evolving today. Over the years, people have had mixed reactions to the campaign, ranging from full-on support to claims that it has racist and political objectives.

The War on Drugs Begins

Drug use for medicinal and recreational purposes has been happening in the United States since the country’s inception. In the 1890s, the popular Sears and Roebuck catalogue included an offer for a syringe and small amount of cocaine for $1.50. (At that time, cocaine use had not yet been outlawed.)

In some states, laws to ban or regulate drugs were passed in the 1800s, and the first congressional act to levy taxes on morphine and opium took place in 1890.

The Smoking Opium Exclusion Act in 1909 banned the possession, importation and use of opium for smoking. However, opium could still be used as a medication. This was the first federal law to ban the non-medical use of a substance, although many states and counties had banned alcohol sales previously.

In 1914, Congress passed the Harrison Act, which regulated and taxed the production, importation, and distribution of opiates and cocaine.

Alcohol prohibition laws quickly followed. In 1919, the 18th Amendment was ratified, banning the manufacture, transportation or sale of intoxicating liquors, ushering in the Prohibition Era. The same year, Congress passed the National Prohibition Act (also known as the Volstead Act), which provided guidelines on how to federally enforce Prohibition.

Prohibition lasted until December, 1933, when the 21st Amendment was ratified, overturning the 18th.

Marijuana Tax Act of 1937

In 1937, the “Marihuana Tax Act” was passed. This federal law placed a tax on the sale of cannabis, hemp, or marijuana.

The Act was introduced by Rep. Robert L. Doughton of North Carolina and was drafted by Harry Anslinger. While the law didn’t criminalize the possession or use of marijuana, it included hefty penalties if taxes weren’t paid, including a fine of up to $2000 and five years in prison.

Controlled Substances Act

President Richard M. Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) into law in 1970. This statute calls for the regulation of certain drugs and substances.

The CSA outlines five “schedules” used to classify drugs based on their medical application and potential for abuse.

Schedule 1 drugs are considered the most dangerous, as they pose a very high risk for addiction with little evidence of medical benefits. Marijuana, LSD, heroin, MDMA (ecstasy) and other drugs are included on the list of Schedule 1 drugs.

The substances considered least likely to be addictive, such as cough medications with small amounts of codeine, fall into the Schedule 5 category.

Nixon and the War on Drugs

In June 1971, Nixon officially declared a “War on Drugs,” stating that drug abuse was “public enemy number one.”

A rise in recreational drug use in the 1960s likely led to President Nixon’s focus on targeting some types of substance abuse. As part of the War on Drugs initiative, Nixon increased federal funding for drug-control agencies and proposed strict measures, such as mandatory prison sentencing, for drug crimes. He also announced the creation of the Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention (SAODAP), which was headed by Dr. Jerome Jaffe.

Nixon went on to create the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1973. This agency is a special police force committed to targeting illegal drug use and smuggling in the United States. 

At the start, the DEA was given 1,470 special agents and a budget of less than $75 million. Today, the agency has nearly 5,000 agents and a budget of $2.03 billion.

Ulterior Motives Behind War on Drugs?

During a 1994 interview, President Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, provided inside information suggesting that the War on Drugs campaign had ulterior motives, which mainly involved helping Nixon keep his job.

In the interview, conducted by journalist Dan Baum and published in Harper magazine, Ehrlichman explained that the Nixon campaign had two enemies: “the antiwar left and black people.” His comments led many to question Nixon’s intentions in advocating for drug reform and whether racism played a role.

Ehrlichman was quoted as saying: “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. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”

The 1970s and The War on Drugs

In the mid-1970s, the War on Drugs took a slight hiatus. Between 1973 and 1977, eleven states decriminalized marijuana possession.

Jimmy Carter became president in 1977 after running on a political campaign to decriminalize marijuana. During his first year in office, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to decriminalize up to one ounce of marijuana.

Say No to Drugs

In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan reinforced and expanded many of Nixon’s War on Drugs policies. In 1984, his wife Nancy Reagan launched the “Just Say No” campaign, which was intended to highlight the dangers of drug use.

President Reagan’s refocus on drugs and the passing of severe penalties for drug-related crimes in Congress and state legislatures led to a massive increase in incarcerations for nonviolent drug crimes. 

In 1986, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which established mandatory minimum prison sentences for certain drug offenses. This law was later heavily criticized as having racist ramifications because it allocated longer prison sentences for offenses involving the same amount of crack cocaine (used more often by black Americans) as powder cocaine (used more often by white Americans). Five grams of crack triggered an automatic five-year sentence, while it took 500 grams of powder cocaine to merit the same sentence.

Critics also pointed to data showing that people of color were targeted and arrested on suspicion of drug use at higher rates than whites. Overall, the policies led to a rapid rise in incarcerations for nonviolent drug offenses, from 50,000 in 1980 to 400,000 in 1997. In 2014, nearly half of the 186,000 people serving time in federal prisons in the United States had been incarcerated on drug-related charges, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

A Gradual Dialing Back

Public support for the war on drugs has waned in recent decades. Some Americans and policymakers feel the campaign has been ineffective or has led to racial divide. Between 2009 and 2013, some 40 states took steps to soften their drug laws, lowering penalties and shortening mandatory minimum sentences, according to the Pew Research Center.

In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), which reduced the discrepancy between crack and powder cocaine offenses from 100:1 to 18:1.

The recent legalization of marijuana in several states and the District of Columbia has also led to a more tolerant political view on recreational drug use.

Technically, the War on Drugs is still being fought, but with less intensity and publicity than in its early years.