31 Mar 2022


The United States War on Drugs and Actions

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Deep analyses of the issues facing the criminal justice system of the United States indicate more impact on the national drug policy. The history of the United States drug policy dates back to the 1800s. The drug opium was widely used by many individuals especially after the American Civil War. Later after, there was the introduction of cocaine almost eighty decades later. Coca was commonly used to make medical drinks and remedies. Thereafter, there was the discovery of morphine in 1906 that was also used for health issues, especially relieving of intense pains. The next years saw the dramatic shifts in perception of the American people concerning the use of drugs. Initially, in the early nineteenth century, many drugs were used for medicinal purposes but this perception gradually changed. People started to use drugs illegally and a majority of the Americans perceived them as psychoactive and dangerous. The country experienced an increase in the trades and use of illegal drugs thereby prompting the federal government to declare war on drugs in the early 1980s (Inciardi, 1986). The paper will evaluate the history of United States drug policy, the war on drug initiative and the current and future drug trends. The hypothesis that the paper will tend to answer is whether the declaration of drug war and relating drug policies have been effective in eradicating the illegal trade and the illegal use of drugs. 

History of US drug policy

There was an increased awareness all over the country about these psychotropic drugs have potentials to cause addiction. The misuse of opium and cocaine reached their peak in the early nineteenth century as the effects were termed as epidemic. The local governments in the states began a vigorous campaign to eliminate opium dens and open charges to those behind its importation. As a result, tough measures were introduced where Pure Food and Drug Act was passed in 1906. The act required that all medical practitioners were required to correctly label their health remedies and outline the contents since drugs were now viewed as dangerous instead of helpful. In 1914, there was the Harrison Narcotic Act, which became the first ever-United States federal drug policy. According to the act, there was a ban and restrictions on the manufacture of hard drugs such as cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and morphine. The legal institutions became very serious about the enforcement of the law. For instance, clinicians who prescribed drugs to addicts under “maintenance” reasons were heavily penalized. According to Trebach (1982), over five thousand medical practitioners were arrested, penalized, or jailed between 1915 and 1938. It can be argued that the first federal drug policy was aimed for medical practitioners such as physicians and pharmacists. 

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By 1930, a special squad was formed to deal with drug trafficking thus the establishment of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. The agency was under the leadership of Harry Anslinger and by 1962, he was able to introduce America’s drug policy. His reign saw the use of drugs largely criminalized. Furthermore, the Boggs Act of 1951 immensely increased the punishments related to the use of marijuana. In 1956, the Narcotics Control Act came up with more strict rules concerning drug use that were embraced by the congress. Sentences were to be served fully and probation was abolished. According to McWilliams (1990), parole would only be granted to first time lawbreakers who were in possession of drugs, whereas death sentences were for individuals who sold heroin to children. Anslinger ensured that the judges were not lenient in their sentencing. He advocated for longer sentencing of drug dealers accompanied by heavy fines. His main agenda was the creation of a disciplinary drug policy with a goal of achieving proper drug regulation policy. 

Moreover, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics used half-truths as a tactic for preventive measures (Powers, 1991). They came up with myths and horrifying stories about the use of drugs. For instance in some of their publications, they associated marijuana with hardcore criminal activities such as sexual assaults, robbery, and murder. However, these fabricated stories did not last long in reducing the illegal use of drugs. The agency exaggerated some of the stories and a majority of the Americans were reluctant to believe them any longer. 

The 1960s marked the epitome of youthful rebellions and increased engagement in drug use. During this period, drugs were symbols of social and cultural revolt between many high school and college student all over the country. There were cases of students wanting to increase their cognitive abilities by using hallucinogens like LSD. Meanwhile, soldiers who returned home from the wars were addicted to marijuana and heroin as a strategy for coping. Simply, the demands for drugs drastically increased in the 1960s and were very alarming. As a result, the Johnson Administration established the Narcotics Addict Rehabilitation Act of 1966. The Act brought about many changes among them; drug addiction was categorized as a mental illness. Alcohol abuse was also well-thought-out to be part of drug abuse. However, its consequences were less intense as compared to other drugs. Drug use was declared a criminal activity and the government initiated scientific research to assess their medical importance as well as potential threats. 

The Modern Drug War

President Nixon could not tolerate the rates at which drugs were being sold and used in the United States, hence, he decided to “ declare war on drugs” in 1971. Drugs were considered the leading enemy in the entire country. It affected the growth and development of the United States politically, socially, and economically. Some of the strategies that President Nixon used included widening the size and jurisdiction of the federal drug control organizations, and ensuring different laws pertaining to drugs are taken seriously and are enforced. They included approaches like obligatory sentencing a ban on knock warrants. President Nixon shortly categorized marijuana in locus one, meaning that it was the most controlled drug. Later on, he appointed a commission to look into the matter, and the Pennsylvanian governor, Raymond Schaffer, led it. In 1972, the commission represented their report and verdict to the president who openly rejected it. It wanted the use and distribution of marijuana to be allowed only for personal use. 

In the earlier years after the declaration of war on drugs, President Nixon had started the first important federal funding of rehabilitation and treatment centers. There were widespread controversies concerning the popular methadone maintenance program. In a public statement, the president commented that the increasing demand for drugs prompts many people to strive to meet the demands. Critical analysis of the statement indicates that all strategies of prohibition and abolition were likely not to be successful. However, in a twisted turn of event, Nixon failed to heed to his advice. He initiated a big interdiction attempt in Mexico. Since the drug enforcement agency was established in 1973, they came up with procedure intelligence that compelled the marijuana farmers in Mexico to be controlled. During this period, the Federal Government spent a significant about of it budget to close up the American-Mexican border. Moreover, trade between the two countries came to a standstill. The economy of Mexico and America was gradually declining because no business was going on at the borders. Crops from the Mexican side were rotting because of the long queues at the border checkpoints. The happenings were a success to President Nixon because he ensured no marijuana was shipped into the United States. However, this did not last long because the Columbians were quick to substitute Mexicans as America’s biggest marijuana supplier. 

According to Rosenberger (1996), the ban on Mexicans supply of marijuana into the US was the first lesson the Federal government learnt about the “iron law of drug economics.” Actually, every attempt made by the United States government since the launch of the Operation Intercept has led to the regrouping of worldwide drug trade. The heavily monitored routes that limited the entry of marijuana into the country have been rerouted and are no longer effective. Currently, drugs find their entry into the United States via land, sea, or air. Hence, the strategy of closing the borders to drug barons is very ineffective as long as the demand increases. The good or bad news was that eleven states had legalized the use of marijuana. 

In 1977 under the presidency of Jimmy Carter, further efforts to legalize the use of marijuana were underway. In a congressional speech the president made, he stated that penalties for drug possession should be less destructive than the drug (Rosenberg, 1996). Even though President Carter supported flexible laws towards the use of marijuana, he was opposed to its legalization. His drug policy strategy concentrated more on the supply front, with a higher percentage of the funding allocate to prohibition and elimination programs. 

The legalization of marijuana registered the expected success but it was not widely realized because of the increased use in cocaine. The heightened use of cocaine in the country characterized Carter’s presidency. According to Collett (1989), cocaine usage in the United States increased from twenty-five tons to one hundred and thirty seven tons. Moreover, the demand for cocaine was equated to seven times as much in a period of six years. Since there existed a strong relationship between the use of cocaine and marijuana, the federal and the state governments shifted their focus from legalization of marijuana. Cocaine was termed by many users as a feeder drug to marijuana. President Carter was in agreement with Nixon’s belief that fighting drug use by suppressing the supplier was not as effective. According to President Carter, the strategy will be only effective if drug users are pulled away from the source than preventing their accessibility to the users. However, both President and Nixon did not follow their advice. Carter’s presidency spent billions of money in the war of drugs as compared to Reagan’s administration. The approximate amount of finances used in the prohibition and eradication of drugs increased from four hundred and thirty-seven million dollars to over one billion dollars in Carter’s term (Rosenberg, 1996).

On the other hand, President Reagan was more concerned with “getting tough on drugs.” His programs were known to have no tolerance to drugs because users were subjected to heavy penalties. His administration was characterized by increased incarceration and there was big development in the drug war. The 1980s and the consequent years saw the flooding of jails in the United States. The majority of the people held there were those held under possession and no violent crimes. The wife of President Reagan started a nationwide campaign known as the “Just Say No” paving way for the zero tolerance strategies implemented in the mid-1980s. However, towards the end of the 1980s, the war on drugs became more political making the congress to come up with draconian penalties. The population in prisons kept growing. After Reagan, President Bill Clinton supported the initial drug polices started by Reagan. When the budget was read in 1995, Clinton had set aside an extra one billion for the existing drug policies. It was a move that captivated the media and attracted their attention because of the double expenditure the president had initiated. Additionally, certain amounts of the money were set aside to steer the elimination programs and law enforcement. In 1995, the budget, over thirteen billion dollars were set aside to finance the activities related to the drug policy, whereas almost seven billion was for the supply sided efforts. Meanwhile, around five million dollars was spent on public sensitization, prevention, and rehabilitation. According to Rosenberg (1996), Clinton admiration was successful in the fight against drugs because he had increased the budget on the fight against drugs. 

The United States Congress had a significant contribution in the United States drug policy. The war on drugs was becoming entwined in politics thereby forcing them to come up with draconian punishments. The results were an increase in prisoner’s population in jails. It should be noted that before becoming the president, Clinton campaigned for rehabilitation programs for drug offenders as compared to their incarceration. However, during his presidency he emulated his predecessors and continued with the drug war fight. Particularly, Clinton refused to accept a recommendation by the United States Sentencing Commission that wanted to do away with the inconsistencies between the crack and powder cocaine penalties. 

During the drug war frenzy, an interest group was established that was focused on approaching the drug policy differently. Arnold Trebach and Kevin Zeese started the Drug Policy Foundation, which they termed as a “loyal antagonism to the war on drugs.” They believed that the drug war would be effective only if drugs were not prohibited from the users. Even though Clinton failed to achieve positive changes in the US drug policy, he was successful in establishing certain innovative recommendations (Belenko, 2000). He initiated Community Action Programs and different institutions to take part in cutting the demand for drugs. 

The New Millennium: Shifting towards reasonable drug policy

The United States did not register much success in the war against drugs because a majority of their earlier policies regulated the use of drug rather than criminalizing it. When President George Bush assumed the office, drug war was slowly diminishing even though he had allocated more funds to run it. Meanwhile, his counterpart John Walters majorly concentrated on marijuana and started an important campaign to encourage the testing of students. As the levels of illegal use of drugs remained invariable, the overdose accidents increased rapidly. A majority of teenagers in many states were reported to have used illegal drugs at one point in their lifetime. Parents were alarmed by the increased use of drugs and the resulting consequences. Most of them wanted marijuana to be banned and the heavy punishments imposed on drug users. Crime rates had increased in the United States and the courts had many cases of drug related criminal activities. For instance drunk driving, rape cases, murder, robbery, and drug trafficking. Since some Americans had discovered the worth of drugs in terms of monetary value, many people started to run legal businesses of drug trafficking. 

Mexicans and blacks were linked to drug businesses as well as drug use (Olives, 2014). Most incarceration made by the correctional facilities had more blacks as compared to whites. Research indicated that drug use had serious medical effects on the users. For instance, cocaine and heroin were perceived to cause nerve problems as well as interference with the normal functioning of the major organs. Also, people mental abilities were crippled with excessive use of drugs. Not only did the issue slow down the economic growth but also it made the American citizens less productive. Some individuals became addicted to the drugs and there were cases of drug overdose. All these happenings were alarming and many affected countries looked up to the United States for assistance (Olives, 2014). The fight against illegal drug use was in many countries and some widely known criminals were extradited in the United States. The reign of President Bush registered a speedy rise in the militarization of the local drug law enforcement. When his term was almost ending, statistics indicated that over forty thousand paramilitary SWAT raids were conducted on the American citizens without notice. The raids majorly revolved around the non-violent drug law offences. At this time, the Federal government policies stalled under the leadership of Bush while the state governments started to reduce the developments of the drug war. 

The trends of drug use among the top United States leaders were almost similar. A majority of the politicians admitted to have used drugs in their adolescent years. For instance, the current president Barack Obama admitted in an interview to have used marijuana and cocaine as a teenager. Moreover, the Michael Bloomberg confessed about his use of marijuana and the benefits he received from it. Even though these leaders have used the drugs before and experienced their experiences, their views and reforms, concerning the current drug use in the country is not very effective. There have been persistent attacks on the American citizens during these raids. Even though President Obama encouraged for fair amendments such as minimizing crack and powder sentencing difference, uplifting the ban on federal government sponsoring the syringe access programs, and advocating for the state medical marijuana regulations, his strategies still shift to a bigger percentage in suing health-based tactics. 

Today, marijuana reforms have achieved maximum support throughout the country. States such as Washington D.C, Colorado, Alaska, and Oregon have legalized the use of marijuana for adults. These steps by the federal and some of the state governments have had influence on the trends of marijuana legalization all over the world. For instance, by 2013 Uruguay became the first country in history to legalize the control of marijuana. Furthermore, the prime minister of Canada Justin Trudeau assured the citizen that marijuana would be legalized in their country. It is evident that the public opinion has changed drastically from criminalization of drug policies to establishing health-oriented goals. However, the abrupt attacks on American citizens are still on the rise. The number of people being arrested for the possession of marijuana is still on the rise. The progress of the acting reforms and policies is slow. According to a majority of the Americans, the drug wars should have policies that are created from science and love rather than political frenzies. 

It is unfortunate that the United States has participated in the war against drugs for more than two decades but the results are still unsatisfactory (Mauer and King, 2007). There have been mixed reactions from the American citizens about this “war.” Trillions of dollars have been used in the eradication of illegal drugs in the country but there are still arrests related to drug use as well as possession (Sharp, 1994). Perhaps there should be a different perspective of understanding the act of decriminalizing drugs. For instance, when the federal government intends to legalize the regulation of marijuana, it does not mean allowing border trades and putting up with the drug barons. The supply side of the drug wars should be lowered but not disregarded. International drug and local drug cartel should be the major target instead of dwelling on the customer who is the user or a community dealer. Even though setting a smaller percentage of funds on banning eventually it will be easier to bring drugs into the United States. However, there has been no indication indicating that the request for drug will dramatically increase. 

It cannot be entirely assumed that the drug war has not registered some successes. The war has experienced certain victories. For instance, the medical-oriented programs like the rehabilitation center and offering treatment program to addicts has helped in the restoration of health. Addiction is considered a disease and when it is completely healed, it becomes an achievement. Moreover, addicts who have recovered and recovering addicts have been role models to other users still struggling with the use. They are as source of hope for themselves as well as the country. Most of these people become productive members of the society thereby boosting the social and economic growth of the country. Most importantly, recovering addicts are able to bring up their children in a moral environment by educating them on the dangers and the effects of drugs on one’s health. 

In conclusion, for the society to legalize drugs, the federal government and the state governments should do away with certain myths and misconceptions such as branding drug users as morally defective. Since the government has identified and accepted addiction to be a chronic disease, they should concentrate more on drug policies on the demand side as compared to the supply side. A majority of the people believe that the United States government can also eradicate drug abuse by offering treatment programs to the addicts and through rehabilitation. However, the initial step should be public sensitization and education about the dangers of drug abuse through education. Also, drug and substance abuse programs should be introduced in the school curriculum.


Belenko, S. R. (Ed.). (2000). Drugs and drug policy in America: A documentary history . Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Collett, M. (1989). The Cocaine Connection: Drug Trafficking and Inter-American Relations. Headline Series No. 290 . Foreign Policy Association, 729 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10019

Inciardi, J. A. (1986). The war on drugs: Heroin, cocaine, crime, and public policy (Vol. 1). Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.

Mauer, M., & King, R. S. (2007). A 25-year quagmire: The war on drugs and its impact on American society . Sentencing Project

Olives Thompson, G. (2014). Slowly Learning the Hard Way: US America's War on Drugs and Implications for Mexico Norte America , 9 (2), 59-83

Powers, R. G. (1991). John C. McWilliams. The Protectors: Harry J. Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 1930–1962. Newark: University of Delaware Press. 1990. Pp. 251. $37.50 the American Historical Review , 96 (5), 1633-1634.

Rosenberger, Leif R. (1996). America’s Drug War Debacle Brookfield, VT: Ashgate Publishing Co

Sharp, E. B. (1994). The dilemma of drug policy in the United States HarperCollins College Division

Trebach, A. S. (1982). The heroin solution (p. 183) New Haven: Yale University Press.

We are the Drug Policy Alliance. (2016). A brief history of the drug war Retrieved on 17th August 2016 from http://www.drugpolicy.org/new-solutions-drug-policy/brief-history-drug-war

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