What is the War on Drugs?

What is the War on Drugs?

Published on 3/29/21

Over the last year, the unjust ramifications of the War on Drugs confronted us, as systematic racism has finally taken its all-too-deserved spot on the national stage. The long-lasting implications of America's War on Drugs are apparent in arrest rates, lack of diversity in the cannabis industry and the cultural perception of race and drugs on a larger scale; but what is the war on drugs? Who started the war on drugs and is it still happening? Why are drugs illegal? Let's take a deep dive into what the War on Drugs is, how it started, and how it has developed over the years. 

How, Why and When Did the War On Drugs Start?


The War on Drugs history as we know it begins in the early 1970s, but its genesis goes back further. Up through the early 1900s, drugs like Cocaine, Opium and Marijuana were legal in the US, but this quickly changed in 1909 with the Smoking Opium Exclusion Act, which outlawed the importation, possession and use of opium for smoking. Soon after, in 1914, the Harrison Act passed to regulate opiates and cocaine in America. These original anti-cocaine and opiate laws disproportionately affected black men in the South - the beginning of a long line of drug policy aimed at disenfranchising minorities in America. 

Then in 1920, U.S. Prohibition quickly followed. For 13 years, alcohol was federally illegal but of course, there was still alcohol being consumed. Prohibition crashed and burned against public outrage and underground bootlegging in 1933. In response, the federal government quickly enacted the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, the first major piece of legislation against the use of marijuana. The law placed a hefty tax on the sale of cannabis and was the standard in marijuana regulation until the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, which changed the cannabis landscape in America forever. 

The War on Drugs Timeline

The 1970s and Nixon's War on Drugs


Nixon took the presidency with a campaign that lauded "Law and Order," selling the nostalgic promise of a safer America straight from the past. Under his guidance, politicians quickly blamed the social revolutions of the 1960s that threatened the social status quo on drugs. In 1970, Nixon signed the Controlled Substance Act into effect to provide specific Schedules for designating and regulating drugs. Marijuana, LSD, heroin and ecstasy were all classified as Schedule I drugs, addictive with no medical applications. 

In 1971, Nixon declared drug use America's "public enemy number one" and officially penned the War on Drugs. However, those close to Nixon have stated that Nixon's war was against the far anti-war left and black people. Over the next decade, federal funding for drug-control agencies and law enforcement skyrocketed. Later  in 1973, Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and has since been a leading agent in the War on Drugs. These agencies, the political power behind them and the propaganda that quickly won over the nation added more fuel to the fire of systematic racism that we still see today. While several states decriminalized marijuana in the late 70s and President Carter came into the presidency running on a decriminalization platform, the damage from Nixon's War on Drugs was too complete to undo.

The 1980s and Drug Hysteria


If the 1970s saw the inception of the War on Drugs, the 1980s were where it matured into a nationwide campaign against poor inner-city communities and BIPOC (especially black men). Throughout the 1980s, drugs became a popular source of many of America's problems. Media coverage played a monumental role in public opinion against drugs and the types of people shown using and selling drugs and killing people in poorer, inner-city communities. In the 1980s a smokable form of cocaine entered the market called crack cocaine, and it became the singular obsession of media outlets at the time. Crack became the new public enemy number one, and America's response was to criminalize and over-police, not provide social support or medical aid. The crack epidemic would later feed into the mass incarceration of the 1990s and further demonization of marijuana. The drug craze throughout the 1980s and transition into a new era of incarceration in the 1990s happened because of the election of Ronald Reagan and later, George Bush. Ronald and Nancy Reagan reinforced the nation's perspective on drugs through massive legislation increasing spending on drug enforcement and through the creation of anti-drug campaigns like the notorious "Just Say No," while Bush enthusiastically carried that same mentality into the early 90s.

The 1990s and Mass Incarceration


War on Drugs statistics are likely most shocking in the 1990s. Mass incarceration began in the 1980s, with the nation's prison population growing from 330,000 in 1980 to 771,000 by the end of 1990. However, it wasn't until the 1990s that incarceration rates exploded. The number of incarcerated people in America grew to nearly 2 million by the end of the 90s. Bill Clinton was elected on a platform of treating the drug crisis as a medical issue, but quickly reverted to the rhetoric and policy of the 1970s and 80s. There were many missed opportunities to turn away from the War on Drugs, including Clinton's rejection of syringe access programs and eliminating the disparity between crack and powder cocaine criminal charges. Even though they are the same drug, poorer populations used crack more often and received astronomically larger jail times and fines than rich cocaine users. The 90s also brought about the beginning of a rise in public awareness of the racial disparity in drug policing and incarceration.

The 2000s and Beyond

By the time President George W. Bush took office in 2001, the public's fascination with the Drug Wars was calming down and a larger understanding of the social injustice that fueled the war was beginning to set in. However, that didn't stop the government from spending roughly $35 billion per year on the War on Drugs. Under the Bush administration, the focus of the War on Drugs also began to shift away from cocaine and meth to marijuana. Bush's Drug War came to an end with his presidency, however, and the Obama administration gave way to a new drug policy. In 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA) reduced the discrepancy between crack and powder cocaine, which reduced the offense rates from 100:1 to 18:1. States also began to take more control over their place in the War on Drugs. In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana and many more states have since followed, helping us to where we are today.

The War on Drugs Today


Today, there are nearly 2.2 million people imprisoned in America, with nearly 50% of federal imprisonments related to drug offenses. Despite continued steps toward social equity, black Americans are still 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for drug possession and roughly 40% of individuals incarcerated on drug charges are black. The last 50 years have placed the BIPOC community in a vicious cycle of social injustice, economic strife, imprisonment and systematic oppression. For decades, political policies wove the War on Drugs into the fabric of America, with each decision making it more difficult to root out racism and unjust policy. Now it is our job to take this history, learn from it and make an impactful difference in how we handle drug policy and social justice.

The War on Drugs is a pervasive branch of American racism, and it has been responsible for a lot of unnecessary pain. We invite you to take part in this discussion. Tell us your stories, share your thoughts and help us better understand where we are and what we need to do to map a brighter future for cannabis and social justice.

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