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Drug War History

A Brief Outline of Drug Policies in the United States

Drug Laws Pre-1960s

1914The Harrison Act restricts the sale of heroin and cocaine – both legal at the time – and establishes a legal framework for federal intervention on drug policy.

1919Alcohol prohibition is enacted as the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. The failure of Prohibition led to its repeal in 1933 – the only Constitutional Amendment ever repealed by the States.

1937After the 1936 release of the anti-marijuana film “Reefer Madness,” combined with growing pressure from western states over complaints about Mexican laborers, Congress passes the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which in effect criminalizes the possession and use of marijuana. More…

1951Boggs Amendment – Congress enacts federal mandatory minimums for drug possession. More…

1956Narcotics Control Act increases penalties for drug offenses, including possession. More…

Nixon and the Generation Gap

In the 1960s, as drugs became symbols of youthful rebellion, social upheaval, and political dissent, the government halted scientific research to evaluate their medical safety and efficacy.

In June 1971, President Nixon declared a “war on drugs.” He dramatically increased the size and presence of federal drug control agencies, and pushed through measures such as mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants. Nixon temporarily placed marijuana in Schedule One, the most restrictive category of drugs, pending review by a commission he appointed led by Republican Pennsylvania Governor Raymond Shafer. In 1972, the commission unanimously recommended decriminalizing the possession and distribution of marijuana for personal use. Nixon ignored the report and rejected its recommendations.

States began to follow Nixon’s “war on drugs,” first with New York enacting the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws in 1973. The laws, named for then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller, required long mandatory minimum sentences of 15 years to life for even first-time, nonviolent drug offenses. Gov. Rockefeller said it was time to take a criminal justice approach to drug policy. Other states followed New York’s example.

The 1970s and Marijuana

Between 1973 and 1979, although many states were enacting tough laws against drugs, marijuana was largely exempt, and a number of states actually eased their marijuana laws by decriminalizing possession of small amounts. Then, in 1977, President Jimmy Carter was inaugurated on a campaign platform that included marijuana decriminalization. There was even movement towards marijuana decriminalization in Congress — in October 1977, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use, but the measure never received enough support to become law.

Within just a few years, the tide had shifted. Proposals to decriminalize marijuana were abandoned as they were ultimately caught up in a broader cultural backlash against the perceived permissiveness of the 1970s.

The 1980s and 90s: Drug Hysteria

The presidency of Ronald Reagan marked the start of a long period of skyrocketing rates of incarceration, largely thanks to his unprecedented expansion of the drug war. The number of people behind bars for nonviolent drug law offenses increased from 50,000 in 1980 to nearly 500,000 by 2000.

Soon after Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, his wife, Nancy Reagan, began a highly-publicized anti-drug campaign, coining the slogan “Just Say No.” This set the stage for the zero tolerance policies implemented in the mid-to-late 1980s. Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates, who stated that casual drug users “ought to be taken out and shot,” founded the DARE drug education program, which was quickly adopted nationwide despite the lack of evidence of its effectiveness. Meanwhile, the increasingly harsh drug policies blocked the expansion of syringe access programs and other harm reduction policies to reduce the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS.

In 1985, the proportion of Americans polled who saw drug abuse as the nation’s “number one problem” was just 2-6 percent. The figure grew through the remainder of the 1980s, driven largely by the country’s fixation on crack-cocaine, until, in September 1989, it reached a remarkable 64 percent – one of the most intense fixations by the American public on any issue in polling history. Within less than a year, however, the figure plummeted to less than 10 percent, as the media lost interest. However, the resulting political hysteria had already led to the passage of draconian penalties at the state and federal levels. Even as the drug scare faded from the public mind, these policies produced escalating levels of arrests and incarceration.

Although Bill Clinton advocated for treatment instead of incarceration during his 1992 presidential campaign, after his first few months in the White House he reverted to the drug war strategies of his Republican predecessors. Notoriously, Clinton rejected a U.S. Sentencing Commission recommendation to eliminate the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences, which had already led to astonishing racial disparities in the criminal justice system. He also rejected, with the encouragement of drug czar General Barry McCaffrey, health secretary Donna Shalala’s advice to end the federal ban on funding for syringe access programs. Yet, a month before leaving office, Clinton asserted in a Rolling Stone interview that “we really need a re-examination of our entire policy on imprisonment” of people who use drugs, and said that marijuana use “should be decriminalized.”

The 2000s: The Pendulum Begins to Shift

George W. Bush arrived in the White House as the drug war was running out of steam – yet he allocated more money than ever to it. His drug czar, John Walters, zealously focused on marijuana and launched a major campaign to promote student drug testing. While rates of illicit drug use remained constant, overdose fatalities rose rapidly. The era of George W. Bush also witnessed the rapid escalation of the militarization of domestic drug law enforcement. By the end of Bush’s term, there were about 40,000 paramilitary-style SWAT raids on Americans every year – mostly for nonviolent drug law offenses, often misdemeanors. While federal reform mostly stalled under Bush, state-level reforms finally began to slow the growth of the drug war.

Politicians began to routinely admit to having used marijuana, and even cocaine, when they were younger. When Michael Bloomberg was questioned during his 2001 mayoral campaign about whether he had ever used marijuana, he said, “You bet I did – and I enjoyed it.” Senator Barack Obama also candidly discussed his prior cocaine and marijuana use: “When I was a kid, I inhaled frequently – that was the point.”
Despite the changed public face of drug use, the assault on Americans persisted. Bloomberg oversaw a higher rate of low-level marijuana arrests than any mayor in New York City history. And Obama, despite advocating for reforms – such as reducing the crack/powder sentencing disparity, ending the ban on federal funding for syringe access programs, and supporting state medical marijuana laws – has yet to shift drug control funding to a health-based approach.

Progress is inevitably slow, but today there is unprecedented momentum behind drug policy reform. At the height of the drug war hysteria in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a movement emerged seeking a new approach to drug policy. The growing movement included support from across the political spectrum – from prominent conservatives and liberals, civil libertarians and progressives. That movement is growing today.

Further Reading

Alexander, M. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010
Gray, M. Drug Crazy: How We Got Into This Mess and How We Can Get Out. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Musto, D. The American Dream: Origins of Narcotic Control. 1. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.