The US War on Drugs


Currently in the United States, 142 Americans have fatal drug overdoses every day, leading to more than 60,000 deaths last year. However, the current administration has decided to fight this epidemic by reigniting the failed war on drugs.

Although drug abuse has long been present in America in one form or another, the “War on Drugs” was really started in 1971, by President Richard Nixon, when he declared drugs “public enemy #1”. In part, this fear of drug use was fueled by Nixon’s disdain for countercultural movements and the antiwar movement. By cracking down on drugs, he was killing two birds with one stone (Minutaglio, Bill and Davis, Steven L. et al). Nixon was notorious for his fear of drugs scubas LSD and Marijuana, as well as his disdain for leftist social movements. This was undoubtedly one of the factors that led to one of the most taxing “wars” in American history. However, Nixon’s war on drugs was nothing compared to what was to come. 


Source: “CNN: The War on Drugs, 40 Years Later”


Why Do I Care?

I was initially drawn to the United States’ war on drugs as a social justice issue because I am very interested in the counterculture movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Doing research on people such as The Grateful Dead, Ken Kesey, Jack Kerouac, and Timothy Leary gave me and introduction to the war on drugs, and I was curious to find out about its other facets. Below is a quote from Nixon’s Counsel and Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs. It describe’s Nixon’s abuse of the political system in order to discriminate against African Americans and Liberals. Although there are many logical arguments for the thoughtful criminalization of certain drugs, to do so for reasons such as these is appalling. It was only through doing more thorough research that I saw the horrible racial injustices that have been and continue to be committed by the war on drugs. I care about this issue because I care about the lives of my fellow Americans, and I believe that in order to put an end to the opioid crisis, we need to find a better solution.


The History

Source: Upworthy

The drug paranoia that was started by Nixon was only fueled by the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. In 1986, an anti- drug abuse act was passed, which allocated 1.7 billion dollars to the war on drugs.  Reagan’s crackdown on drugs may have made him look good to his support base, but the fact of the matter is that the effects of his policies had a hugely unfortunate effect on people of color. At the time, 80% of those using crack were African American, and since the punishment for possessing 5 grams of crack cocaine was the same as the punishment for possessing 500 grams of powder cocaine (a drug almost exclusively used by upper class white people), the result was a swell in the incarceration of African Americans for nonviolent crimes (DuVernay, Ava). This was paralleled by the privately funded efforts of first lady Nancy Reagan to reduce drug use in American schools. She toured at the elementary level, encouraging kids to “Just Say No” if they were offered drugs. (Glass, Andrew). The anti-drug movement was continued by President George H.W. Bush. In his first televised national address as president, Bush declare drugs “the greatest domestic threat facing our nation”. He went on to continue the crackdown on drugs, and approved programs such as the 1033 program, which gave police military grade supplies for drug operations (Lopez). Then, with the Clinton administration came more laws which only added to the problem of mass incarceration. Most notable was the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement act of 1994. Among other things, this act gave money to local police and drug courts, and created a three strikes system. This three strikes system meant that if someone was convicted of a violent felony, and they already had two felonies on their record (including drug crimes), they would receive a life sentence. The War on Drugs continued with George W. Bush. In an address to the National Drug Control Strategy, he referred to drugs as “the gravest domestic threat facing our nation”. Obviously, this rhetoric is very similar to that of Bush’s predecessors. And, like his predecessors, his war was ineffective. As we can see in the graphic below, prison population rose substantially, and there is obviously still a drug problem in our country (Bush, George).


The Modern Day Problem

Source: Resistance Philly

Since then, there has been a slow easing up of drug policies in America, at least on the surface. The fair sentencing act of 2010 reduced sentencing disparity for crack to powder from 100-1 to 18-1 (DuVernay, Ava). Also, as of March 10, 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has stated that federal prosecutors will no longer be taking on small time marijuana cases. However, Sessions did repeal an Obama era policy that discouraged federal marijuana crackdowns in state where the drug is decriminalized (. There have been other legal relaxations on drug policy, but none so notable as that. Also, marijuana has been legalized in 9 states, as well as in washington DC (Lopez, German), and it is on track to become a 9 billion dollar a year industry by the end of 2018. Unfortunately, despite the progress that has been made in certain areas, the state of America as far as drugs are concerned is not good. We are in the midst of a horrific opioid crisis, with 142 Americans dying of overdoses every day (Sederer, Lloyd). Additionally, although drug laws appear to be relaxing, the prison population is steadily rising. Even worse, in 2016, African Americans made up only 14.6% of self-reported illicit drug users, but they accounted for 38.5% of those imprisoned for drug offenses (Koch, D. W., Lee, J., & Lee, K.).  Also, in areas where marijuana is still criminal, violent cartels from South America are incredibly profitable. So much so, that a pound of marijuana that cost them $75 to produce, can sell for as much as $6,000 (Stamper, Norm). While this is happening, the current administration is attempting to solve these problems by reigniting the war on drugs, an institution that is proven to have failed miserably. 



There are many different directions that could be taken in order to solve the problem of drug abuse in America. However, as has been proven, any plan to alleviate this needs to be treatment based, not punitive. That said, there should be legal measures taken against large drug distributors, just not users or even dealers (many of whom only deal to support their own habit). Past this, one potential solution is prescription heroin. In theory, this approach could ensure (relative) safety and purity, as many OD deaths are caused by heroin laced with drugs such as fentanyl. This method is being used currently in Canada. Doctors are able to prescribe heroin to a select group of patients who have not responded well to alternative treatments (Freeman). 


Do you think this could be an effective solution? Please tell me here:

On the education side, I think that drug education in schools should include a segment taught by a former heroin addict, in order for students to truly understand the consequences of opiate usage. Hopefully, this will reduce the feeling of being lectured, and get kids to really think about the potential consequences of their actions.



What can you do?

When faced with problems such as this, it is easy to feel hopeless. However, it is easier than one would think for anyone, regardless of age, to get involved and make change. Although only those over 18 can go out and vote, people of all ages can help by going out and campaigning for political candidates who will make smarter decisions on the drug problem than our current ones do. Additionally, if you or someone you know is struggling with drug addiction, call the 24 hour drug abuse hotline: 800-662-HELP (4357).



I would love to hear your thoughts on my page! Let me know what you think here:


Works Cited

Bush, George. “Address to the Nation on the National Drug Control Strategy – September 5, 1989.” The American Presidency Project,

“CNN: The War on Drugs, 40 Years Later.” CNN, 17 June 2011,

DuVernay, Ava, director. 13th. Kandoo Films, Forward Movement, 2016.

Farley, Robert. “Bill Clinton and the 1994 Crime Bill.”, 12 Apr. 2016,

Freeman, Alan. “Canada Has Just Approved Prescription Heroin.” The Washington Post,                          WP Company, 13 Sept. 2016,

Gurman, Sadie. “Jeff Sessions: Prosecutors Won’t Take Small-Time Pot Cases.” Time, Time, 10 Mar. 2018,

Koch, D. W., Lee, J., & Lee, K. (2016). Coloring the war on drugs: Arrest disparities in black, brown, and white. Race and Social Problems, 8(4), 313-325. Retrieved from

Lopez, German. “Marijuana Has Been Legalized in Nine States and Washington, DC.” Vox, 27 Mar. 2014,

Lopez. “25 Years Ago, Bush Escalated the War on Drugs.” Vox, Vox, 5 Sept. 2014,

Minutaglio, Bill and Davis, Steven L. et al. “The Blood Feud That Launched the War on Drugs.” POLITICO Magazine, 9 Jan. 2018,

Resistance Philly,

Sederer, Lloyd. “We Can’t Arrest Our Way out of Addiction.” U.S. News & World Report, 30 Nov. 2017,

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  1. April 27, 2018 by Rachel Dauby

    ay cool project

  2. April 27, 2018 by Caroline Welch

    Really gr8 job Max! I found your quote and graph very interesting- overall I found your project very well done.

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