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The 45th Anniversary of the War on Drugs: A Stunning History of Success

MERRY JANE's timeline of the War on Drugs' destructive path.

by Corinne Tobias

by Corinne Tobias

June 17 marks the 45th anniversary of the War on Drugs, and it’s time to come to a concession: The war on drugs has been incredibly successful. You read that right. You could even take it a step further and argue that of all of the policies that American politicians enacted in the 20th century, the war on drugs was the most successful one.

You’ll read a lot of reports that tell you that the war on drugs has failed. You may see charts like this one that show you how the U.S. drug addiction rate has basically flat lined since the war on drugs was declared in 1971. You might think that since we’ve spent $1.5 trillion working to eliminate lethal overdoses, debilitating drug addiction and the violence that accompanies the illicit drug trade, that a flatline would indicate a huge waste of money for the American taxpayer.

And if you’re looking at it from that angle, sure, you could call it a failure. We have not eliminated overdoses, prevented more people from becoming addicted to drugs, and have only fueled the fire for more violence in the worldwide drug trade. And the money? Oh yeah. We spent a whole lot of money without achieving any of those results.

But what if those goals weren’t really the point of the war on drugs? What if the war on drugs was a way to target left leaning anti-war activists and the African-American community at a time when the civil rights movement was becoming increasingly revolutionary?

It may sound like something you’d read on a Reddit conspiracy theory board, but an official from President Nixon’s inner circle has revealed that the motivations for the war on drugs are more sinister plot than well intentioned failure.

Understanding the motivation for the creation of the war on drugs is now more relevant than ever. Because even though a poll in 2014 confirmed that the majority of Americans would like to see the war on drugs come to an end, the laws behind the policy are still being used to pursue, prosecute, and incarcerate drug users, leaving activists and users to remain behind bars waiting for this policy to reflect public opinion.

Two out of three Americans believe that people shouldn’t be prosecuted for possession of drugs like heroin, cocaine, or marijuana. But policies like “Stop and Frisk” in New York have led to a windfall of arrests for drug possession in small amounts. Over 5,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession under the Stop and Frisk policy even though New York has a progressive law that makes marijuana possession a crime only when it’s in “public view.”

The poll also revealed that 63% of Americans would like to move away from the mandatory minimums that have led to a staggering incarceration rate and long sentences for nonviolent drug related offenses.

The federal mandatory minimum for cultivating 100+ cannabis plants with intent to distribute (which is legal in states like Colorado) could get you a life sentence in federal prison if you have any prior convictions (sometimes even if those are misdemeanors). However, sex trafficking a minor under the age of 14 by force, fraud or coercion would land you in the clink for just 15 years.

So, how did we get here? How has this continued for almost 50 years? And why can’t we just give up the war on drugs for good and go fund something else?

MERRY JANE has compiled a timeline illustraing the War on Drugs' destructive path.

The 70’s: Declaring War and Decriminalization

In 1971 Nixon dramatically increased the size and budgets of federal law enforcement agencies aimed at controlling the supply of drugs being imported and distributed in the United States. In 1972, after temporarily placing cannabis as a Schedule I drug, Nixon famously commissioned a review on cannabis. He appointed Pennsylvania’s Republican Governor, Ronald Shaffer, to head the commission and waited almost a year to get the results. 

The commission unanimously recommended that Nixon should decriminalize marijuana possession and distribution for personal use. Nixon blatantly ignored his own commission’s recommendation and permanently placed marijuana in the Schedule I drug category, making it a high priority for drug enforcement agencies and slating it as a drug with high potential for addiction.

Even though in 1977, a Jimmy Carter era senate judiciary committee voted to decriminalize up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use, proposals for decriminalization were eventually abandoned as the anti-drug hype started to take hold and parents worried about teenage marijuana use.

In his speech detailing the war on drugs, Nixon said, “These new penalties allow judges more discretion, which we feel will restore credibility to the drug control laws and eliminate some of the difficulties prosecutors and judges have had in the past arising out of minimum mandatory penalties for all violators.” But, the official policy included mandatory minimums that have filled correctional institutions and clogged up the justice system.

Mandatory minimums continue to disproportionately affect African American and Latino populations in the United States. 1 of 111 Americans are currently serving time in a federal or state prison or in a county jail, making America the most incarcerated country in the world. And in the federal system, 50% of inmates are in jail for drug related offenses.

The 80’s: Reagan’s Rampage

When Ronald Reagan took office in 1980, 50,000 people were incarcerated in the United States for nonviolent drug offenses. Under his administration, the government began to expand and heavily fund law enforcement for drug use and possession at an unprecedented rate. By 1997, corrections facilities were filled with over 400,000 inmates who were sentenced for nonviolent drug crimes.

In 81, Nancy Reagan began her “Just Say No” campaign that was forced onto every media outlet, highly publicized and promoted in schools.

This paved the way for zero tolerance policies and the D.A.R.E. program, which was developed by the dubious Los Angeles Police Chief, Daryl Graves. Graves believed that “casual drug users should be taken out and shot” and even though the D.A.R.E. program had no evidence backing its effectiveness, the program became nationally mandated in schools.

With growing anti-drug hysteria, and the zero tolerance laws to back it up, the creation of clean needle programs became an increasingly taboo subject. This led to a ban on funding for syringe access and helped to spread HIV, which accounted for 25% - 30% of all reported cases of HIV in America.

The 90’s: Clinton & Crack

With Hillary Clinton currently paving her way to the White House, it’s important to take a look at how the war on drugs was handled by the Democratic nominee’s husband and former president, Bill Clinton.

President Clinton campaigned on a platform that pushed for treatment of addicts instead of incarceration, but as soon as he took office, he escalated the drug war by funneling more funds into federal drug agencies. Clinton also took a dubious stance on racial sentencing inequality.

When a U.S. Sentencing Committee made a recommendation to eliminate the disparity of sentencing for crack and powder cocaine, Clinton rejected the findings and moved forward with harsher penalties for crack.

The media hyped the dangers of crack and many myths began to work their way into the public’s misconceptions about the drug. Crack cocaine was more popular in poor black communities, but it carried the same risk of overdose and addiction as powder cocaine.

Clinton also supported continuing the federal ban to fund clean syringe access programs, which led to more occurrences of HIV in intravenous crack users. While less than 10% of crack addicts die from overdose, almost 30% die from HIV.

The 2000’s: The Drug War Marches On

It’s probably no surprise that under George W. Bush, the drug war continued to escalate. But it’s important to note the shift that put marijuana under the most harsh and militaristic persecution to date. 

Bush’s drug czar began a comprehensive campaign for student drug testing and even though illicit drug use rates stayed the same, lethal overdoses rose quickly. By the end of the Bush era, Americans were subject to over 40,000 SWAT raids annually, mostly for nonviolent drug investigations that often resulted in misdemeanor convictions. 

While Obama advocated for sentencing reforms, and eventually repealed the ban on federal funding for syringe programs, funding is still on the rise for the drug war.

The Failures of Public Rehabilitation

It’s important to consider the “demand reduction” part of this equation. With billions of dollars spent every year on treatment and prevention, overdoses are still the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. 

On average, 44,000 people die every year from drug overdoses. The drugs that cause the majority of overdoses each year are prescription medications (approx. 26,000) including opioid pain relievers (approx. 19,000) and benzodiazepines (approx. 7,000). Illicit substances that commonly cause overdoses are cocaine (approx. 5500) and heroin (approx. 11,000).

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration conducted a survey and concluded that 90% of the people who are in need of rehabilitation and drug treatment do not receive it. When they do, the success rates are often abysmal (less than 30%) and state funded centers are sometimes poorly managed and use techniques that are outdated and ineffective.

On average, zero people die from overdosing on marijuana annually, but millions of dollars are spent on “addiction prevention and treatment” aimed at cannabis use.

Roughly 17% of all government funded rehab patients are admitted for marijuana addiction. A report from Health and Human Services showed that the majority of those admitted for cannabis treatment check in because a judge gave them the option of rehab or jail. The idea that we’re spending so many resources on court ordered rehabilitation for a substance that has the lowest rate of documented addiction (9% according to this study) and no deaths associated with overdose seems wasteful and careless.

The War on Activism

If all of these actions and all of the money spent served to protect the population from overdoses and drug related violence, maybe you could call that a win. Maybe the thought was that we just needed to get the “bad guys”, the drug pushers and possessors, off of the street and that would create a drug free society. Maybe this was a well intentioned mistake and maybe no one could have predicted that incarceration was not the answer to America’s drug problem.

But in 2016, when former Nixon aide and domestic policy advisor, John Ehrlichman was quoted in an interview given 22 years ago, he claimed that the War on Drugs had nothing to do with preventing addiction and that the administration knowingly used drug enforcement policy to actively target anti-war leftists and the black community. 

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” said Ehrlichman. “You understand what I'm 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.”

There you have it. From the perspective of the Nixon administration, drugs were an easy answer to a difficult problem. Dissenters in the late 60’s and early 70’s were gaining political traction, and the White House was left to figure out a way to control these populations, keep tabs on them and, ideally, keep them quiet. 

What better way than to associate them with drugs? Not only could you incarcerate individuals en masse, but you could also discredit the group as a whole by associating them with villainized mind altering substances.

How many hippie-era baby boomer activists spent all of their time, energy, intelligence, and resources on working to legalize marijuana over the past 45 years? If cannabis were decriminalized as far back as 1977, imagine what those advocates could have spent their attention on instead if Nixon hadn’t won his war on drugs.

The war on drugs continues today. Has someone you know been affected? Share your experiences and thoughts in the comments section below. 


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Corinne Tobias

Corinne Tobias is an organic farmer, photographer, writer, edibles cook and Cannabliss yoga teacher living in southwestern Colorado. She’s the author of Wake & Bake: a cookbook, a colorful, healthy and playful guide to cooking with cannabis. She’s also the co-creator of Harambe for the Holidays with Rita Marley. She’s on a mission to help people discover a vibrant healthy lifestyle using cannabis, food and movement.



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