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The History of the War on Drugs

Reading Time: 4 min 52 sec

If you grew up in the U.S., you know that illicit drug use is heavily restricted and culturally frowned upon. Getting caught with drugs can lead to imprisonment, hefty fines, and a criminal record.

Drug laws in the U.S. weren't always so harsh, however. Drug policy and cannabis policy are so heavy-handed today is thanks to the war on drugs.

The war on drugs is the term used to describe the general campaign that started in the 1970s led by the U.S. to end the illegal drug trade and punish drug use. Not only was this campaign through harsh drug policy and prohibition, but it included military intervention as well.

Thus far, the war on drugs has led to violent conflicts, increased incarceration, wasted money, and racial injustice at home and abroad.

If there's one thing that's clear about the war on drugs it is that it isn't working. Instead, human rights activists, lawyers, and progressive politicians view it as counterintuitive.

Join us as we dive into the history of the war on drugs. Discover how the war on drugs began, and where we are now.

It All Starts With Prohibition

If one thing can be said about drug policy today, it's that it is all about prohibition. Many substances that are illegal today were not unlawful in the past.


Cannabis, psychedelics, and opium have been part of human history for thousands of years. Only over time have governments decided to outlaw certain substances.

However, prohibition is not a new concept only used by modern governments. Prohibitions of drugs have existed for hundreds of years throughout many different societies.

What's vital about prohibition is why drugs are prohibited. Many times, drugs aren't outlawed based on their relative risks or potential for abuse, but for more sinister purposes.

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The Foundation of the War on Drugs

It can be argued that the war on drugs started about 100 years before the 1970s. In the 1800s, the Chinese began to steadily immigrate to the West Coast in California.

They brought opium with them, and rumors began to form over time that opium made the Chinese violent. Starting in the 1870s, several states began to enact anti-opium laws.

The same thing happened with cannabis and the influx of Mexican immigrants to the United States in the early 1900s. We actually wrote more in detail about this in another article that you can read here as well.

There are many more examples, but to make it short, drugs were often prohibited based on a fear of a group of people. Usually, that group of people were migrants or minorities.

The Laws Leading up to the War on Drugs

Xenophobia and racism may have been the root of prohibition, but there were other reasons too. Even in the late 1800s, many people were addicted to opiates and cocaine.

This often happened because drugs in that time weren't accurately labeled. This means that a product could contain opiates without explicitly saying so, which created a dependency.

To put an end to this, the 1906 Food and Drug Law was put into effect. The law made it so that all food and drugs needed to be accurately labeled.

However, that law didn't make any drugs illegal, yet. It wasn't until the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 that opiates and coca products became regulated.

This law would be the first domino that would eventually cascade into the war on drugs. In the 1930s, the first bureau of narcotics was established, and the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was passed.

The Marijuana Tax Act effectively made it illegal to grow and sell cannabis nationwide. Over the next few decades, the prohibition of drugs only became harsher.
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The War on Drugs

The 1960s were a time of great upheaval in America. The anti-war movement and the counterculture movements were flourishing and pouring into the streets and through living room T.V.s.

At the time, drug use was more prevalent and public, mostly because of the counterculture movement. Regular Americans felt that drugs were becoming a real threat to America.

Richard Nixon campaigned in 1968 on a platform to restore "law and order" and wage war on drugs. He won the election and quickly got to work once he was in office.

In 1970, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act was passed. This law created the modern drug scheduling system.

Then, in 1971, Nixon started the war on drugs as we know it by saying to congress:

“If we cannot destroy the drug menace in America, then it will surely in time destroy us. I am not prepared to accept this alternative.”

Nixon was not only anti-drug in policy but personally, too. He had a grudge against cannabis and was caught on the record saying:

“I want a goddamn strong statement on marijuana, I mean one that just tears the ass out of them.”

Following up on this, Nixon had cannabis considered a schedule I drug - the harshest category possible.

Throughout his years in office, he increased the budget and presence of drug control offices. Finally, in 1973 he formed the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which remains the main drug-fighting office in the U.S.

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Reagan Makes It Much Worse

After Nixon, the war on drugs and cannabis cooled off a little bit. In fact, during the early 1970s, a handful of states decriminalized marijuana.

Jimmy Carter became president in 1977, and part of his platform had been to decriminalize cannabis nationally. However, the tides were to shift again as parents nationwide became concerned about rising teen marijuana use.

The backlash of the brief acceptance of cannabis began in the 1980s. If there's one person to blame for how bad the war on drugs became, it's Ronald Reagan.

Reagan expanded the drug war and passed cruel laws during his time in office. Reagan set the stage for "zero-tolerance" policies and mandatory minimum sentencing with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. During the "crack epidemic" of the 1980s, harsh laws were passed for possession of crack-cocaine but not powder.

Although crack and powder cocaine are similar, crack is much cheaper and found readily in poor neighborhoods. That led to minorities and poor people getting incarcerated at much higher rates.

Incarceration rates have nearly tripled since 1980. Nonviolent drug offenses skyrocketed from 50,000 in 1980 to 400,000 in 1997.

The next few presidents from George H. Bush to Bill Clinton only expanded the drug war. Incarceration rates would only go up, and the militarization of police began in the early 2000s.

Since the early 2000s, the U.S. has continued its harsh laws and given millions of dollars to Latin American countries to fight the drug war.

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The War on Drugs Today

Currently, we can see clearly that the war on drugs utterly failed. Statistics prove that the supply and demand for drugs have not changed, despite all these efforts.

On top of that, we can see that U.S. citizens have taken it upon themselves to try and legalize cannabis. Starting in the 1990s, cannabis has slowly but surely gained national support while still being illegal in the federal government's eyes.

Today, more and more states continue to legalize medical and recreational marijuana, and in the near future, cannabis could even be legalized nationwide.

Not only is the U.S. wasting its resources on an ineffective strategy, but harsh laws have unfairly punished poor citizens and created an unbelievably large prison population.

Many government officials have recognized the failure of the drug war, but it persists to this day. When looking at the last 40 years, it's clear that the drug war needs to end, and sensible policies need to be made.

The policies of the past were built on misinformation, mistrust, and fear. Hopefully, one day we can enjoy a society that crafts drug policy based on science, reason, and compassion.

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