The Real Reason We Started the War on Drugs

April 24th 2015

It is often stated that Richard Nixon started the War on Drugs – he did invent the term and establish the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) – and that President Ronald Reagan escalated said war, but the real War on Drugs began much earlier. 

The current iteration began with the passage of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970 that created the scheduling system, which made marijuana, heroin, LSD, MDMA, peyote, and other drugs Schedule 1 substances. Schedule 1 drugs are said to be the most dangerous drugs and are said to have no “accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Nixon created the DEA in 1972.

The beginnings of America’s War on Drugs were in the 1870s.

The drug war actually started much earlier, and the outlawing of opium, cocaine, and marijuana all have links to both racism and xenophobia.

The first anti-drug law was passed in San Francisco in 1875 when the city enacted the first legislation against the smoking of opium, according to author and federal Judge Frederic Block. The law was rooted in anti-immigrant sentiment because, in the mid-to-late 1800s, the West Coast of the United States was seeing an influx of Chinese immigrants. Citizens thought Chinese men -- who were culturally associated with smoking opium -- were enticing women into opium dens to take advantage of them. Congress went one step further with the Anti-Opium Act of 1909, which created a federal bar of smoking opium. (Block notes that other forms of taking opium were not outlawed because white Americans used those methods.)

In 1914, Congress passed the Harrison Tax Act, which not only outlawed opium, but also targeted cocaine. "The government also began an aggressively racist propaganda attack against cocaine-using black Americans and opium-using 'Chinamen,'" according to the Drug Policy Alliance. "Hysterical media stories claimed that white women using these substances were running off with men of different races." During that time, Black men were associated with cocaine use, according to Block. Newspapers, including the New York Times, would often print inflammatory headlines to play up crimes committed by Black men who were using cocaine. Consequently, Brock suggests that racism played into the eventual passage of the Harrison Tax Act.

Racism also played a role in the vilifying of marijuana in the early 1900s. “Mexican, Crazed by Marihuana, Runs Amuck With Butcher Knife,” read an actual New York Times headline from 1925. It has also been suggested that “marijuana” is a racist term in the first place—created to replace cannabis to make it sound more Mexican. By 1937, marijuana was made illegal in 46 of 48 states to combat the “Mexican menace,” as some called it.

The modern War on Drugs.

The federal government began scheduling drugs by how “dangerous” they were by 1970, and President Nixon officially declared a “war on drugs” a short while later. Private recordings of Nixon’s from his time as president reveal how he felt about drugs and those who used them. “You see, homosexuality, dope, uh, immorality in general: These are the enemies of strong societies,” Nixon was recorded saying in a private conversation. “That's why the communists and the left-wingers are pushing it. They're trying to destroy us."

“You know, it's a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob?" Nixon also said to his top aide, H.R. Haldeman. "What is the matter with them? I suppose it's because most of them are psychiatrists."

In 1973, the harshest drug laws in U.S. history (up to that point) was passed under New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. This is where we start to see the “lock 'em up and throw away the key” approach to drug crimes that currently exists in the United States. The Rockefeller Drug Laws included mandatory minimum jail sentences for possession of drugs and made it impossible for judges to be lenient in certain cases where it might make sense. These laws later became the model for Reagan's major escalation of the War on Drugs in the 1980s (not to mention First Lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign.)

The effects of the War on Drugs.

Now, we have a basic understanding of how drug laws came about in the United States, but what is most important is the effect of these laws.

As it stands today, more than half of Americans currently in prison are there for drug-related offenses. (The vast majority of drug offenses are simply related to the possession of drugs.) In 2009, 1.66 million Americans were arrested on drug charges. Before Reagan fully escalated the drug war, 150 of every 100,000 Americans were in prison. That figure is now around 707 for every 100,000. Minorities make up a disproportionately large part of those in jail for drug offenses, despite the fact that they don't use drugs any more than white Americans.

Despite employing harsh sentences for drug offenders, it has repeatedly been found the War on Drugs has not stopped the use of drugs. After spending over $1.5 trillion on the effort between 1970 and 2010, drug addiction has stayed at about the same rate. 

What can be done? Many countries, such as Portugal, have decriminalized drugs and started focusing on rehabilitation of drug users:


Cities like Seattle and Santa Fe, N.M., are trying the same technique and finding success. President Obama has stated that rehabilitation is probably better than incarceration, and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has stated that the War on Drugs needs to end. Perhaps we can get to a place of helping people who are struggling instead of throwing them in a cage. 

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