What Happened to the War on Drugs?
The "War on Drugs" began in 1971 during the Nixon Administration. In the first year of Richard Nixon’s presidency, he delivered a special address to Congress during which he declared drug abuse to be a major threat, and made anti-drug policy a priority of his tenure in office. Two years later, he went one step further and identified drug abuse as "public enemy #1." Nixon proclaimed that the United States was officially declaring a "war on drugs."
The war on drugs would include a variety of legal, educational, and military efforts to eliminate the import, dissemination, and consumption of illicit drugs. Although President Nixon himself favored a measured approach, and even repealed mandatory sentences for marijuana possession, the war on drugs eventually developed into a more aggressive campaign. Later administrations would rely on prohibition and harsh penalties in an effort to stamp out America’s drug problem.
The War on Drugs Heats Up
Although the war on drugs officially began in 1971, government anti-drug efforts did not reach their height until the 1980s. Nixon soon had other problems demanding his attention, and Gerald Ford did not take any major steps to fight drug use during his abbreviated presidency. Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign included calls to legalize marijuana and eliminate harsh sentences for possession of 1oz or less of banned substances.
The war on drugs began to take shape during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, due in part to outside forces. Reagan’s election to office corresponded closely with the rise of the Colombian Medellin cartel. In 1982, General Manuel Noriega of Panama first allowed the Medellin cartel, led by Pablo Escobar, to ship drugs to the United States through Panama.
A 1982 drug seizure at Miami International Airport valued at over $100 million first alerted U.S. officials to the power of the Colombian drug cartels. George H. W. Bush, Vice President under Reagan, began to urge the U.S. to involve the C.I.A. and the military in efforts to curb drug importation.
Efforts to dismantle the Colombian cartels, and later Mexican drug smuggling rings, occupied most of the anti-drug efforts of the Reagan administration. The most famous educational anti-drug campaign – Nancy Reagan’s "Just Say No" initiative – was funded primarily by individuals and corporate donations rather than government funds. Treatment efforts increased somewhat under George H. W. Bush’s administration, but still comprised only 1/3 of overall anti-drug spending.
Criticism and Shortcomings of the War on Drugs
The prohibition-and-penalties-focused approach of the war on drugs has faced significant criticism over the years. Chief among those criticisms is the contention that the war has deepened social and racial divides in the U.S. population. This accusation is frequently leveled at the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, signed into law by President Reagan. The law re-instated mandatory minimum penalties for drug possession, and established harsher sentences for cheaper "crack" cocaine than for more expensive powdered cocaine. This has resulted in lower income populations – often minority populations – suffering the majority of longer drug-possession sentences.
The United States government has also been accused of compromising anti-drug smuggling efforts to suit different political priorities. In 1989, a congressional committee concluded that the Reagan administration had provided aid to the Contras in the Nicaraguan civil war in spite of significant evidence that the Contras were heavily involved in drug trafficking.
In 1993, the war on drugs received an unintentional blow from the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Legitimate trade between the United States and Mexico exploded under NAFTA, making it much more difficult for U.S. customs to identify contraband arriving from Mexico.
Is the War on Drugs a Failure?
After more than 40 years of fighting the war on drugs, many citizens and policy makers feel that very little progress has been made. Harsh drug possession penalties have contributed to overcrowded prisons, but drug importation and use remain prevalent. Powerful cartels were dismantled, only to be replaced by new organizations. The Obama administration has declined to use the phrase "war on drugs," indicating that it finds the term to be counter productive. In 2011, a self-appointed commission including former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and former Colombian president Cesar Gaviria, declared that the war on drugs had failed.
Many critics are calling for a new approach to combating drug abuse, one that abandons the prohibition and penalty approach. Some believe that drugs need to be decriminalized, while others feel that the most important tool is an emphasis on research and treatment of substance abuse and dependency.