The War on Drugs in the United States – A History

Where did the War on Drugs come from? And what happens when society declares war on an abstract concept, like drugs or terror? Are these simply coded terms, shorthand for a war on ideology, with very real, albeit protean, targets represented? For the War on Terror, most likely. The War on Drugs however, was something even more intractable, pitting an embattled society against its own demographic identity and individual condition. How else can a war waged against the broad dragnet spanning recreational use to addiction be viewed? Raising the questions: To what end? And if success is possible, who wins? Who loses?

Welcome to our longread summer series. Over the next two months, we’ll be digging into the drug war, the history of drug use and prohibition in the U.S., whether drug use is inherently a global issue rather than a local concern, international models and programs, and potential policy points going forward. Let’s begin!

Did you know that only 100 years ago, Schedule A drugs were readily available at any American pharmacy. Tooth drops, Coca- Cola soda, and cough syrups were made from the same base compounds as cocaine, while “remedies” and relaxation aids contained heroin.

And though many of today’s medications contain less potent synthetic derivatives of these compounds, there most definitely is no cocaine or heroin in any of them. So what happened?

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Cocaine and heroin were outlawed in 1914, however many (if not all) other drugs were readily available. Marijuana and opium remained mainstays for anyone seeking them, as prevalent and accessible as alcohol – perhaps even more considering Prohibition.

In fact, the end of Prohibition may be responsible for the War on Drugs as we know it. Bureaucratic agencies dedicated to the regulation of alcohol suddenly had no purpose, refocusing their efforts onto the remaining substances, especially marijuana.

Born of a strange brew of anti-immigrant sentimentality, racial fear-mongering that played on the anxieties of the era, and civil servant desperation at preserving various agencies’ pay grades, the 1930s saw the introduction of Reefer Madness: a full-court press, funded almost entirely by government entities, intent on convincing the nation that marijuana rendered previously docile users uncontrollable, violent criminals. It’s no wonder that by 1937, Congress had acted to outlaw marijuana in the U.S.

Outlawing drugs however, in an exact echo of Prohibition, did not abolish their use. Instead, the new measures created a lucrative black market for any and all substances. This in turn gave way to all the power structures required to sustain illegal activities – gangs, mafia, and muscle. Ironically, these laws benefited federal agencies and organized crime, both searching for purpose after the repeal of Prohibition had deprived them of function. The net result was that criminal enterprise flourished and addiction, instead of being treated as a medical condition, was now criminalized.

These actions in the 1920s and ’30s set the stage for the meteoric rise of illegal drug use in the U.S., culminating in the troubling statistics of widespread heroin use in servicemen during the Vietnam War that prompted President Nixon to officially declare a new war: a War on Drugs.

That was in 1971. While funds were then dedicated to the treatment and rehabilitation of returning servicemen, and their use of heroin and other substances declined, the administration was not winning the war in the rest of the country. In fact, drug use in the U.S. peaked in 1979, when 25 Million Americans, anonymously surveyed, admitted to at least one instance of illegal drug use in the past month.

pills2Looking to the cocaine culture of the 1980s, the administrative creation of a Drug Czar, and the rampant use of marijuana among teens and adults, it became clear that we were losing the war. So it’s no surprise that the 1990s and early Aughts heralded an era of reflection and change that’s culminated in the Obama Administration officially retiring the term “War on Drugs” in 2009, 23 states (and Washington D.C.) with legalized marijuana, either for medical or recreational use, and the institution of drug courts in many states – a far cry from the prohibitive stance of almost 100 years ago.

The big question being: where do we go from here? What’s worked and what hasn’t? What can we learn from our past and international models? We’ll be looking at those questions next month, starting with a overview of international programs in England, Canada, Switzerland, and Portugal. And finally, turning the focus back on the U.S., and asking, how have our pilot programs made a difference and what does the future hold? Stay tuned . . .

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