18 Facts About America’s Long and Costly War on Drugs

18 Facts About America’s Long and Costly War on Drugs

Larry Holzwarth - November 15, 2018

For more than fifty years, led by agencies of the United States government, America’s leadership has waged a war on illegal drugs, even as demand for them has increased among American consumers. The war on drugs has exacerbated racial divides, created a criminal element in many nations which sometimes possesses more power than the corresponding national government, and has cost American taxpayers up to $51 billion annually. American agencies which have been active in the war on drugs include the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, CIA, NSA, FBI, DEA, INS, and many others. And that’s just at the federal level, local and state police departments and investigative agencies have also been heavily involved in the largely futile attempt to control illegal drug trafficking in the United States.

18 Facts About America’s Long and Costly War on Drugs
Not until the early 20th century did America regulate nationally the use of drugs such as morphine and cocaine, as this ad for toothache medication attests. Wikimedia

Officially the United States government’s War on Drugs was launched by President Richard Nixon as part of his law and order campaign. After the law and order President was forced to resign having been caught breaking the law, it was continued with varying fervor by each of his successors. Global commissions and initiatives were established with international trading partners and allies and in 2011 one of these, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, including as of this writing 22 members from around the world, declared that the War on Drugs was a failure, and recommended a different approach to controlling the use and movement of drugs around the world. The American policy originally defined by Richard Nixon in 1969 demanded “eradication, interdiction, and incarceration” of drug traffic and those who participated in its supply and use. The attitude has been the basis of American drug policy ever since.

Here are some facts regarding the decades long war on drugs and the effects it has wrought on American society, the economy, and the political stage.

18 Facts About America’s Long and Costly War on Drugs
This 1903 ad promises a cure for a variety of ailments, but was not required to list the active ingredients it contained. Wikimedia

1. Prior to the government declaring war on drugs

For most of America’s first 150 years of existence, drugs were not regulated by the federal government. Cocaine was a common ingredient in patent medicines, used as a pain reliever and as a stimulant. Coca-Cola, originally marketed as a tonic, contained extract of coca leaves. In 1895 Bayer, a German drug company, marketed a derivative of morphine as a pain reliever under the trademarked name heroin. Morphine was a component of numerous drugs and patent medicines, obtainable from pharmacists and apothecaries without the need of a prescription, what would in a later day become known as over-the-counter. A mixture of opium and alcohol, which contained the alkaloids morphine and codeine, was sold as laudanum, a popular tonic and pain killer. It was often used to treat colds in children.

Opium was smoked in many cities, with both brothels and opium dens offering the drug to their patrons. Local governments often passed ordinances which banned its use, as well as brothels, but the community leaders and police could often be found as clients of the opium dens. Marijuana, which has a long and complicated history in the United States, was found as well. During the age of prohibition, marijuana and other drugs saw an increase in consumption in America, as did both morphine and cocaine. The federal government’s first action against drugs came in 1906 when it passed legislation which made it mandatory for patent medicines and other elixirs to accurately label their contents. The temperance movement and the prohibition of alcohol backers were strong opponents to the opium dens and illicit marijuana use, but there was little public demand to control the use of narcotics in the United States.

18 Facts About America’s Long and Costly War on Drugs
The American victory in the Spanish American War increased the number of foreign nationals under American control and led to a clamor for drug laws to control their behavior. Wikimedia

2. The Spanish American War helped lead to the early drug laws

The American victory over Spain in the brief war of 1898 transferred the Philippines to the jurisdiction of the United States, and transferred a significant opium addiction problem with it. An Episcopal bishop named Charles H. Brent led a commission to study the opium problem in the Philippines and recommended that opium based narcotics, as well as cocaine, should be controlled by an international organization. In 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt concurred, and the United States sent a contingent to the International Opium Commission, a conference held in Shanghai in 1909, followed by a second conference at The Hague in 1911. The following year the International Opium Convention, a treaty to control the availability of narcotics, was put into effect. The convention stated that the member nations would “use their best endeavors” to control the manufacture, distribution, and use of morphine, other opiates, and cocaine.

The convention neither prohibited nor criminalized the possession or use of drugs. Both the United States and China, a major opium producer, were steadily leaning toward an outright prohibition of the use of drugs, in the United States as a part of the drive towards the prohibition of alcohol. In 1925 the United States proposed another convention, which was held in Geneva. The Convention added marijuana and derivatives of Indian hemp to the list of proscribed substances, noting that it, “not being at present utilized for medical purposes and only being susceptible of utilization for harmful purposes, in the same manner as other narcotics, may not be produced, sold, traded in, etc., under any circumstances whatsoever”. The United States, supported by India and China, recommended that hashish be added to the wording of the convention when it was registered with the League of Nations, of which the United States was not a member.

18 Facts About America’s Long and Costly War on Drugs
Under Herbert Hoover, the United States increased the number of restricted drugs and the enforcement mechanisms to control drug use. White House

3. The United States establishes federal controls on drugs

In June, 1930, the United States Department of the Treasury established within its jurisdiction the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Its main purpose was the control of the distribution and use of opium, and it created several overseas offices to monitor and interdict international drug smuggling. Offices were established in Italy, France, Turkey, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere to that end. The Bureau of Narcotics was never large in terms of manpower, never exceeding seventeen agents, but they worked with the law enforcement authorities of their host countries to detect international drug smuggling and break up drug smuggling rings. It also was the first federal authority to determine that marijuana was a dangerous drug, a gateway to the use of narcotics, and as such was a threat and thus needed to be controlled as well.

In 1934 the United States enacted, with the support of the Bureau of Narcotics and President Roosevelt, the Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act. Its intent was to produce tax revenues to the United States Treasury from the sale of narcotics. When only nine states initially adopted the act, Roosevelt and the Bureau of Narcotics began an information campaign to garner popular support. The Bureau of Narcotics announced that smoking marijuana (spelled marihuana in the language of the act) led to temporary insanity. A widespread propaganda campaign linked marijuana with more dangerous narcotics. Teenagers in particular were depicted in the propaganda campaign, dying from the effects of marijuana, or being driven by its use into criminal behavior. Eventually all 48 states succumbed to the propaganda and adopted the act.

18 Facts About America’s Long and Costly War on Drugs
Linking certain drugs with certain races, such as opium with the Chinese and cocaine with southern and urban blacks, was commonplace in the late 19th century. Wikimedia

4. The war on drugs was racially motivated at its inception

In the 1890s it was possible to order, from the Sears, Roebuck catalog, a syringe and a dose of cocaine for delivery through the United States Post Office to the home. The price was $1.50. While many municipalities had prohibited the use of opiates, largely in an endeavor to close the opium dens which permeated many cities, there were no restrictions on cocaine. As noted above, it was prevalent in patent medicines and tonics, used in cough medicines, elixirs, children’s medications, and was freely prescribed and dosed by physicians. In 1900, the first published reports linking cocaine to criminal behavior and activity emerged, beginning with the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association, which discussed cocaine and crime in an editorial page article. The Journal opined that crime rates among southern blacks were on the increase as a result of their use of cocaine.

In 1914 a physician named Edward Huntington Williams published an article in The New York Times under the headline: “Negro Cocaine ‘Fiends’ are a New Menace” (The New York Times, February 8, 1914). Dr. Williams expressed the belief, which he claimed to be evidentially supported but did not present the evidence, that the use of cocaine among black men in the south emboldened them to rape white women. He further expressed the opinion that it made them more inclined to violence while also sharpening their visual acuity, and thus their shooting ability. Other newspapers took up the theme, and still others blamed the problem of opium use on the Chinese immigrants in the cities, stereotyping Chinatown neighborhoods as harboring opium dens and the Chinese preying on the users through theft, kidnaping, and outright murder. In 1911 Dr. Hamilton Wright, the first United States Opium Commissioner, declared, “…it has been authoritatively stated that cocaine is often the direct incentive to the crime of rape by the Negroes of the south and other sections of the country”.

18 Facts About America’s Long and Costly War on Drugs
Mandatory sentencing laws which stripped judges of discretionary sentencing emerged with the signing of the Boggs Act by President Truman. White House

5. Mandatory sentencing laws were applied to drug possession

For most of American history, the sentencing of offenders convicted of violating drug laws was discretionary according to the judge who heard the case. In 1951, Congress inserted itself into the sentencing process with the passage of the Boggs Act, which was signed into law by President Harry Truman. Under the provisions of the act, those found guilty of possession of marijuana for the first time were to be sentenced to a minimum of two years, with judges retaining a modicum of discretion by allowing them to sentence the violator to up to ten years. Since then both Congress and the legislatures of several states have imposed mandatory penalties and sentences for the possession of different drugs, taking the sentencing power away from judges in some cases, while in others returning the discretion to the courts.

Prior to the passage of the Boggs Act, a commission formed by New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia performed a five year study, with their report written by the New York Academy of Medicine. The LaGuardia Committee, as it came to be called, refuted the assertions of the federal government and the Bureau of Narcotics regarding marijuana use, its prevalence, and its impact on society. It reported that there was no demonstrated link between marijuana and crime, nor was there evidence that marijuana was a gateway drug (in New York City, where the study was conducted). The study also reported that the use of marijuana was for the most part limited to the black and Hispanic neighborhoods of the city, in particular Harlem, where it did not contribute to juvenile delinquency nor truancy. The head of the Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger, personally denounced the LaGuardia Committee and its report in writing and in testimony before Congressional Committees.

18 Facts About America’s Long and Costly War on Drugs
Lyndon Johnson believed that many of the anti-war protests during his administration were fueled by drugs. LBJ Presidential Library

6. The Johnson administration cracked down on drugs during 1968

1968 was an election year, and one of considerable social unrest in the United States, with race riots, protests against the Vietnam War, riots in Chicago during the Democratic Convention that summer, and much more. President Lyndon Johnson decided that the unrest within the population was being fed by the use of illegal drugs, and initiated a crackdown. Republican candidate Richard Nixon railed at the Johnson administration for not doing enough, and promised a far greater crackdown on drug use if elected. It was Nixon who coined the term “War on Drugs”, though not until he was in office. Experts advising the Johnson administration and the Nixon campaign believed that more than half of the crime in the United States was related to drug use. Some experts believed that up to 90% of American crime was drug related.

Nixon’s aide John Ehrlichman became his Chief Domestic Advisor during his first term after serving for a time as White House Counsel. It was Erlichman who eventually created the White House Plumbers of Watergate fame. In 1994 Ehrlichman told Harper’s Magazine, “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people…by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities”. Ehrlichman went on in the same interview, “Did we know we were lying about drugs? Of course we did”. Nixon entered the White House in 1969. Two years later he declared illegal drug use to be “public enemy number one” and announced the new government policy of the “War on Drugs”.

18 Facts About America’s Long and Costly War on Drugs
The Nixon Administration used the cover of the War on Drugs to strike at his perceived enemies while in office. White House

7. Nixon’s actions against drug abuse

In 1970 Congress passed, at the urging of President Nixon, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act. The act classified drugs in five different categories called Schedules. Placing a given drug in a schedule was based on considerations of international treaties, medical use, and the drug’s potential for abuse, which was at the time of passage an undefined term based primarily on the attitudes of society rather than medical definition. The law was drafted by a team under the supervision of the Attorney General, John Mitchell. The effect of the act was to consolidate federal drug policy under one umbrella and expand the activity of federal law enforcement to control drug use. At the same time Nixon’s Justice Department, headed by Mitchell, prepared the Uniform Controlled Substances Act for submission to the states for passage by their individual legislatures.

Under the provisions of the act passed by the Nixon administration, which remains in force though it has been amended several times, virtually any entity can petition to have the schedule for any drug changed, or created anew in the case of new drugs and medications being developed. To study the effect of a drug and its potential for abuse, a major factor regarding the schedule to which it could be assigned, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs and the Treasury Department’s Customs Agents responsible for monitoring drugs coming across the border were combined into a new federal law enforcement agency, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the term DEA entered the alphabet soup of the federal government’s bureaucracy in 1973.

18 Facts About America’s Long and Costly War on Drugs
Richard Nixon meets with Elvis Presley, himself an abuser of prescription and non-prescription drugs, at the White House in December, 1970. White House

8. The DEA became a tool used by the Nixon Administration

Part of the Nixon Administration strategy in the newly declared War on Drugs was, according to John Ehrlichman, to “raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news”, referring to the two groups that when Nixon entered the White House he considered his enemies. The DEA became a primary tool of the administration in achieving the goal described by his aide. At the same time, Nixon supported initiatives to reduce demand for drugs through education and drug-treatment programs, and the 2-10 year mandatory sentence for first time offenders convicted of cannabis possession was repealed. By late 1973 the Watergate scandal threatened Nixon’s message regarding drug use and the administration was beset with reports of heavy drug use by conscripted troops in Vietnam.

By the end of the twentieth century the DEA had expanded to over 4,600 Special Agents, with another 800 Intelligence Analysts. In total it employed over 10, 000 people at the cost to the taxpayer of nearly $2 billion. It maintained offices in 70 countries, and worked closely with the sovereign nation’s own law enforcement mechanisms. Under Nixon, the War on Drugs resulted in an increase in arrests for drug violations, but the increase in drug related incarceration rates was relatively small. The propaganda campaign which Ehrlichman called “vilifying them” was successful in creating a demand for greater government action against drug abuse however, and under Nixon more than 6,000 federal arrests for various drug violations occurred during 1972-73. The demand for illegal drugs continued to increase, and Presidents Ford and Carter, despite continuing and reinforcing Nixon’s policies, achieved little to stem the drug trade.

18 Facts About America’s Long and Costly War on Drugs
Ronald Reagan delivers the 1988 State of the Union Address, in which he declared that poverty won the war on poverty, but did not reference the failings of the War on Drugs. Reagan Library

9. The Reagan Administration accelerated the War on Drugs

When Ronald Reagan entered the White House in 1981, he quickly announced that the weak efforts of his immediate predecessor would be replaced by strong action. “We’re taking down the surrender flag that has flown over so many efforts”, Reagan intoned, promising that it would be replaced with a “battle flag”. Despite Reagan’s promise, the use of cocaine in the 1980s exploded, as it became the drug of choice among many celebrities. It was during the 1980s that the use of crack cocaine emerged and began to spread in urban areas. Wearing a coke spoon on a necklace was a popular fashion accessory. Then in 1986 the University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias died from the effects of cocaine upon his heartbeat. Reagan seized upon the death of the basketball star to shepherd through Congress the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.

The rapid growth of the use of crack cocaine was widely reported on and generated enough public support for the act that most congressmen, though expressing some concerns over portions of the bill, reacted by voting for it (it was an election year). When signed into law the act established mandatory sentencing for most drug offenses (including cannabis) which were quickly under criticism as being in part racially divisive. The possession of five grams of crack meant a sentence of a minimum of five years without parole. The same sentence, under the mandatory sentence provisions of the act, for the possession of powder cocaine required the offender to possess at least 500 grams. Crack was widely viewed as being a problem within black communities, and the sentencing disparity aroused civil rights groups.

18 Facts About America’s Long and Costly War on Drugs
Nancy Reagan addresses a children’s walk to the Washington Monument as part of her “Just Say No” campaign in May, 1988. Reagan Library

10. Reagan’s actions in the War on Drugs altered public opinion

When the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 passed through Congress, it gave the federal government $1.7 billion to conduct the War on Drugs. It also created 29 new minimum sentences for drug offenses. Crack became a major feature of news magazines and newspapers, and the Reagan Administration directed the Drug Enforcement Administration to keep the drug and information about its dangers in the public eye. Reagan’s wife, Nancy, contributed with a campaign aimed at schoolchildren which she called Just Say No. The DEA reinforced the idea that crack was potentially more addictive than powder cocaine and that it was the single greatest factor in crime in black communities. Murder rates in many black communities in most American cities skyrocketed. America’s demand for cocaine showed no sign of abating throughout the 1980s.

The demand for cocaine led to the power of the cocaine cartels in South America. By 2011 Colombia was the world’s largest producer of cocaine, most of it illegally, and the United States was the world’s largest consumer, again, most of it illegally. The United States government’s efforts to reduce the production of cocaine in Colombia and other nations took place through the use of the DEA, the FBI, the United States Coast Guard, the United States Navy, military special forces, the CIA, and numerous other entities. Under several presidents the United States has taken action which included military action to interdict the supply of illegal drugs into the United States as part of the War on Drugs, with different levels of success. In some cases, the states have taken initiatives of their own, mostly in the area of mandatory sentences for both users and suppliers.

18 Facts About America’s Long and Costly War on Drugs
Operation Intercept caused massive traffic tie-ups and lengthy delays while every vehicle crossing the border from Mexico was inspected. Boston Globe

11. Operation Intercept nearly closed the American border with Mexico

In 1969 newly inaugurated President Richard Nixon launched Operation Intercept on September 21, in an attempt to stop the flow of marijuana across America’s southern border. Earlier in September Nixon informed the President of Mexico of his intention to implement the policy, which was conducted under the supervision of the United States Custom Service. The policy was simple, every vehicle which entered the United States across the Mexican border was stopped for an inspection. At the same time the United States nearly stopped the cross-border traffic from Mexico as it also stopped and searched all those crossing the border on foot and all arriving on airplanes which had left from or stopped at Mexican airports. The intent of the program was to force the Mexican government to initiate a defoliation program to destroy cannabis plants grown there.

Operation Intercept led to a near shutdown of cross-border traffic and lengthy lines on the Mexican side of the border, which affected returning Americans as well. The press was almost universal in condemning the operation. G. Gordon Liddy, who helped plan the operation, wrote in his autobiography that the intent of Operation Intercept had not been the stopping of cannabis entering the United States, but was instead a deliberate act of extortion intended to “bend Mexico to our will”. Operation Intercept had a negative effect on many communities along the Mexican-American border, and after three weeks it was abandoned, but it can be noted as the first shot in what Nixon would later name the War on Drugs which was directed at another nation.

18 Facts About America’s Long and Costly War on Drugs
US troops parachute into Panama during Operation Just Cause, an invasion to arrest Manuel Noriega. US Air Force

12. Operation Just Cause and the arrest of Manuel Noriega

In 1971 the DEA attempted to indict Manuel Noriega of Panama, only to the thwarted by the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA had allowed Noriega to conduct his drug trade activities for years because of his support of the Contras in Nicaragua. The CIA, under its director at the time, George H. W. Bush, funded Noriega and looked the other way as the Panamanian dictator shipped illegal drugs to markets which included the United States. In 1986 a CIA pilot and former Marine named Eugene Hasenfus was shot down in Nicaragua during a flight in which he had been delivering weapons covertly for the CIA to the Contras. Ronald Reagan denied that Hasenfus had any connection with the United States government, but papers discovered in the wreckage of the aircraft he had been flying revealed otherwise, including the links between the CIA and Noriega.

With Noriega then a liability to the American government, and an embarrassment to both Reagan and his vice-president, the same George Bush, the DEA was encouraged to indict Noriega, and with the indictment in hand the United States sent 25,000 troops to Panama to secure his arrest and overthrow his government. Hasenfus was indicted by the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, convicted, imprisoned, and pardoned in December. Noriega was tried in Miami for drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering, convicted, and sentenced to 40 years in federal prison. During his trial evidence reflecting his relationship with the CIA and George Bush was not allowed to be presented. Noriega was later extradited for trial in France, again convicted, and returned to the United States to serve his sentence.

18 Facts About America’s Long and Costly War on Drugs
A slide prepared to brief the US Congress Committee on Foreign Affairs in support of the Merida Iniative in 2007. Wikimedia

13 The Merida Initiative to battle drug cartels

The Merida Initiative was launched in in June, 2008 to provide security and financial assistance to the Mexican government and later expanded to include several Central American countries to assist them in fighting organized gang activity. The initiative focused on drug traffic, and was later expanded to include the interdiction of guns smuggled into Mexico from the United States. The American Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms revealed in 2014 that over 60,000 firearms were smuggled into Mexico by arms dealers in the United States, an activity which ATF has traced since 1996. The Merida Initiative was criticized from the beginning for corruption and for the seeming American support for human rights violations conducted by some of the Mexican army and police forces.

The United States provided the Mexican government and those of several Central American countries with security vehicles including helicopters, training in drug detection, and infiltration techniques to weaken the drug cartels and gangs. In 2009, at the request of several Caribbean nations, the Merida Initiative was expanded to include them as well. The plan was also directed at ferreting out and eliminating police and government corruption. By 2017, nearly $2 billion dollars of aid and equipment were delivered to Mexico alone as part of the ongoing War on Drugs, despite a US government study conducted by the RAND Corporation which recommended that a focus on the production and importation of drugs was futile, and that the money would be better spent on treatment of addiction and education.

18 Facts About America’s Long and Costly War on Drugs
The cover of the 2015 Drug Threat Assessment included cannabis with heroin and cocaine. DEA

14. Aerial defoliation has caused environmental and health damage

During the 1980s the United States began supporting the aerial spraying of large areas of Colombia and other countries to eradicate coca and cannabis plantations. Using primarily the product Roundup Ultra, manufactured by the Monsanto Corporation and paid for by the United States as part of the War on Drugs, several hundred thousand acres of land in Mexico, Central America, and South America were treated. In the 1990s, despite spraying having begun nearly a decade before, production of cocaine in Colombia increased. By 2002 coca plantations had spread to 22 Colombian provinces. Three years earlier it had been limited to 12. In several of those, the production of coca simply moved to other areas within the province.

Residents of the areas which were subjected to aerial spraying reported health effects beginning in the late 1990s, with skin and respiratory conditions attributed to the herbicides. Although several states and health associations have linked the active ingredient in Roundup Ultra – glysophate – to cancer, other groups have denied that the chemical is carcinogenic. However there is no dispute that the aerial spraying displaced hundreds of thousands of citizens who were not part of the production of the coca cartels, and caused the cartels’ expansion and corrupting influence into areas not previously involved in the drug trade. In 2002 alone 75,000 Colombians were forced to relocate within the country, their ability to make a living through the growing of legitimate crops destroyed by the defoliation. The US State Department under seven presidents ignored the concerns of the Colombians directly affected by the program.

18 Facts About America’s Long and Costly War on Drugs
A Royal Navy photograph of cannabis plants on the tiny island of Montserrat in the Caribbean. Royal Navy

15. The cost of incarcerating drug users is borne by the American taxpayer

In 2008, a study conducted by Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron reported that the cost of imprisoning drug abusers and dealers in the United States exceeded $41 billion dollars annually. Miron pointed out that the federal government alone would realize savings of more the fifteen and a half billion dollars per year simply in incarceration costs per if drugs were legalized in the United States. Miron also calculated that legalizing drugs and taxing them at rates comparable to tobacco would generate more than $46 billion annually, with more than $8 billion coming from the legalization of cannabis alone. The total cost to American taxpayers for the War on Drugs is impossible to calculate, since much of it is funded by Defense Department budgets as part of their operations, and much more is funded through so-called black programs.

By the year 2000, the publicly known cost of the War on Drugs was $18.4 billion dollars. That amount included expenditures for treatment programs, interdiction, education programs, and aggressive policing but did not include the amount spent on prosecution of violators and incarceration. The War on Drugs did little to control the American desire for intoxication, by 2012 the United States led the world in both the recreational consumption of illegal drugs and incarceration rates of its citizens. That year just over 70% of men arrested and incarcerated tested positive for some form of illegal substance, a figure which is used to argue that drugs lead to criminal behavior. Those incarcerated for illegal drug use had a rate of recidivism of more than 50%. In contrast, those sent to treatment via drug courts had a recidivism rate of less than 20%.

18 Facts About America’s Long and Costly War on Drugs
A still from the propaganda film Reefer Madness, which depicted cannabis addiction and its links with insanity and crime. Wikimedia

16. The creation of anti-drug propaganda

Since its inception, a main focus of the War on Drugs has been driven by moral issues, hidden under a blanket of propaganda. Long before the War on Drugs was announced by Richard Nixon the film Reefer Madness was released, funded by a religious organization. In the 1970s the film was re-released, widely regarded as a satire. Reefer Madness was just one of a multitude of films which were made to demonstrate the moral and physical destruction wrought by the use of illegal drugs, including cannabis, which was depicted as not only the gateway to the use of other drugs but also to moral decline. It presented cannabis as physically and psychologically addictive. The film originally was marketed under several different titles dependent on the region of the country in which it was screened.

The crack epidemic of the 1980s and the cocaine fueled lust of black men in the Deep South were other forms of anti-drug, or rather pro-drug control, propaganda which was used to fuel anti-drug sentiment during the War on Drugs. Crack in particular was presented in the media and by the government as instantly addictive and deadly, though its addictive properties are no different than that of powder cocaine according to most pharmacologists. The explosion of its use in the 1980s had more to do with its cheapness, though the desire to continue to use it did contribute to its becoming a significant factor in the rise of urban crime. Crack was a leading component in the emergence of gangs and turf wars in the 1980s, and the punishments for its possession and use were a significant factor in the dramatic rise of incarceration rates which began during the 1980s.

18 Facts About America’s Long and Costly War on Drugs
Walter Cronkite became a vocal opponent of the War on Drugs and the deceit of the American people which arose from it by their government. Wikimedia

17. The Drug Policy Alliance recommended an end to the War on Drugs

In the year 2000 the Drug Policy Alliance was formed by the merger of the Lindesmith Center and the Drug Policy Foundation, both of which argued that the War on Drugs was a failure. A primary argument of the Drug Policy Alliance, which is a New York based non-profit organization, is that the War on Drugs was a failure. As part of their argument the DPA presents evidence that after decades of the War on Drugs more than ever illegal drugs are available, with increased potency and thus in many cases greater danger to the user. The DPA also argues that all drugs are different, resorted to for different reasons, and should be dealt with keeping those differing motivations for their use in mind. The DPA was a leading supporter of the law in Uruguay which legalized the possession and use of cannabis in that nation in 2013.

The DPA was actively supported by Walter Cronkite following his retirement from CBS News. In an article Cronkite wrote in support of ending the War on Drugs, Cronkite pointed out that truth is often a victim of war, citing the example of Robert McNamara admitting years after the fact that he knew the Vietnam War was unwinnable, yet continued to try to convince the public that America was winning the war. “And I cannot help but wonder how many more lives, and how much more money, will be wasted,” Cronkite wrote, “before another Robert McNamara admits what is plain for all to see: the war on drugs is a failure”. Cronkite wrote those words in 2006, more than a decade ago, a decade in which the war on drugs and its costs to the American people continued unabated, adding to the overcrowded prisons, the national debt, and the burden on America’s strained military and law enforcement resources.

18 Facts About America’s Long and Costly War on Drugs
RAND Corporation prepared several studies – and cited several others – warning the Department of Defense and the DEA that the War on Drugs was a failure. RAND

18. Winning, losing, or is it a draw?

As early as 1988, the RAND Corporation, at the behest of the federal government, produced a study which found the use of the military to prevent drugs from crossing American borders was not cost effective. It also found that the cocaine cartels of Colombia actually realized an increase in profits as a result of the American led War on Drugs. RAND also listed seven consecutive studies prepared independently over nine years which came to the same conclusion. In response, military interdiction efforts were increased. In the mid-1990s RAND conducted another study for the Clinton administration, which reported that reduction in demand was more than twenty times more effective in reducing drug trafficking than attempting to stop it at its source, or blocking it at the borders. American efforts to combat drugs using the military continued.

By the early 2000s, leading critics were pointing out that to have a negative effect on cartel profits about 75% of their shipments would have to be seized. The same critics stated that the US stopped only about 15-30% of shipments of heroin and cocaine. Reducing the supply while ignoring the level of demand caused the price of drugs on the street to increase, sending larger profits to the producers. By the year 2010 it was widely accepted by economists, health care professionals, prison administrators, and some politicians that the War on Drugs had been an abysmal and expensive failure. Nonetheless, in 2005 the United States spent more than $7 billion dollars on the arrest, prosecution, and incarceration of marijuana users alone, retained the policy of treating it as a gateway drug, and continued to prosecute a War on Drugs which has shown little sign of abating in the twenty-first century.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography”. Dominic Streatfeild. 2003

“Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs”. Johan Hari. 2015

“Roosevelt asks narcotic war aid”. Special to the New York Times. March 22, 1935

“Federal narcotics laws and the war on drugs: Money down a rat hole”. Thomas C. Rowe. 2006

“Nearly 500 Seized in Narcotic Raids Across the Nation. Arrests Here Pass 50 as U. S. Cracks Down on Peddlers Under New Toughened Law”. The New York Times. January 5, 1952

“Legalize it All: How to Win the War on Drugs”. Dan Baum, Harper’s Magazine. April 2016

“The Drug War Revisited”. Eric Schneider, Berfrois. November 2, 2011

“Race, the war on drugs, and the collateral consequences of criminal conviction”. Gabriel J. Chin, Journal of Gender, Race, and Justice. 2002

“The Impact of the War on Drugs on U. S. Incarceration”. Human Rights Watch. May, 2000

“CIA Inspector General report into allegations of connections between the CIA and the Contras in cocaine trafficking to the United States”. Frederick Hitz, Central Intelligence Agency. 1998. Online

“Operation Intercept: The Perils of Unilateralism”. Kate Doyle, The National Security Archive. April, 2013

“Panama: The Whole Story”. Kevin Buckley. 1992

“Colombia’s coca crop booms despite US-backed crackdown”. Roy Carroll, The Guardian. June 19, 2008

“Vicious Circle: The Chemical and Biological War on Drugs”. Transnational Institute. March, 2001. Online

“Making Economic Sense”. Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). Online

“New Research Debunks One Of The Oldest Myths About Marijuana”. Jared Keller, Pacific Standard Magazine. June 17, 2015

“Telling the Truth About the War on Drugs”. Walter Cronkite, Huffington Post. March 1, 2006

“How goes the war on drugs?” RAND Corporation. May, 2004. Pdf Online