In June 1971 President Richard Nixon officially declared a “war on drugs” in America and cited drug abuse as “public enemy No. 1.” Could he have known then his words would spark not only decades of heated debate, but a violent internal and international struggle that continues up to this day?
The president best known for his involvement in the Watergate scandal and subsequent impeachment created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1973, funneling money and resources toward a federal agency with the purpose of ending both drug smuggling and use in America, while causing some in later years to speculate that both the violence and the very existence of the illegal drug trade is due partially to this government agency.
Today, the still-active illegal drug trade, as well as the number of people who can count themselves among the addicted, indicates that the situation is far from resolved. To understand and analyze the effectiveness of the war on drugs in 2012, we must explore its beginnings and trace its path through the 70s, 80s and 90s.
The 1970s and 1980s
The official start to the American war on drugs seemed not to have intimidated the Columbian drug cartel known as Medellin, which was embodied in the growing power of infamous drug kingpin Pablo Escobar (who was, at one point, the seventh richest man in the world, according to Forbes magazine). Operations continued, indeed flourished, throughout the 1970s, with Panama’s leader General Manuel Noriega giving Escobar permission to ship cocaine through the country in 1982. Escobar would go on to be elected to the Columbian congress, but he was later driven out.
In 1984 First Lady Nancy Reagan launched her “Just Say No” campaign and the use of illegal drugs decreased in subsequent years, with marijuana use among high school students dropping to 36 percent in 1987 (from 50.1 percent in 1978). Yet researchers are also quick to point out that a direct relationship between the effectiveness of the Just Say No campaign and drug use statistics cannot be firmly established.
Also in the mid-1980s, the Columbian drug route, which had been focused in Florida (and where a major effort by the DEA was concentrated) shifted to the Mexican border instead. Crack, the cheaper and addictive form of cocaine, was also created around this time, in some cases ravaging inner city populations. Also of note, in 1986 President Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which set mandatory prison sentences for possession of illegal drugs. The act would come under harsh criticism for racial and socio-economic bias, with harsher penalties meted out for crack possession than to cocaine possessors.
By 1989 President George H.W. Bush had appointed the country’s first “drug czar,” William Bennett as the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
The 1990s and Today
The 1990s saw the incarceration of major drug traffickers, like Noriega, as well as the killing of Escobar, who was killed while fleeing Columbian police. In 2000 President Clinton gave Columbia $1.3 billion to help decrease the amount of cocaine produced, supporting the spraying of coca fields throughout Columbia. Six years later authorities discovered a well-financed cross-border tunnel between the U.S. and Mexico, where two tons of marijuana were seized from a Tijuana warehouse.
And in 2010 President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, in an attempt to reduce the disparity of sentencing penalties between crack and powder cocaine possession; this type of act had been attempted before in 1995, but Congress overrode the suggestion.
So Are We Winning the War On Drugs?
On the same day a 19-person international commission consisting partially of former heads of state in South America, former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker and the then-prime minister of Greece announced that the war on drugs has failed, the White House was quick to issue a statement countering their declaration, pointing out that the drug use rate in this country has been cut in half, Columbian production of cocaine has been cut down by almost two-thirds and nonviolent drug offenders are more and more receiving rehabilitation rather than incarceration. But even those statements detractors have called into question.
In May of this year the ONDCP seemed to distance itself from the traditional “war on drugs” stance and announced that the U.S. government would pursue a course that promoted research on both drug abuse as a treatable disease and rehabilitation practices, denounced the legalization of drugs as a solution and de-emphasized bloated numbers of arrests as a measure of success.
All the while, it must be noted, grassroots organizations and even the presidential candidate Ron Paul have championed the legalization of marijuana, much like in the Netherlands.
While none of this offers a solid yes or no answer as to whether or not America is winning the war on drugs, the complexity of the situation should not be forgotten and we should take to heart – and never underestimate – the importance of what each of us individually chooses to do when it comes to illegal drugs.