A Short History of the War on Drugs

At the turn of the 20th century, the drug market went mostly unregulated. Medical remedies, which often contained cocaine or heroin derivatives, were freely distributed without ​a prescription — and without much consumer awareness of which drugs were potent and which were not. A caveat emptor attitude towards medical tonics could have meant the difference between life and death.

1914: The Opening Salvo

Washington D. C.
Frederic Lewis/Archive Photos/Getty Images

The Supreme Court ruled in 1886 that state governments could not regulate interstate commerce — and the federal government, whose skimpy law enforcement focused mainly on counterfeiting and other crimes against the state, initially did very little to pick up the slack. This changed during the early years of the 20th century, as the invention of automobiles made interstate crime — and investigation of interstate crime—more practicable.
The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 targeted toxic drugs and was expanded to address misleading drug labels in 1912. But the piece of legislation most relevant to the War on Drugs was the Harrison Tax Act of 1914, which restricted the sale of heroin and was quickly used to restrict the sale of cocaine as well.

1937: Reefer Madness

Harry Anslinger
Public domain. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

By 1937, the FBI had cut its teeth on Depression-era gangsters and achieved some level of national prestige. Prohibition had ended, and meaningful federal health regulation was about to come about under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act of 1938. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, operating under the U.S. Treasury Department, had come into existence in 1930 under the leadership of Harry Anslinger (shown left).
And into this new national enforcement framework came the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which attempted to tax marijuana into oblivion ​Marijuana had not been shown to be dangerous, but the perception that it might be a "gateway drug" for heroin users — and its alleged popularity among Mexican-American immigrants — made it an easy target.

1954: Eisenhower's New War

Senator Price Daniel
Public domain. Image courtesy of the State of Texas.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected president in 1952 by an electoral landslide based largely on his leadership during World War II. But it was his administration, as much as any other, that also defined the parameters of the War on Drugs.
Not that it did so alone. The Boggs Act of 1951 had already established mandatory minimum federal sentences for possession of marijuana, cocaine, and opiates, and a committee led by Senator Price Daniel (D-TX, shown left) called that the federal penalties be increased further, as they were with the Narcotic Control Act of 1956.
But it was Eisenhower's establishment of the U.S. Interdepartmental Committee on Narcotics, in 1954, in which a sitting president first literally called for a war on drugs.

1969: A Borderline Case

Operation Intercept - Memo
Public domain. Image courtesy of the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

To hear mid-20th century U.S. lawmakers tell it, marijuana is a Mexican drug. The term "marijuana" was a Mexican slang term (etymology uncertain) for cannabis, and the proposal to enact a ban during the 1930s was wrapped up in racist anti-Mexican rhetoric.
So when the Nixon administration looked for ways to block the import of marijuana from Mexico, it took the advice of radical nativists: close the border. Operation Intercept imposed strict, punitive searches of traffic along on the U.S.-Mexican border in an effort to force Mexico to crack down on marijuana. The civil liberties implications of this policy are obvious, and it was an unmitigated foreign policy failure, but it demonstrated how far the Nixon administration was prepared to go.

1971: "Public Enemy Number One"

Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley
Public domain. Image courtesy of the White House via Wikimedia Commons.

With the passage of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, the federal government took a more active role in drug enforcement and drug abuse prevention. Nixon, who called drug abuse "public enemy number one" in a 1971 speech, emphasized treatment at first and used his administration's clout to push for the treatment of drug addicts, particularly heroin addicts.
Nixon also targeted the trendy, psychedelic image of illegal drugs, asking celebrities such as Elvis Presley (shown left) to help him send the message that drug abuse is unacceptable. Seven years later, Presley himself fell to drug abuse; toxicologists found as many as fourteen legally prescribed drugs, including narcotics, in his system at the time of his death.

1973: Building an Army

DEA Officers
Photo: Andre Vieira / Getty Images.

Before the 1970s, drug abuse was seen by policymakers primarily as a social disease that could be addressed with treatment. After the 1970s, drug abuse was seen by policymakers primarily as a law enforcement problem that could be addressed with aggressive criminal justice policies.
The addition of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to the federal law enforcement apparatus in 1973 was a significant step in the direction of a criminal justice approach to drug enforcement. If the federal reforms of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 represented the formal declaration of the War on Drugs, the Drug Enforcement Administration became its foot soldiers.

1982: "Just Say No"

Nancy Reagan
Public domain. Image courtesy of the White House via Wikimedia Commons.

This isn't to say that law enforcement was the only component of the federal War on Drugs. As drug use among children became more of a national issue, Nancy Reagan toured elementary schools warning students about the danger of illegal drug use. When one fourth-grader at Longfellow Elementary School in Oakland, California asked Mrs. Reagan what she should do if approached by someone offering drugs, Reagan responded: "Just say no." The slogan and Nancy Reagan's activism on the issue became central to the administration's antidrug message.
It is not insignificant that the policy also came with political benefits. By portraying drugs as a threat to children, the administration was able to pursue more aggressive federal antidrug legislation.

1986: Black Cocaine, White Cocaine

Crack User
Photo: © 2009 Marco Gomes. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Powdered cocaine was the champagne of drugs. It was associated more often with White yuppies than other drugs were in the public imagination—heroin-associated more often with African-Americans, marijuana with Latinos.
Then along came crack, cocaine processed into little rocks at a price non-yuppies could afford. Newspapers printed breathless accounts of Black urban "crack fiends" and the drug of rock stars suddenly grew more sinister to White middle America.
Congress and the Reagan administration responded with the Antidrug Act of 1986, which established a 100:1 ratio for mandatory minimums associated with cocaine. It would take 5,000 grams of powdered "yuppie" cocaine to land you in prison for a minimum 10 years—but only 50 grams of crack.

1994: Death and the Kingpin

Joe Biden on 2007 Crime Bill
Photo: Win McNamee / Getty Images.

In recent decades, the U.S. death penalty has been reserved for offenses that involve the taking of another person's life. The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Coker v. Georgia (1977) banned capital punishment as a penalty in cases of rape, and while the federal death penalty can be applied in cases of treason or espionage, nobody has been executed for either offense since the electrocution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953.
So when Senator Joe Biden's 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill included a provision allowing for the federal execution of drug kingpins, it indicated that the War on Drugs had ultimately reached such a level that drug-related offenses were regarded by the federal government as equivalent to, or worse than, murder and treason.

2001: The Medicine Show

Medical Marijuana Dispensary
Photo: © 2007 Laurie Avocado. Licensed under Creative Commons.

The line between legal and illegal drugs is as narrow as the wording of drug policy legislation. Narcotics are illegal—except when they're not, as when they're processed into prescription drugs. Prescription narcotics can also be illegal if the person in possession of them hasn't been given a prescription. This is precarious, but not necessarily confusing.
What is confusing is the issue of what happens when a state declares that a drug can be made legal with a prescription, and the federal government bullheadedly insists on targeting it as an illegal drug anyway. This happened in 1996 when California legalized marijuana for medical use. The Bush and Obama administrations have arrested California medical marijuana distributors anyway.

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Head, Tom. "A Short History of the War on Drugs." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/history-of-the-war-on-drugs-721152. Head, Tom. (2023, April 5). A Short History of the War on Drugs. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-war-on-drugs-721152 Head, Tom. "A Short History of the War on Drugs." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-war-on-drugs-721152 (accessed May 28, 2023).