Key Facts About the War on Drugs

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What Is the "War on Drugs?"

The "War on Drugs" is a general term used to refer to the federal government's attempts to end the import, manufacture, sale, and use of illegal drugs. It's a colloquial term that does not refer in any meaningful way to a specific policy or objective, but rather to a series of anti-drug initiatives that are vaguely directed towards the common goal of ending drug abuse.

Origin of the Phrase "War on Drugs"

President Dwight D. Eisenhower began what The New York Times then called "a new war on narcotic addiction at the local, national, and international level" with the establishment of an Interdepartmental Committee on Narcotics on November 27, 1954, which was responsible for coordinating executive branch anti-drug efforts. The phrase "War on Drugs" first came into common use after President Richard Nixon used it at a press conference on June 17, 1971, during which he described illegal drugs as "public enemy number one in the United States."

Chronology of Federal Anti-drug Policy

1914: The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act regulates the distribution of narcotics (heroin and other opiates). Federal law enforcement will later incorrectly classify cocaine, a central nervous system stimulant, as a "narcotic" and regulate it under the same legislation.​
1937: The Marijuana Tax Act extends federal restrictions to cover marijuana.
1954: The Eisenhower administration takes a significant, albeit largely symbolic, step in establishing a U.S. Interdepartmental Committee on Narcotics.
1970: The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 establishes federal anti-drug policy as we know it.

Human Cost of the War on Drugs

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 55% of federal prisoners and 21% of state-level prisoners are incarcerated on the basis of drug-related offenses. This means that over a half million people are presently incarcerated as a result of anti-drug laws—more than the population of Wyoming. The illegal drug trade also sustains gang activity, and is indirectly responsible for an unknown number of homicides. (The FBI's Uniform Crime Reports describe 4% of homicides as being directly attributable to the illegal drug trade, but it plays an indirect role in a much larger percentage of homicides.)

Monetary Cost of the War on Drugs

According to the White House's National Drug Control Strategy Budgets, as cited in Action America's Drug War Cost Clock, the federal government alone is projected to spend over $22 billion on the War on Drugs in 2009. State spending totals are harder to isolate, but Action America cites a 1998 Columbia University study which found that states spent over $30 billion on drug law enforcement during that year.

Constitutionality of the War on Drugs

The federal government's authority to prosecute drug-related offenses theoretically stems from Article I's Commerce Clause, which grants Congress the authority to "regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes"—but federal law enforcement targets drug offenders even when the illegal substance is manufactured and distributed only within state lines.

Public Opinion Regarding the War on Drugs

According to an October 2008 Zogby poll of likely voters, 76% describe the War on Drugs as a failure. In 2009, the Obama administration announced that it would no longer use the phrase "War on Drugs" to refer to federal anti-drug efforts, the first administration in 40 years not to do so.

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Head, Tom. "Key Facts About the War on Drugs." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Head, Tom. (2021, February 16). Key Facts About the War on Drugs. Retrieved from Head, Tom. "Key Facts About the War on Drugs." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 11, 2021).