Comment: Nixon started War on Drugs but its failures are ours

Fifty years — and a trillion dollars and countless incarerations — later, it’s time to negotiate an end.

By David Farber / Special To The Washington Post

As declarations of war go, it was pretty low key. On June 17, 1971, President Richard Nixon held a news briefing in the West Wing of the White House. In his usual dark suit and striped tie, speaking comfortably from notes, the president branded Americans’ rising tide of drug abuse “public enemy number one.”

He continued: “In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive. … This will be a worldwide offensive. … It will be government-wide … and it will be nationwide.” To fund this new war, Nixon declared, he would ask Congress to appropriate a minimum of $350 million. (In 1969, when Nixon first took the oath of office, the nation’s entire federal drug budget was just $81 million.) Fifty years later, the United States has expended approximately $1 trillion waging war on illegal drugs.

That money has bought some 30 million arrests and millions of imprisonments. Today, nearly 500,000 Americans are incarcerated for drug offenses; the federal government expends well over $9 million every day, more than $3 billion a year, just to lock up drug offenders. States and localities, combined, pay far more. Black Americans are almost six times as likely as white Americans to have been incarcerated on drug charges, even as white and Black Americans use illegal drugs at around the same rate. The War on Drugs — a civil war waged by U.S. authorities against the tens of millions of Americans — is another of America’s “longest wars,” in which the light at the end of the tunnel remains dim.

It would fit conventional wisdom to fault Nixon for the grotesque policy mistakes of the ongoing war on drugs. But we can’t blame Nixon for this one. His war was targeted primarily at the scourge of heroin addiction that was ravaging New York City and affecting U.S. troops in Vietnam, who had easy access to the drug in Southeast Asia. Nixon-the-pragmatist appointed drug rehabilitation experts, not anti-drug moralists, to lead his fight.

Elected officials, however, quickly realized the War on Drugs was good politics. New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, known as a moderate Republican, was among the first to successfully push for draconian drug laws, in 1973, as a way to demonstrate his law-and-order credentials in hopes of finally attaining the presidency. Others followed suit.

Those politicians had good instincts. America’s parents had watched in horror as their children embraced illegal drugs, especially marijuana and hallucinogens, such as LSD. Already in 1969, 84 percent of Americans said anyone caught with even the smallest amount of marijuana should go to prison. Congress was fully onboard. In 1970, Congress passed “The Federal Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act” that made LSD, peyote, psilocybin (“magic mushrooms”) and other hallucinogens Schedule One drugs, meaning they were illegal to use for any and all purposes, including scientific research.

The war only intensified in the 1980s, as it became a critical aspect of the culture wars that permeated the era. Millions of Americans embraced recreational pharmaceuticals, including the new party drug, cocaine. While Time magazine and the mass media made light of Yuppies’ use of the “Bolivian marching powder,” public health officials issued warnings, and friends and families feared for their loved ones. The introduction of cheap, highly potent rock cocaine — crack — intensified those fears, as this new drug ravaged poor inner-city communities. White, middle-class suburban parents were terrified that their children would move from cannabis to crack and would be lost to the ravages of addiction. While such fears were largely unfounded, a moral panic ensued. Once again, elected officials saw opportunity.

These fears and furies drove the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which targeted petty African American drug dealers — perceived as the source of the “deadly” drug — with draconian prison sentences. President Ronald Reagan had made a punitive war on drugs central to his administration’s domestic policy agenda. In 1987, at the height of the crack cocaine crisis, some 38 percent of Americans surveyed told pollsters that convicted “drug dealers,” guilty of no other crime and with the quantity and kind of drug being dealt unspecified, should be executed.

Two years later, then-Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., tore into the George H.W. Bush administration, declaring, “We need another D-Day. Instead, you’re giving us another Vietnam: a limited war, fought on the cheap, financed on the sly, with no clear objectives, and ultimately destined for stalemate and human tragedy.” Mainstream politicians vied with one another to be seen as the toughest of the drug warriors. Harsh drug laws did not end with Reagan. Both Bush and Bill Clinton further escalated the War on Drugs, passing federal laws that increased imprisonment and provided massive resources for local and state enforcement.

Yet, even as the war escalated, opponents began to speak out. Among the most prominent elected officials was Rep. Ron Dellums, a Democratic congressman from Oakland, Calif. Dellums believed, as did increasing numbers of other Black elected officials and activists, that the War on Drugs had become far more harmful than helpful in protecting their constituents from the dangers of drug addiction and abuse. Young Black men were being sent to prison as drug criminals in massive numbers not seen before in U.S. history. Dellums, ironically, sought a return to Nixon’s original vision, focused not on punishment but rehabilitation, not prison but treatment centers. Black reformers were joined by public health officials, opponents of the “carceral state” and even police officials and prosecutors. They saw a war with no end, a merciless and destructive juggernaut that was upending communities, families and individual lives; to little purpose. The War on Drugs had become a civil war.

The War on Drugs has only continued to lose public support in the decades since. At least one recent survey indicates decriminalization has become a majoritarian position in the United States; 55 percent of those surveyed said all drug offenses should be treated not as felonies but as civil offenses, “like minor traffic violations rather than crimes,” in the words of the survey.

As president, Biden has acknowledged the harm the merciless War on Drugs has caused, especially on low-income African Americans. His understanding of the issue has fundamentally changed. On the 2020 campaign trail, he insisted that education, prevention and redemption — not incarceration — should govern American drug policy. “No one should be incarcerated for drug use,” he said.

Following the success of medical marijuana legalization campaigns in 17 states between 1996 and 2011, Colorado and Washington in 2012 made cannabis legal for recreational users. Other states have followed; though many still only allow the drug for “medical” use. Even so, the federal government has refused to budge on its statutory prohibition of marijuana, creating a legal conundrum that has yet to be resolved.

Likewise, a growing movement, given legitimacy by scientists and members of the medical and therapeutic community, has emerged to challenge the total criminal sanctioning of LSD and other hallucinogens. Researchers insist such drugs can alleviate and even cure a range of illnesses, including PTSD, depression and addiction. A few localities, including Denver, Oakland and Santa Cruz, Calif., have gone further, completely decriminalizing the use of psilocybin for any purpose, including recreation. Yet, on this issue as well, the federal government has continued to classify hallucinogens as Schedule One drugs, making it extremely difficult for research scientists to legally access and study them in clinical settings.

No opponents of the current War on Drugs believe we should simply replace a punitive “Just say No” approach to illegal drugs with a simplistic “Just say Yes” version. Some compellingly argue for a public health approach, in which “harm reduction” replaces incarceration. Many activists and researchers propose that the federal regulatory system we use to manage “white market” drugs, including powerful depressants and stimulants, can be applied to a range of “black market” drugs, including heroin, that we now criminalize. (A number of European nations, including Switzerland, the Netherlands and Germany, have moved in that direction.) Of course, as the American experience with the prescription drug OxyContin has shown, regulatory solutions to addictive drugs are far from perfect.

Nonetheless, most Americans now agree: The 50-year-long War on Drugs has failed. We have begun to negotiate an end to this tragic and destructive war. We must demand that our elected officials find the political courage they will need to win the peace.

David Farber is Roy A. Roberts distinguished professor of modern American history at the University of Kansas and author of “Crack: Rock Cocaine, Street Capitalism and the Decade of Greed.”

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