The War on Drugs: History and Implications

The War on Drugs: History and Implications

by Thaddeus Camlin, Psy.D.

war on drugs

The Politics of Consciousness

Few political issues today are sources of unity and shared vision.  Politics has become vehemently binary to the point that extremes on both sides see opposing views as subhuman.  In the current climate of ‘us and them,’ drugs may be one of the few remaining topics that many people from both sides of the aisle can agree upon.  Ending the drug war aligns with advocates for limited government, human rights, conservative economics, and liberal social policy.  However, as the war drums currently pound for a renewed call to arms in an impossible war, an in-depth analysis of the war on drugs is important for anyone who chooses to use  substances or knows someone who does. This article discusses the political history, ongoing developments, and the implications of ending the longest running war in the history of the United States – the war on drugs.

The War on Drug’s Political History – The Beginning

The term ‘war on drugs’ was popularized in 1971 by Richard Milhous Nixon.  By 2012, forty-six years after its official launch, the estimated economic cost of the U.S. government’s aggressive efforts to regulate the consciousness of its citizens surpassed one trillion dollars.  But long before it’s official launch, the origins of the U.S. war on drugs can be traced back to an essay from 1785.

In 1785, founding father Dr. Benjamin Rush penned an essay entitled, “The Effects of Ardent Spirits on the Human Body and Mind.”  In his essay, Dr. Rush advocated for a federal government that advanced morality in the United States.  By the early 19th Century, reform movements flourished.  Swept up in the wake of many wonderful societal transformations like the abolishment of slavery and the advancement of women’s rights, prohibition quickly gained popularity.  Reformists passionately believed in the cause of saving “sinners” from their own vices.

As reformists gained political power their aim of perfecting humanity, which initially sought voluntary acceptance of ideals like sobriety via persuasion, shifted to forced compliance through legal and political punishment.  Suddenly, a humanistic movement in a capitalist society was employing the totalitarian means of forced coercion to legislate morality.  Passed in 1875, the Opium Den Ordinance enacted in San Francisco was the first drug prohibition law passed in the United States.

The Opium Den Ordinance specifically targeted “filthy, idolatrous” Chinese immigrants because “many women and young girls, as well as young men of respectable family… were ruined morally” at opium dens.  The ordinance resulted in an underground network of opium dens whose allure was bolstered by their newfound illegality.  By 1900, 22 states had opium den bans and den popularity surged.

As opium popularity surged in the early 20th Century, so did cocaine.  The Journal of the American Medical Association published an editorial in 1900 that claimed (in far less politically correct language) that many African-Americans in the South were becoming addicted to cocaine.  Theodore Roosevelt’s appointed Opium Commissioner, Hamilton Wright, testified before congress in 1910 (in some of that not so politically correct language) that, “cocaine is often the direct incentive of the crime of rape by the Negroes of the South and other sections of the country.”  Amidst the cocaine panic, southern sheriffs increased the caliber of their weapons from .32 to .38 in response to rumors that cocaine made people immune to bullets.

The surging popularity of opium and cocaine fueled a moral panic that reached a fever pitch in mid-to-late 1910’s.  The Harrison Act, masquerading as a tax act, was a prohibition law in disguise.  The Harrison Act was passed in 1914 and resulted in 30,000 physicians and 8,000 pharmacists being jailed for prescribing and dispensing opiates and cocaine between 1920 and 1930.  The mass-incarceration of medical professionals created a vacuum quickly filled by an eager black market.

Political History – Prohibiting America’s Drug of Choice

The black market for drugs expanded massively in 1920 when alcohol was added to the list of prohibited substances in the United States.  After the shocking sequence of WWI, the Russian Bolshevik revolution, and the Mexican revolution, the U.S. Government was able to capitalize on the swelling panic of its citizens to pass both the Volstead Act and the 18th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to establish alcohol prohibition.  The vacuum created by alcohol prohibition gave rise to a thriving black market.  Organized crime syndicates, led by notorious characters like Arnold Rothstein, Al Capone, Bugsy Siegel, and Lucky Luciano did not hesitate to capitalize on the void left by alcohol prohibition.

Alcohol prohibition, often referred to as the “noble experiment,” was far from noble.  During alcohol prohibition in the United States jails were overflowing with small-time offenders while crime bosses bribed their way out of any real consequence.  American citizens united in a massive civil disobedience that culminated in the 21st amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  The 21st amendment repealed the 18th amendment – the only example in history of an amendment being repealed.

The problem with alcohol prohibition succeeding was that alcohol was, and is, the drug of choice in Western civilization.  Drugs of choice from other cultures were still fair game for the “noble experiment” of prohibition.  Opiates and cocaine remained prohibited by the Harrison ‘Tax” Act.  After scandalous ties to organized crime bosses took down the head of the U.S. Narcotics Division, Levi Nutt, in 1930, Harry Anslinger took over and renamed the division the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN).  Under Anslinger’s lead, the main mission of the FBN was prohibition.

Political History – The “Evils” of Cannabis

Harry Anslinger was a staunch proponent of the failed alcohol prohibition and was still licking his wounds at the time he took over the FBN.  To rectify his failure, Anslinger sought a new target for prohibition.  He teamed with media mogul William Randolph Hearst, and paper tycoon Pierre DuPont to launch an assault on a perfect new prohibition target that most Americans had never heard of, Marijuana.

Hearst, DuPont, and Anslinger made a motivated and formidable adversary for Marijuana.  Hearst harbored personal resentments towards Mexicans after losing 800,000 acres of timberland in the Mexican Revolution.  Mexicans were the primary users of Marijuana at the time, so prohibiting and criminalizing it would be sweet revenge.  DuPont feared competition in the paper business from the superior paper product made from Hemp.  Ansligner sought redemption for his embarrassing alcohol failure.

Hearst used his media empire to launch a propaganda campaign designed to demonize the cannabis plant, and it worked.  Hearst intentionally selected the Mexican term, ‘marijuana’ for his media assault so Americans would not recognize that he was targeting the hemp plants used for rope and clothing that grew naturally all across the United States.  The propaganda campaign was blasted across radio waves and newspapers.  Sad, outrageous, racist, and contradictory lies were fed to American citizens in heroic doses.  The following is a list of direct quotes from the anti-cannabis campaign at the time:

  • “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from marijuana use.  This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others.”
  • “Marijuana leads to pacifism and communist brainwashing.”
  • “You smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother.”
  • “Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.”

With the propaganda campaign well established in the consciousness of the American people, Anslinger presented the Marijuana Tax Bill to congress in 1937.  At his presentation, Anslinger’s evidence for congress was a massive stack of newspaper clippings from Hearst’s many publications.  Anslinger did not see fit to call upon the testimony of the Surgeon General, who at the time concluded that, “Cannabis indica does not produce dependence… and probably belongs in the same category as alcohol.”

The house debated the Marijuana bill on the floor for less than three minutes and didn’t bother to record the vote.  The vote on Marijuana was another prohibition law disguised as a tax bill.  With less than three minutes of consideration, Congressmen made a decision whose reverberations continue to impact countless citizens today.  The Marijuana “tax” bill resulted in the mass incarceration of American citizens for non-violent possession of a plant that George Washington encouraged people to “make the most of,” and to “sow everywhere.”

Political History – The Final Push to All-Out War

Anslinger continued his crusade against altered states of consciousness for the next two and a half decades.  He was a major figure in the passing of the Narcotics Control Act of 1956, and the United Nations Single Convention Treaty on Narcotics in 1961.  The Narcotics Control Act recommended the death penalty for selling to minors.  The Single Convention Treaty pushed prohibition around the world and sought the eradication of cannabis by 1986.  Instead, by 1986 over 50% of Americans reported using cannabis at least once in another massive act of civil disobedience that rivaled the continued use of alcohol during its failed prohibition.

With the Harrison Tax Act, Marijuana Tax Bill, Narcotics Control Act, and UN Convention Treaty in place, the foundation for the war on drugs was already firmly established when the counter-cultural revolution of the 1960’s gained momentum.  Like marijuana did in the 1930’s, psychedelics like LSD fell victim to outrageous propaganda campaigns made up of outright lies.

Ongoing Developments in the Drug War – Different Actors, Same Story

Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and both Bush presidents relied on the same dogmatic, propaganda tactics to continue to double-down on harsher punishments and higher budgets to fund the drug war.  Mandatory minimum sentences led to decades-long prison terms for minor drug offenses.  The racist roots of the drug war continued to nourish the motives for prohibition’s maintenance throughout the 20th Century.

Nixon’s motivation for intensifying the drug war was not clearly made public until decades later.  In 1994, Nixon’s Assistant for Domestic Affairs John Ehrlichman, openly discussed Nixon’s true motives for the drug war:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people…  We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.  We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.  Did we know we were lying about the drugs?  Of course we did.”

Following Nixon’s disgraceful exit from the White House, a brief respite came with James Earl Carter, Jr.  Jimmy Carter campaigned for the decriminalization of up to one ounce of cannabis in 1976.  Carter’s efforts to decriminalize ended abruptly when Carter’s drug czar, Dr. Peter Bourne, was taken down by controversy.

Following the landslide victory of Ronald Wilson Reagan and his ‘tough on crime’ ticket, treatment funding was slashed and drug war funds skyrocketed.  Cocaine was Reagan’s primary adversary, and his efforts were passionate but futile.  Cocaine fueled the spirit of the 1980’s.  Organized crime moguls like Pablo Escobar were more than happy to reap the benefits of prohibition, much like Al Capone and friends did a generation before.  Probable cause, a right guaranteed by the 4th amendment of the U.S. Constitution, was compromised as the war on drugs pushed legislation that allowed suspicion-based asset forfeiture.  The result was that 80% of people who had property seized by the Federal government were never charged with a crime during Reagan’s era.

Cocaine continued to reign under the watch of George Herbert Walker Bush.  Despite powder cocaine’s supremacy, both George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan imposed the most severe punishments on crack-cocaine, which disproportionately targeted minority populations and communities.

One classic example of the deceitfulness of the drug war came when George H.W. Bush famously held up a bag of crack-cocaine to TV viewers.  The bag of crack was confiscated during the arrest of a dealer in a park across the street from the White House.  During the TV address, Bush claimed that crack was, “turning our cities into battle zones and murdering our children.”  What he failed to mention, however, was that his TV speech was written prior to the crack dealer’s arrest, and that the DEA was enlisted to setup an event to match the story in his speech.  DEA special agent William McMullen in charge of the Washington field office at the time stated about the arrest, “We had to manipulate [the drug dealer] to get him down there… it wasn’t easy.”

The transition from George H.W. Bush to William Jefferson Clinton brought more of the same.  In an effort to restore the fledgling democratic party to prominence, Clinton worked hard to establish himself as a tough-on-crime candidate like his republican predecessors. Clinton policies, like his catchy ‘three-strikes you’re out,’ resulted in the total number of people incarcerated at both the state and federal level growing more rapidly than under any other president before him.  The same tactics yielded the same results – higher incarceration rates, more powerful cartels, and easier access to higher quality drugs.

One drug war change during Clinton’s presidency was the geographical area of focus.  The drug war of the 1980’s focused on Columbia.  Billions of dollars were spent on eradicating the plague of cocaine, with much of the effort, resources, and time devoted to Columbia and its cartels.  Today, Columbia still produces 80% of the world’s cocaine.

The drug war of the 1990’s focused on Mexico, where the focus remains today.  George Walker Bush and Barack Hussein Obama II both hunted the same ‘bad guys’ to little avail.  Joachim “el chapo” Guzmán is in the headlines today for dramatic prison escapes and arrests.  Guzmán was arrested in 1993.  After enjoying a lavish and extravagant prison life, he escaped in 2001 and remained at large running a billion-dollar cartel until his recent arrests.  From Capone, to Escobar, to Noriega, to Guzmán, from Nixon, to Reagan, to Bush, to Clinton, to Obama, to Trump, the actors change but the story remains the same.

Ongoing Developments – Failed Reform Efforts

Research into fear-based reform programs like Scared Straight showed that none were effective in reducing crime and that some produced adverse outcomes.  For example, research into a New Jersey Scared Straight program found a 41% recidivism rate for those who went through the program and 11% for those who did not.  Not only are fear tactics and punishment ineffective, they often increase allure and create a ‘forbidden fruit.’  Forbidden fruits are notoriously difficult for humanity to resist.

The allure of drugs was not the only thing that increased during the drug war.  The U.S. federal anti-drug budget rose from $155 million in 1971 to a conservative estimate of $15.5 billion in 2011.  When state and local costs are added to the federal spending, the figure for all annual government spending on the war on drugs is estimated between $30 and $40 billion.  The increased spending resulted in a massive rise in prison populations.

Between 1980 and 2015 the number of people in prison for drug offenses increased from 40,900 to 469,545.  The total U.S. inmate population increased from 300,000 in 1970 to 2.24 million in 2011.  The U.S. makes up less than 5% of the world’s population, but holds nearly 25% of the world’s prison population.

How effective are big budgets and mass incarcerations?  Between 1990 and 2012 drug prices fell and purity increased.  The U.S. is currently experiencing a full-blown opioid epidemic.  In 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice estimated that there are nearly one million gang members and 20,000 street gangs in the U.S.  Gang membership continues to grow and members forge alliances with drug cartel members during prison stays.  Research continues to show that severe punishment is weak and insignificant in deterring drug crime or lowering addiction rates.  Prison stays are not only ineffective reformation efforts, they facilitate connections between U.S. street gangs and drug cartels.

Drug treatment (which itself has much room for improvement) has been shown to save $2.21 for every $1.00 invested.  Thus, a $1 billion dollar investment would save $2.21 billion, resulting in a net annual savings for society of $1.2 billion.  Unfortunately, most funding goes to incarceration and only about 3.8% of offenders at risk for drug problems receive treatment.

Behind the statistics are much more personal stories of families and communities being torn apart. Former San Diego police officer and Seattle police chief Norm Stamper described his experience as a police officer fighting in the drug war by stating, “We sent non-violent drug offenders away from 20 years to life under mandatory minimum sentences, millions of them.”  Stamper is not alone.  Many current and former law enforcement professionals who experienced first-hand the damage caused by the drug war join organizations, like the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), that work to end the damaging enforcement of ineffective laws.

Proponents credit the war on drugs for a decline in violent crime between 1991 and 2013.  Proponents also attribute a 3% increase in violent crime in 2014 to a softening of drug policies and enforcement.  However, some public health and drug policy experts point out that violent crime dropped equally in states that strictly adhered to drug war policies as well as in states that declined to lock up low-level drug offenders.  When the major theories behind the decline in violent crime between 1991 and 2013 were studied, results suggested that an aging population, income changes, and decreased alcohol consumption were all more significant factors in the violent crime decline than severe punishment.

The debate about the impact the war on drugs has on violent crime will likely continue to swirl.  However, there is no debate about the failure of the war on drugs to reduce drug problems.  Currently, 78 people die on average of a prescription opioid overdose in the United States daily.  The rise of the prescription epidemic in the U.S. reveals a hypocrisy that runs to the core of the drug war – altering your consciousness is okay as long as you buy your altering agents from the government.

The less-than-pure political motives behind the war on drugs have little to do with public health and safety and much to do with personal vendettas, maintaining business interests, and promoting a consciousness conducive to maintaining a productive, unquestioning workforce and general population.  It is a great tragedy of modern times that millions of citizens and their families have been and continue to be traumatized and punished for utilizing substances deemed unacceptable by their government.

Implications of Ending the Drug War

So, what would happen if we just admitted defeat and ended the war on drugs?  Well, after decades of following the lead of the United States and carrying out their own war on altered states of consciousness, Portugal decriminalized possession of all drugs in 2001.  Correlated with their bold move away from branding citizens who use substances as criminals, Portugal has seen a 90% drop in drug-related HIV infections, a decrease in criminal justice workloads, a decrease in the street value of drugs, and a 60% drop in drug related deaths.

The average of 78 people dying everyday from prescription opioid overdoses in the U.S. will result in approximately 29,000 deaths in 2017.  If heroin and street fentanyl were included, the number of overdose deaths would rise significantly.  If the U.S. decriminalized substances and experienced a drop similar to Portugal’s in drug related deaths, approximately 17,000 prescription opioid overdoses would have been prevented in 2017 alone.

Critics of decriminalization point out that reported lifetime use of all illicit drugs increased approximately 4% in Portugal after their 2001 policy change.   However, the increase in illicit drug use leveled out and then decreased from 2007 to 2014.   Even the initially skeptical and scolding International Narcotics Control Board now praises Portugal for being an example of best practices in drug policies.

Portugal’s emphasis on providing treatment was at least as important as its decriminalization.  The shift from punishing people who use substances to helping them represents a critical shift from seeing addiction as a moral issue to a health issue.  Drugs are not legal in Portugal.  Drug possession is now treated as an administrative issue rather than a criminal one because prison does not help drug problems, treatment does.

An individual found in possession of a substance in Portugal appears before a discussion panel made up of legal, social, and psychological experts.  Most cases are suspended and treatment is recommended for repeat “offenders.”  Police in Portugal play an integral role in following up on treatment recommendations from the discussion panels.  Rather than arresting citizens, Police issue written reminders to citizens to show up for treatment, resulting in improved relations between police and citizens.  Relations between police and citizens in the U.S. currently could certainly benefit from some improvement.

Final Thoughts About the War on Drugs

The act of altering consciousness is an integral part of the human experience.  Some scholars argue that humans are genetically programmed to alter our consciousness, and that doing so gave us an evolutionary advantage.  Some argue that human forerunners tracking cattle after being forced out of Africa’s shrinking canopy approximately 100,000 years ago ate fungus that stimulated the growth of the human brain and catalyzed the evolution of human consciousness.  A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience in 2013 showed that the substance psilocybin, found in fungus, did indeed stimulate brain growth.  Our big, beautiful brains are certainly to thank for our success as a species.  By using politics to restrict human consciousness the war on drugs is essentially seeking to eradicate a genetically programmed, evolutionarily advantageous behavior.

The war on drugs is an example of failed politics from both sides of the aisle.  Whatever side of the political aisle you’re on, most agree that politics has no place in policing the consciousness of an individual.  Meditation and prayer alter consciousness.  Caffeine and nicotine alter consciousness.  Medications, love, music, sex, and sleep alter consciousness.  Legislating a narrow, mandated spectrum of consciousness is an over-reaching, big-government assault on freedom.  The legacy of the war on drugs is one of traumatizing and violating the human rights of millions of people and their families (particularly minorities), facilitating the ongoing growth of organized crime empires across generations, and wasting over a trillion dollars that would have been better spent on help rather than punishment.  It seems comedian Bill Hicks was correct when he said, “it’s not a war on drugs, it’s a war on personal freedom.”


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