The War on Drugs and its Impact on the United States

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Illegal drugs have been a very prevalent issue in the United States for decades, with almost no clear solution to stop the spreading and use of them. With the epidemic of opium currently ravaging the U.S, it all stemmed from a colossal failure in the 1980s: The War on Drugs. While the intent of the War on Drugs was to stop the spreading of illegal drugs, it managed to become more negative for America than it was originally intended. The War on Drugs was one of the most influential but detrimental movements for modern America on an economic, societal, and political level.

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There were several instances of combating the use of drugs throughout history before the start of the drug wars within the United States.

A few of the bigger examples were the Opium wars in China where Britain forced their opium onto the Chinese population, the Harrison Narcotics Act which made the dealing of cocaine illegal in America and directly targeting the Southern black population, and the first anti marijuana laws which aimed specifically Hispanics in the southwest (Drug Policy Alliance). Drugs were also used to manipulate certain groups within the United States by the CIA, which the allegations towards them weren’t addressed until much later. However, in those situations, these laws or actions were made to either manipulate a body of people or were due to the lack of urgency in researching these drugs. Soon after these events, there was a rapid increase in drug use within the United States rapidly increased, which resulted in the United States started to take the drug epidemic seriously in the form of the War on Drugs.

Concerning the politics of the Drug Wars, there were many Presidential administrations and policies enacted that all combated the use of drugs, but most of the attempts were lackluster. The first president to address the issue of drugs in America was the Richard Nixon, who was credited with starting the War on Drugs. During the press conference to which he addressed the issue, he proclaimed that all illegal drugs and the abuse of them were “public enemy number one” and that “it was necessary to wage a new, all out offensive,” leading to the start of the War on Drugs (Nixon, 1971). To continue the political wave against drug abuse, President Reagan also addressed the rising use of drugs and America as a whole, stating “Drug abuse is a repudiation of everything America is. The destructiveness and human wreckage mock our heritage’ (Reagan, 1986).

However, this mentality did not last, as both Presidents failed to enforce their initial stances towards drugs. There were also some policies enacted for drug reform, the most drastic being the Three Strikes Rule in California. The Three Strikes Law was simple, as it was a mandatory sentencing law if one has committed more than three felonies. Unfortunately, since the use of recreational drugs were treated as such, there were a surplus of people incarcerated for upwards of a life sentence for minor drug offences (United States Justice Department). Many of these political attempts to counter drug use were failures and ended up hurting the United States in the long run, which help establish the War on Drugs as a failure itself. In addition to the political fumbles in dealing with drug use, the economic repercussions in dealing with drug use were substantial. Because of the way drugs were smuggled into the U.S, it took an immense amount of money and resources to try to stop the spreading of drugs.

However, it is difficult to stop the many cartels and drug hustles going on, so a lot of what was put in to stop them was wasted. There were also many healthcare costs for using drugs, as if physicians prescribed certain drugs to their patients, they could become convicted drug traffickers if “prosecutors decided that their prescription practices were not appropriate,” which led to them facing prison time (McNamara, 2011). Even the people using drugs would have to pay for their choice drug, which all varied in price over the course of the 80s-90s period but were all costly. Whoever used most illegal drugs back then almost certainly get themselves injured due to lack of knowledge and awareness, so they had to pay medical bills for rehabilitation and other injury costs, especially if one was an addict. For an example of how much money illegal drugs have costed the us, drug abuse cost the US economy around $180 billion in 2002 (ONDCP 2004). All of this money could have gone towards to more beneficial areas, like funding for schools, construction, or medical facilities. Because of these immense expenses of the War on Drugs, it would have been more profitable if it did not occur. Finally, American society was greatly affected by the War on Drugs, as more people were using illegal drugs than ever before. In order to combat the rising use of drugs, a new organization was formed that specifically targeted younger demographics of people to teach them about the horrors of drugs, called D.A.R.E.

The D.A.R.E campaign’s main goal was to spread awareness of illegal drugs and the effects of those drugs so children and adolescents wouldn’t be tempted to use them. They even had celebrities star in some drugs PSAs, one of the more popular ones being Mr. T’s ad, where he used his persona to “shake some sense into [the] kids” and scare them out of using drugs (Mr. T, 1984). However, these attempts backfired, as drug use continued to rise well into the 2000s and to the present day. While D.A.R.E was trying to oppose the use of drugs, the movement ignored the injustices of those who have already been convicted. For the incarcerations from cocaine-use, 84.7% of cases were brought onto African Americans while only 5.7% of cases were brought onto Whites, even though the amount of white crack users vastly outnumbers black crack users (ACLU). These proportions stay consistent with the use of other drugs as well, exhibiting signs of racial biasing when it came to the strictness of drug sentencing. Because of this, many black people were jailed for minor offences, and with the overflow of prisons happening due to increased sentencing overall, prisons didn’t have enough resources to feasibly handle the new prisoners.

The drug problem was and still is difficult for American society even with the existence of D.A.R.E and with the racial profiling that comes with drug incarcerations, resulting in the War on Drugs not being worthwhile foe America. Because of all the controversies and policies resulting from the War on Drugs, it became one of the main contributors to the development of current America. While there are some who think that the War on Drugs was beneficial to the country overall, there were too many faults with the way it was handled to truly call it a success, with statistics also supporting the negative impact of the movement.

Works Cited

  1. Barber, Chris. “Public Enemy Number One: A Pragmatic Approach to America’s Drug Problem » Richard Nixon Foundation.”
  2. Richard Nixon Foundation, Richard Nixon Foundation, 20 Oct. 2016,
  3. Bush, George. The National Drug Control Strategy: 2004.
  4. White House, Office of National Drug Control Policy, Executive Office of the President, 1997.
  5. McNamara, Joseph D. “The Hidden Costs of America’s War on Drugs.” Journal of Private Enterprise, vol. 26, no. 2, Spring 2011, pp. 97–115.
  6. EBSCOhost, doi: ‘Editorial Opinion: Reagan Declares War on Drugs.’ World News Digest, Infobase Learning, 1986,
  7. Accessed 4 Jan. 2019.


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The War on Drugs and its Impact on the United States. (2021, Oct 19). Retrieved from