War on Drugs | History

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The War on Drugs, or prohibition of illicit substance abuse, has been a long and grueling legislative approach that has changed the rhetoric and the foundation of our American ideals regarding substance abuse. As currently defined, illicit substance use encompasses the “cultivation, distribution, and possession of many intoxicating substances that are intended solely for recreational use” (Durrant & Thakker, 2003; Sacco, 2014). Through Karger and Stoesz (2018) four-pronged model, it is important to note the societal turmoil that was present at the time of policy implementation, as well as the current systematic shifts in trends that have occurred as a result of the drug control policy.

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Keywords: Historical Background, Problems that Necessitated the Policy, Policy Description, Policy Analysis

Historical Background

Prohibition of drugs, or The War on Drugs movement was propelled by the United States’ government in the 1970s and is still in full effect today. Prior to the 1970’s a societal view on drug use began to evolve, therefore it is important to analyze the history that led to the prohibition of recreational substance abuse.

Nineteenth Century

It is important to note the history of the United States, and how prevalent access to opiates, alcohol, tobacco, were (Durrant & Thakker, 2003; Sacco, 2014). Opiates had their origin in Germany, through pharmacist Friedrich Seturner, whom discovered and coined the name “morphium” by means of isolation of crude opium (Durrant & Thakker, 2003; Sacco, 2014). In addition, “other alkaloids of opium, such as codeine, narvaine, and thebaine, were also isolated” (Durrant & Thakker, 2003). Following the production of new chemically altering compounds, doctors began to use these substances across Europe and the United States (Durrant & Thakker, 2003; Sacco, 2014). Then in 1853, the “hypodermic syringe” was introduced into the medical field. Physicians began to see that they very rapidly that the use of morphine with the syringe, reduced pain at a quicker and more efficient rate than if taken orally (Durrant & Thakker, 2003).

Following the development of the syringe, heroin emerged as a substance to cure dependence on morphine, through a chemical formula derived from morphine (Durrant & Thakker, 2003). This ultimately was not the case, and as new chemicals were formulated or altered, so too did the dispersion of these drugs across continents. Physicians were resorting to opium as the cure all for, “pain, diarrhea, neuralgia, malaria, asthma, bronchitis…” (Durrant & Thakker, 2003). Therefore, through professional acceptance attributed to these substances, wide spread usage and societal dependence grew (Karger & Stoesz, 2018). “Opiate dependence in the United States rose from 0.72 individuals per thousand in 1842 to 4.59 per thousand in the 1890s” (Durrant & Thakker, 2003).

It is also important to note societal shifts and the role immigration played at the turn of the century (Trattner, 1994). While opium was widely used throughout European countries, opium use for recreational purposes began to be widely attributed to individuals of Chinese descent (Durrant & Thakker, 2003). However as Chinese immigration to the United States rose, the use of opium smoking became prevalent within some geographical regions (Durrant & Thakker, 2003). Recreational opioid use became an action epitomized solely by Chinese immigrants, who sought cultural identity through means of association, yet later became attributed to American youth (Durrant & Thakker, 2003).

Description of the Problem the Necessitated the Policy


Cocaine use was also widespread and individuals were just beginning to realize that a deathly dependence had infiltrated into society. Addiction rates increased and in 1891 about 13 deaths in the United States were due to cocaine overdosing (Durrant & Thakker, 2003; Sacco, 2014). Marijuana, or Cannabis, was another substance used, but in essence it was restricted (Durrant & Thakker, 2003; Sacco, 2014). American society jolted into action after rising awareness. This increased resistance led to legislation, such as anti-morphine laws which were established in the 1890s, as shock struck society from increased dependence on substances once deemed medicinal (Durrant & Thakker, 2003; Sacco, 2014). Levels of substance abuse related deaths continued to rise and thus emerged the rhetoric that drugs were a battle that needed to be fought. Then in 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act was established (Durrant & Thakker, 2003; Sacco, 2014). This legislation combined with an increased awareness in society led the public to become vigilant of the labels on every product that they consumed. As a result, all sales relating to medicinal products containing opiates and cocaine dropped significantly (Durrant & Thakker, 2003; Sacco, 2014). Then in 1909, the Smoking Opium Exclusion legislation was enacted. This legislation restricted recreational uses of opium for strictly medicinal purposes (Durrant & Thakker, 2003; Sacco, 2014). Continuing with this strong societal opposition of opium, in 1910 President William Taft declared that cocaine was society’s “number one enemy” that needed to be fought by any means necessary (Durrant & Thakker, 2003; Sacco, 2014). In 1914, the Harrison Narcotics Act was ratified; this act signified the criminalization of distribution and recreational uses of opiates and cocaine (Durrant & Thakker, 2003; Sacco, 2014; Karger & Stoesz, 2018). With the United States catapulting the rise of the anti-drug rhetoric, other countries emerged (Durrant & Thakker, 2003; Karger & Stoesz, 2018). Doctors and medical specialists were in part to blame for widespread usage and dependence. Drugs were being developed that changed the medical reliance on opiates. “Physicians were also becoming acutely aware of their role in increasing levels of opiate dependence, and as a consequence by 1910, had dramatically cut their prescription of these substances ((Durrant & Thakker, 2003). Britain, Germany, and other European countries began to take firm strong governmental positions against drug abuse (Durrant & Thakker, 2003; Karger & Stoesz, 2018). The nineteenth century marked an era of huge substance abuse revolution.

It is important to note that alcohol consumption was also widely accepted by American society in the nineteenth century (Durrant & Thakker, 2003; Karger & Stoesz, 2018). Yet as frequent alcohol abuse rates skyrocketed, outspoken critics such as Thomas Trotter and Benjamin Rush began to urge for abstinence or limited consumption (Durrant & Thakker, 2003) In 1826 the American Temperance Society was established. As societal awareness grew so did more organizations which advocated for the control of alcohol consumption. Later, due to outspoken critics of alcohol consumption the rhetoric changed completely to abstinence (Durrant & Thakker, 2003; Sacco, 2014; Karger & Stoesz, 2018). “Calls for the prohibition of alcohol increased in intensity throughout the nineteenth century” (Durrant & Thakker, 2003). This catapulted the rise of legislation that “halted” the spread of alcohol distribution and consumption. Then in 1920’s the United States entered an era of Prohibition. “Although Prohibition is sometimes portrayed as a period of where alcohol use was criminalized, in fact possession of alcohol was not an offense, nor was it illegal to brew one’s own beer or to make wine” (Durrant & Thakker, 2003). Although it did not restrict personal cultivation of alcohol, it did in fact prohibit the manufacturing, selling, and transportation of any alcohol (Durrant & Thakker, 2003). The enacted Prohibition Era commenced a unique societal mindset. After much opposition to the Prohibition legislation it was rescinded in 1933. The enactment and later revoking of legislation, restricting alcohol has led many political and social analysts on a debate of whether the legislation could be deemed a success or a failure, yet a consensus on the debate has never been made (Durrant & Thakker, 2003). It ultimately depends on what perspective you hold: “Certainly if Prohibition was intended to eliminate alcohol problems in America…it was an unmitigated failure” (Durrant & Thakker, 2003).

Finally, the movement on substance abuse was propelled by the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 (Durrant & Thakker, 2003; Sacco, 2014; Karger & Stoesz, 2018). This act put a heavy tax on the sale of Cannabis (Durrant & Thakker, 2003; Sacco, 2014). It is important to note that through the growing societal disapproval on drugs, many states had already regarded the use of Cannabis as illicit. Earlier in 1915, the United States had already implemented legislation which stated that the importation of Cannabis was illicit (Durrant & Thakker, 2003).

Middle and Late 20th Century

As strong federal response grew against drugs, strong legislation began to be implemented throughout the United States. The United States’ government passed the Boggs Act in 1951 (Durrant & Thakker, 2003; Sacco, 2014). This act shifted from a fine to the incarceration of individuals for certain drug crimes (Durrant & Thakker, 2003; Sacco, 2014). In 1956, The Narcotic Control Act served to add significant consequences for committed drug crimes. One penalty was the establishment of the death penalty for selling heroin to minors (Durrant & Thakker, 2003; Sacco, 2014).

Policy Description and Implementation

Richard Nixon: War on Drugs

The election of President Richard Nixon, marked the commencement of the War on Drugs Continuing with society’s disapproval of drugs, he pushed for legislation that provided the foundation for the legislation in place today. Similar to Taft, years before him, Nixon declared the War on Drugs. “The Controlled Substances Act (CSA), enacted as Title II of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 (P.L. 91-513)” (Durrant & Thakker, 2003; Sacco, 2014). This legislation’s objective was to substitute all already enacted legislation, with only one general statute that highlighted all previous legislation (Durrant & Thakker, 2003; Sacco, 2014; Karger & Stoesz, 2018). The CSA, is the legal foundation that continues to be enforced by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) today (Durrant & Thakker, 2003; Sacco, 2014). This substantial legislation uniquely classified all substances under a hierarchy of how potent they are. “(1) how dangerous they are considered to be, (2) their potential for abuse and addiction, and (3) whether they have legitimate medicinal use” (). This primarily targeted the increasing spread of heroin use throughout the country.

Following the establishment of this substantial legislation, the Drug Enforcement Administration Agency emerged in 1973 (Sacco, 2014). The Drug Enforcement Administration Agency was tasked with stringent enforcement of the CSA. Nixon advocated the importance of collaborating with other Department of Justice agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) (Sacco, 2014). With a 74.9 million dollar budget and 1,470 DEA special agents, the DEA was tasked with enforcing the CSA and upholding the following governmental goals of deescalating rivalries, working with the FBI, the single “focal point for coordinating Federal drug enforcement efforts with state and local authorities as well as with foreign police forces”, “safeguarding against corruption and enforcement abuses”, in addition to gathering information relating to “international narcotics smuggling” (Sacco, 2014).

Regan Era presidency

As the United States began to take a firm stance on drug abuse, through the 1960 emerged an altered form of cocaine, commonly known as “crack” (Durrant & Thakker, 2003; Sacco, 2014). This sent waves of alarms and American society called for administrative action: “27 % of the American public felt that drugs…was the most important problem…compared to four years prior when 2%…” (Sacco, 2014). Therefore, Regan continued the rhetoric held by the previous administration. Then, the number of convictions regarding drug offenses escalated significantly, “…51% of the increase in the total number of persons convicted of all federal offenses” (Sacco, 2014). Similarly, convictions relating to minor possession of substances increase from “302 convictions in 1980 to 1,353 in 1982” (Sacco, 2014).

As Regan entered the close of his Presidency, emerged two Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, heightened the criminalization of illegal altered substance distribution adding criminal penalties for “possession of a controlled substance”. In addition, it established incarceration penalties related to drug trafficking, through the creation of mandatory prison sentences founded on the amount of the substance at the time of possession (Durrant & Thakker, 2003; Sacco, 2014). The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, established the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). the Director of the institution of ONDCP held the ability to create policies and goals (Sacco, 2014). Regan entered an era heavily reliant on incarceration as a means of lowering illicit substance abuse.

Continued Legislation to Present Day

Substance abuse and distribution has continued to be a societal conundrum. Today there are significant substances that have been at the center of this debate. Some of them being: methamphetamine, methylenedioxy methamphetamine (MDMA), prescription substance abuse, and cannabis (marijuana) (Coyne & Hall, 2017; Sacco, 2014). Methamphetamine first emerged in the 1960s (Sacco, 2014). In 1970, The Federal Government instituted Methampheaimine as a scheduled II drug within the CSA (Coyne & Hall, 2017; Sacco, 2014). During the Presidency of Bill Clinton, the federal government heightened criminalization of methamphetamine. For instance, positions were added to the DEA, criminal penalties regarding trafficking of these substances, and significant funding was added to agencies involved in halting methamphetamine cultivation, distribution, and possession (Coyne & Hall, 2017; Sacco, 2014). Criminal consequences intensified. Methylenedioxy methamphetamine, commonly known as ecstasy emerged in the 1980s, and was promptly added to the CSA. It had significant popularity with the young American generations (Coyne & Hall, 2017; Sacco, 2014). Prescription drug abuse has risen significantly, establishing an opioid epidemic (Coyne & Hall, 2017; Sacco, 2014). Therefore, a failure to receive continued substance prescriptions has given rise to altered substances such as heroin. Cannabis has had a long history in United States Legislation. The CSA has deemed it a scheduled I controlled substance, therein it “prohibits the unauthorized manufacturing, distribution, dispensation, and possession of marijuana (Coyne & Hall, 2017; Sacco, 2014).

Policy Analysis

Through a heightened societal notion regarding substance abuse, we can visualize the perpetual call for legislative action. Substance abuse and addiction catalyzed the era of the War on Drugs, yet substance abuse has persisted. While the goals of the policy implemented under the Nixon Administration sought to relieve rising addiction rates, it has given way to significant societal injustices encompassed by disparities in incarceration rates.

Present Substance Abuse Rates and Distribution

Drug abuse related to illicit drugs continues to pose a severe dilemma in the United States. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (2017), substance abuse encompassing “abuse of tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs” costs the United States “more than $740 billion annually in costs related to crime, lost work productivity and health care” (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2018). The increased criminal vigilance on illicit substance abuse has only risen. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2017), more than 72,000 Americans died from overdoses in 2017. This calculation includes illicit drugs and prescription opioids. (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2018; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018). Of those overdoses in 2017, about 49,068 were opioid related deaths, whereas in 2015 there were about 30,000 opioid related deaths (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2018; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018). This continued and rising substance abuse problem has created an even greater problem of illicit chemically developed substances, such as fentanyl. “Pharmaceutical fentanyl is a synthetic opioid pain reliever approved for severe pain, typically advanced cancer pain. It is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018). Today, fentanyl-related harm, overdose and deaths in the U.S are linked to illegally produced fentanyl (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2018). This substance has continued to be made by unlawful means and is usually mixed with heroin or cocaine (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2018). “Most recent cases of fentanyl-related harm, overdose, and death are linked to illegally made fentanyl” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018). As continued pharmaceutical development emerges strictly for chemical purposes, such as cancer, so too does illicit substance manufacturing, distribution, and abuse. This is the trend that has been established throughout the course of American History from the use of pharmacists providing opium as a “cure-all” to present day.

Incarceration Rates, Race, and Poverty

As legislation developed regarding drug penalties and mandatory sentences, so to did prison rates. Today, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (2018), the incarceration rate due to drug associated offenses is 46 % (Federal Bureau of Prisons, 2018). Out of the 168,687 current inmates about 77,649 inmates are incarcerated due to drug offenses (Federal Bureau of Prisons, 2018). According to the Council of State Governments (2017), “about 80% of offenders abuse drugs or alcohol, 50% of prisoners are clinically addicted to one or more drugs” (Freeman & The Council of State Governments, 2017). It is also important to take into account significant studies have been done on race, ethnicity, and imprisonment.

A study conducted, Comparing Black and White Drug Offenders: Implications for Racial Disparities in Criminal Justice and Reentry Policy and Programming (2017), cited inmates from New Haven, CT, to analyze the difference between drug offenders, primarily between black and white offenders (Rosenberg, Groves, & Blankenship, 2016). Following a significant rise in incarceration within a predominately Black community, they analyzed 243 African-Americans and White participants who had been through the criminal justice system (Rosenberg, Groves, & Blankenship, 2016). It was identified that African-Americans were significantly more likely than Whites to have been arrested for drug sales and possession of illicit substances (Rosenberg, Groves, & Blankenship, 2016). The African-American population was more likely to prefer Cannabis, or Marijuana (Rosenberg, Groves, & Blankenship, 2016). In addition, African Americans reported a higher inability to reach rehabilitation services following prison sentences, a higher level of poverty, and a wide educational gap (Rosenberg, Groves, & Blankenship, 2016). The study also identified treatments services, which were only accessed through parole and probation officers (Rosenberg, Groves, & Blankenship, 2016). While this study focused on a small population it is important to note that criminal drug offenses are a predominant inmate population in the United States.

Recidivism Rates among Drug Related Offenses

This inability to receive services could lend itself to an increased rise in recidivism rates. In analyzing recidivism rates related to drug abusers, or drug trafficking offenses, 50% of drug trafficking inmates that were released in 2005 were rearrested (United States Sentencing Commission, 2017). Rearrests related to trafficking of Powder Cocaine, Crack Cocaine, Heroin, Marijuana, and Methamphetamine (United States Sentencing Commission, 2017). Furthermore, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, analyzed the recidivism patterns in 30 states from prisoners released in 2005, resulting in about 67.8% of released prisoners being rearrested for a new crime within three years and 76.6 % of released prisoners rearrested within five years (Durose, Cooper, Snyder, & Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2014). Of those rearrested within five years, 76.9% were drug offenders (Durose, Cooper, Snyder, & Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2014). These incarceration patterns and rates only symbolize a dilemma that has resulted from drug policy.


Although the consequences the implementation of the War on Drugs legislation are identified above, certain strengths can also be identified. One being deterrence of selling illicit drugs to minors. This aids in averting addiction for the children of our society. According to the United States Sentencing Commission (2016), legislation establishes the following in the protection of children regarding illicit drugs: “endangering human life, distribution to infants, minors, children, juveniles, and those under 18 years of age, and distribution in school zones”. Another strength is that current legislation prohibits the sale or distribution to pregnant women (United States Sentencing Commission, 2016). Finally, although our current incarceration rates are partly due to the current drug legislation, it is important to note that many addiction treatments services are only accessed through parole and probation officers for poverty-stricken inmates who cannot afford treatment themselves. (Rosenberg, Groves, & Blankenship, 2016)


The populations severely affected by the War on Drugs and the legislative rhetoric on illicit substance abuse are the incarcerated population and the populations that are addicted to drugs whether illicit or prescription drugs. The intended goals by the CSA and the Drug Enforcement Administration of “cracking down on drugs”, has only lent itself to the rise of inmates and addiction rates. The federal legislation coupled with societal stigma associated with substance abuse, has perpetuated and inhibited services for this particular population. Therefore, if we reframe this mentality, and restructure the drug associated crime, the federal government can provide significant services for inmates that have landed in prison as a result of illicit substance abuse.

We can already see a governmental change in mentality in relation to “prevention, treatment, and enforcement” (Durrant & Thakker, 2003; Sacco, 2014; Karger & Stoesz, 2018). The recent Obama Administration stated the “it coordinates ‘an unprecedented government-wide public health and public safety approach to reduce drug use and its consequences” (Durrant & Thakker, 2003; Sacco, 2014; Karger & Stoesz, 2018). States have begun to legalize Cannabis, or Marijuana. According to the National Conference on State Legislators (2019), Currently ten states have legalized Marijuana both for medicinal and recreational purposes, while twenty-three states have legalized Marijuana for medical purposes (National Conference on State Legislators, 2018). Yet a majority of the federal funds continued to be funneled to law enforcement agencies tasked with implementing drug legislation (National Conference on State Legislators, 2018). In 2005, Drug Abuse Treatment had 30.9 % of total funds, Drug Abuse Prevention received 10.3 % of the funds, Domestic Law Enforcement received 37.1 %, Prohibition of Drug Abuse (Interdiction) received 12.2 %, and International Drug Enforcement received 9.4 % abstinence (Sacco, 2014). In 2014, Drug Abuse Treatment received 35 % of total funds, Drug Abuse Prevention received 5.1 % of the funds, Domestic Law Enforcement received 36.8 %, Prohibition of Drug Abuse (Interdiction) received 16.1 %, and International Drug Enforcement received 7.1 % (Sacco, 2014).

If we reanalyze what occurred during the Prohibition Era, it is as though history has repeated itself, especially seeing states shift towards legalizing Cannabis. The legalization of Marijuana, in certain states lowers incarceration, and in return reduces societal costs attributed to those arrests. The cost per inmate or prisoner in 2015 was $14,780 to $69,355 (Freeman & The Council of State Governments, 2017). Continuing to put drug offenders who possess and abuse drugs deemed illegal only creates a vicious cycle of recidivism. Treating drug addiction then causes less of a demand in illicit substances or illegally made substances, that drive deaths and incarceration rates. If funding were to be redistributed from enforcement to treatment, which is a 30.9 % then it would address the population that currently abuses substances, while not completely defunding the entities that do enforce legislation. Through a redistribution of funds addiction rates and incarceration rates related to drug offenses can potentially decrease. Therefore, though a legislative shift, redistribution of funding, and societal mentality we can continue to combat drug addiction and shift the conception brought on by earlier legislation of the War on Drugs.


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War on Drugs | History. (2021, Oct 19). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/war-on-drugs-history/