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  • Jackson Tarricone

Richard Nixon and the Origins of the War on Drugs

This article is part of a two- part series (2/2).

President Richard Nixon would become the next major player in furthering Harry Jacob Anslinger’s policies. Nixon first coined the term for the “War on Drugs” in 1971, implying a similarly militant approach to narcotics. However, at the start of his first term, Nixon recognized the problems associated with criminalization of narcotics, mainly that there was little room for rehabilitation in the criminal justice system. Nixon said the following in a speech to Congress in 1971: “Of those we can reach at all under the present Federal system--and the number is relatively small--of those we try to help and who want help, we cure only a tragically small percentage.” In the same speech, Nixon also stated that we must rehabilitate the drug user if we are to eliminate drug abuse,” further demonstrating his desire to make the system more rehabilitative as opposed to punitive.

One key example of Nixon enacting these beliefs is the passing of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, which allocated greater resources to drug treatment, education, prevention, and research. This law also reduced the maximum penalty for possession of marijuana to one year in jail and a $5,000 fine, again illustrating Nixon’s commitment to reform. Nixon and Congress were enacting these policies when many returning Vietnam Veterans were struggling with addiction. Heroin became easily accessible in Vietnam during the war as a result of the 1967 Opium War in nearby Laos. By the time the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam in 1973, close to 20% of U.S. soldiers were using heroin regularly. Returning vets who failed to detoxify before their return were hospitalized in Federal Medical Centers known as “Narcotics Farms” for indefinite periods of time. Even still, 90% of soldiers relapsed following their release from these institutions.

When it came time to begin his re-election campaign, however, Nixon appeared to have a very dramatic change of heart in regards to his policy on illicit drugs. Nixon established the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement in 1972, which illustrates the shift in focus from rehabilitation to the criminal justice system. The main goal of this organization in President Nixon’s own words was to “drive drug traffickers and drug pushers off the streets of America." This organization would eventually become the Drug Enforcement Administration (the DEA.)

In 1973, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller responded with far harsher punishments for possession and selling of drugs, instituting 15 year minimum sentences for users and dealers of marijuana, heroin, and cocaine. This greatly undermined the judiciary system, leaving judges with little to no room for discretion. It became virtually impossible to put convicted drug offenders into rehabilitation programs. The law ended up affecting mostly nonviolent, first-time offenders from communities of color. This came at a time when New York City was facing a serious problem in regards to heroin addiction following the Vietnam war, although heroin abuse was beginning to show signs of decline by 1973. These restrictions were intended to mitigate the drug infestation of the city, but instead contributed to an almost unfathomable increase in the prison population over the following decades, ballooning up to a peak of 2.3 million people in 2016. The number of federal and state prisons also skyrocketed accordingly, further facilitating mass incarceration.

Nixon had plans to institute similar policies to the Rockefeller Drug Laws on a federal level, but he was thwarted by the Watergate scandal shortly thereafter. Still, the War on Drugs forged on, becoming increasingly more punitive over time.

Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign sparked even greater public concern for drug use. The premise of the campaign was to encourage children and people in general to avoid experimenting with any drugs at all and to simply “say no.” This was mainly aimed at crack cocaine, which was being abused heavily during the ‘80s, but still included marijuana nonetheless. The effectiveness of this campaign and other related initiatives, such as the Drug Abuse Resistance Program (D.A.R.E.) which pairs police officers with school children to discourage drug use and gang violence, is still highly contentious. The most pronounced effect of this campaign was the dramatic increase in Americans who perceived drug use to be public enemy number one; this number skyrocketed from between 2 and 6 percent in 1985 to 64 percent by 1989.

Reagan’s administration also contributed to mass incarceration. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act included a 100:1 minimum sentencing ratio for crack versus powdered cocaine, a policy which disproportionately affected minorities. Several decades later in 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act reduced this ratio to 18:1. Yet even still, to this day, policy makers are responsible for perpetuating mass incarceration for drug related arrests. As recently as 2016, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was quoted as saying that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”

As indicated by the current drug crime statistics and trends, the policies that remain in place as a result of attitudes like this directly contribute to mass incarceration. The US has certainly faced many problems with drug abuse, mainly in the form of heroin and cocaine. Grouping marijuana in with these drugs, which are far more dangerous, however, was no effort to alleviate a public health crisis. These policies were borne out of political necessity and perpetuated by racism and classicism by the powerful heads of government organizations including the White House.


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