As of 2016 the War on Drugs has cost over $1 trillion and has been going on for 45 years, far longer than any actual war the United States has fought. In spite of the time and resources, not to mention human lives lost, illegal drugs remain prevalent in the U.S.
Substances like opium, cocaine, marijuana, tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine have been used medicinally and recreationally for millennia around the world, including in the U.S. In the late 1800s through the mid 1900s states and the Federal government implemented regulations and bans of certain drugs. What was regulated and what was banned depended on a number of factors including certain groups’ cultural and religious norms, health concerns, pro-temperance attitudes, racial prejudice, and crime caused by legalization or prohibition. In 1930 the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was created to enforce drug laws and in the 1950s mandatory minimum sentences were introduced for many drug offences. Drug use continued and in the 1960s many believed that use by young people was increasing and drugs became associated with counterculture and opposition to the Vietnam War. In response, President Richard Nixon declared War on Drugs in 1971 and increased drug enforcement efforts. After Nixon there were attempts to decriminalize marijuana since it’s neither chemically addictive nor potentially fatal like some other drugs but these failed in the1980s when much popular sentiment was strongly anti-any-drugs. This era of the War on Drugs was led by President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan, who spearheaded the “Just Say No” campaign. During the 1980s through the 2000s state and federal law enforcement dramatically increased arrest and incarceration rates of drug offenders from individual users up to cartel members. The late 1990s and early 2000s saw the War on Drugs looking more like an actual war, with law enforcement using military tactics and equipment. In spite of these efforts drug use never declined significantly.
In the 1990s and 2000s the ongoing efforts to allow medical and recreational marijuana started to gain momentum. California legalized medical marijuana in 1996 and 24 states and DC eventually followed. In 2012 Colorado and Washington made recreational marijuana legal, Oregon, Alaska, and DC have done so since, and the federal government has not taken legal action against them. Successful legalization in these states, including marijuana tax revenue earnings, has spurred calls for legalization in other states and at the federal level. Movements to decriminalize other drugs have not made much legislative progress so far but they site information that is relevant to any discussion of drug policy: the huge expense of enforcing drug laws; the incarceration of millions just for drug possession; the fact that, much like alcohol, the prohibition of narcotics creates opportunities for criminal enterprises; and the success in other countries of reducing drug use by treating it as a medical addiction issue rather than a criminal issue.
Better information about drugs, drug users, and drug enforcement costs and consequences, has led many people to conclude that the War on Drugs has been a failure and that the U.S. needs a dramatic shift in drug policy. The War on Drugs has never broken cleanly along party lines and there’s been support and opposition from both Democrats and Republicans. Currently Democrats tend more towards supporting decriminalization of marijuana and shifting other drug policies away from War on Drugs tactics. Increased understanding of the issues will help determine the next phase of U.S. drug enforcement; but political alliances, stereotypes, and fear will play a role as well and it may be a long time before we figure out how to win, or at least end, the War on Drugs.