The Drug War—History and Explanation

The phrase “war on drugs” designates the aggressive prohibition and criminalization of certain substances with the explicit goal of reducing the prevalence of use by the population as a whole or some segment thereof, thus improving the public health and worker productivity. By transforming the targets of control into enemies of the national community and moral order, the “war” metaphor functions to legitimize government tactics the public might otherwise see as conflicting with civil liberties and human rights (analogs: “war on crime” and “war on terrorism”). The consequences of the drug war are many, among them overcrowding in prisons, felony labels, international criminal syndicates, and community and neighborhood disintegration.

The precise definition or meaning of the word “drug” depends on context. The standard medical definition is any substance, such as a medicine, that produces physiological changes in the body. Some such substances are associated with changes in the user’s cognitive and/or emotional state, hence the common verb form of the word meaning to administer a substance producing insensibility or stupor. Medical definitions thus refer to relative benefit and harm, as well as the psychoactive character of substances. Neither harm-reduction nor psychoactivity is enough to provoke prohibition. What is a drug in the context of the drug war rests more on the question of legality; an illicit drug is a product of state action, media-driven panic, and moral entrepreneurial spirit, a social construction publicly appealing to public health and safety.

Accounts of the history of the drug war usually associate the use of the metaphor with the presidency of Richard Nixon, manifest in the passage of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970and the subsequent creation of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in 1973. However, the superstructure of drug control is the result of legislation and policy initiatives unfolding over many decades. Moreover, the war rhetoric itself has a long history, appearing in articles published as early as the 1920s in such major US newspapers as The New York Times.

Before 1883, there were no federal drug laws in the United States. Drugs were widely available to the public without significant official consequence. Hemp grew freely throughout the nation with some local laws regulating cannabis as early as the 1860s. Bayer, the makers of aspirin, sold heroin over the counter until 1913. By that time aspirin had became the popular non-addictive alternative and Bayer was phasing out the production and distribution of heroin. Famously, cocaine was a component of the recipe for the beverage Coca-Cola until around 1900 (although the actual amount of the drug contained in the recipe, contained naturally in the leaves of the coca plant, is often exaggerated). 

The Progressive Era would see the emergence of widespread drug and alcohol prohibition initiatives. In 1906, the United States Congress passed the Food and Drug Act requiring the labeling of pharmaceuticals. In 1914, Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, imposing a strict regulatory regime on importation, production, and distribution of opiates(any substance produced from alkaloids derived or synthesized from opium poppy), as well ascocaine.  The law was in part the result of an international conference on the problems of narcotics conducted at The Hague in 1911, which produced the International Opium Convention of 1912, the world’s first multi-nation drug control treaty.

In 1920, the US federal government would ban the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol. This ushered in the period known as Prohibition. Amid a welter of unintended consequences and widespread public protest, the federal government repealed the federal ban in 1933, deeming it a noble albeit failed experiment. The lesson was not generalized and the government intensified control of narcotics production, distribution, and consumption.

During a radio address in 1835, President Franklin Roosevelt announced the expansion of the Geneva Narcotic Limitation Act, an international effort to combat the narcotics trade that became effective in 1933, and the existence of a Uniform State Narcotic Law pending before several state legislatures. The intent of these measures was to combat what the president described as “the ravages of the narcotic drug evil.” In 1937, Harry Anslinger, Commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, succeeded in persuading Congress to pass the Marihuana Tax Act, a bill he authored, which effectively criminalized the production and distribution of cannabis. These measures signaled that, while political elites admitted alcohol prohibition a failure worthy of policy reversal, they intended to aggressively pursue war on other drugs.

The Boggs Act of 1951 and the Narcotics Control Act of 1956 represented major steps in the consolidation of the drug control effort. In his first term, President Dwight Eisenhower announced a major public commitment by the White House to pursue a war on drugs, appointing a special cabinet committee and enjoining them to “omit no practical step to minimize and stamp out narcotic addiction.” In 1961, the international community negotiated the Single Convention of Narcotic Drug treaty, a renewal and refinement of the 1931 Convention, empowering the Commission on Narcotic Drugs and the World Health Organization to determine drug schedules that would guide global enforcement of drug prohibition. These steps would lay the basis for subsequence US law. 

The emergence of crime control regime during the 1960s drove the drug war to new heights. Congress passed the Safe Streets and Crime Control Act of 1967 and followed that legislation the following year with the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968. Appealing to war rhetoric in his 1968 State of the Union address, President Johnson announced that crime control would be a crucial element of a second elected term of office and articulated a significantly expanded drug control component. He promised “stricter penalties for those who traffic in LSD and other dangerous drugs” and called for more vigorous enforcement drug laws by increasing the number of Federal drug and narcotics control officials.

Richard Nixon continued Johnson’s wars. In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled key provisions of the Marihuana Tax Act unconstitutional, a decision that moved Congress to quickly replace it and other legislation with the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, which Nixon promptly signed. The new law established the classification system known as the Schedule, which contains five ranked categories of controlled substances, each determined by a set of criteria that includes the abuse or addiction potential of the drug, as well as consideration of the medicinal acceptability of the drug. The Schedule remains the law of the land. In his second term, Nixon merged the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement, and other drug control agencies into one powerful office. Today, the DEA has a global reach, including support from the US Department of Defense.

The intensification of the drug war during the 1960s was part of a government effort to expand the policing apparatus and carceral function of the state in the face of widespread youth-based anti-capitalist, anti-racist, and countercultural movements. Mass mediated depictions of the youth counterculture as a force undermining conventional values of obedience to authority and the Protestant work ethic preyed on mainstream and conservative sensibilities, public nerves frayed by the persistence of the Cold War and the struggles for civil rights. Nixon’s domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman told Harper’s Magazine: “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.” Ehrlichman specified: “We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.” He added, “Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”  

In the wake of the Watergate scandal and military defeat in Southeast Asia, and with the waning of the organized youth counterculture, drug war intensity diminished in the second half of the 1970s. A significant decline across all age groups in the consumption of illicit drugs, as well as tobacco and alcohol, coincided with this period. The drawdown in the drug war was short lived, however. Another wave of anti-drug legislation marked the 1980s amid a period of major economic and domestic policy changes. In 1984, Congress passed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act and the Comprehensive Forfeiture Act. Congress followed the passage of these acts with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which created mandatory minimum sentences for possession and life sentences for drug dealers. Congress expanded the law in 1988 and in 1994.Until that point, anti-drug policy focused the attention of law enforcement on large-scale drug operations, while allowing the medical and social services community to focus on the treatment of drug users. The new policy emphasized harassing users and minor peddlers with “get tough” laws emphasizing mandatory minimum sentencing. Within a decade of these changes, federal spending on the drug war experienced growth twenty-fold.

Today, the US drug war represents a vast international system of surveillance, policing, and carceral controls amounting to tens of billions of dollars in public spending by the federal and state governments. Nearly two million persons are arrested each year in the United States for drug offenses, around 800,000 of these are for cannabis. Arrests for drugs are more common than arrests for any other criminal offense. Leaving aside admissions due to predicate felony laws and drug-related crimes, roughly half of those in federal prisons and one-fifth of those in state prisons are incarcerated for drug offenses (in contrast, less than five percent of state prison admissions in the mid-1970s were for drugs). Approximately a quarter of Americans on probation and a third of those on parole are drug offenders. With a total prison population in the United States of approximately 2.3 million persons, and more than 7 million under some form of significant correctional control (including persons on probation and parole), these proportions translate into hundreds of thousands of lives disrupted every year by state pursuit and apprehension of drug buyers and sellers.

The drug war has long carried a disparate effect on particular minority groups and, at times, policymakers have appeared to design policy to operate in a racially-conscious manner. Officials used an 1875 ordinance in San Francisco to control opium dens to harass the Chinese community. Chinese immigrants, a crucial labor source in building the United States railroad system in the Western part of the nation following the Civil War, had become surplus labor at the end of the construction boom. The justification for the control of opium use appealed to the virtue of white women. Restriction of other drugs followed similar patterns. Support for the war on narcotics and cocaine in the 1910s was fueled by media depictions of poor blacks as “dope fiends” driven to murder and insanity. Officials accused Mexicans of bringing cannabis into the United States, signaling that prohibition would prove a useful tool to control migrant labor. In 1930s, the campaign against cannabis held forth that the drug inspired the jazz and swing musicof black performers that was alleged to corrupt white youth. Recent history indicates continuity in racially-disparate effects and policies. Some ninety percent of those admitted to prison for drug offenses are black or Latino. Although blacks constitute only 13 percent of the US population, and are no more likely to use illicit drugs than other racial groupings, they represent more than a third of those arrested for drug possession, more than half of those convicted for drug offenses, and just under three-quarters of those sentenced to prison for drug offenses. 

The notorious contemporary example of racial disparity in drug laws is seen in the cocaine sentencing law passed during the Reagan Administration. There are different methods of delivering cocaine into the human system. One method is to combine cocaine with baking soda to create a rock-like substance that can be smoked. This form of cocaine acquired the name “crack” because of the crackling sound that occurs when heated. Although many users of cocaine prepare the drug in a manner that allows it to be smoked, users living in impoverished inner city areas, disproportionately African American, are more likely to purchase cocaine already prepared as crack. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 established for crack cocaine convictions a penalty 100 times greater than that for powdered cocaine. First-time trafficking of at least five grams of crack triggered a minimum mandatory sentence of five years, whereas the trigger for the same penalty required 500 grams of powder cocaine. By 1997, African Americans were accounting for more than 80 percent of the defendants convicted of crack cocaine offenses. This percentage was unchanged in 2009. In 2010, after years of public protest and official recommendations to reduce the disparity, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the ratio to approximately 18:1. He did not eliminate the disparity.

What explains the phenomenon of drug prohibition? David Musto, in his 2002 Drugs in America: A documentary History, contends that patterns of drug criminalization follow cyclical patterns of state and public tolerance and intolerance. Michael Tonry, in Malign Neglect: Race, Crime, and Punishment in America, published in 1996, echoes Musto’s contention, explaining that there are periods where traditional American notions of personal sovereignty allow people to make their own choices about substance use. During these periods, drug use is considered only mildly, if at all, deviant. At other times, the public mood swings towards intolerance, where drug use is widely seen as deviant and those defending drug use risk moral disapproval or stigmatization. Tonry describes these periods of intolerance as “puritanical periods of uncompromising prohibition.”

However, these swings between tolerance and intolerance themselves require an explanation. As does the secular trend in expanding comprehensiveness. George Rushe and Otto Kirchheimer’s Punishment and Social Structure, published in the 1930s, is instructive. They find that swings between the repressive and rehabilitative attitudes of Western penology are explained by the cyclical nature of capitalist mode of production and the growth of the capitalist state. French philosopher Michel Foucault’s landmark 1975 work Discipline and Punish elaborated the political-ideological side of Rusche and Kirchheimer’s thesis. Historical analysis indicates that the emergence and trajectory of drug prohibition roots in part in the development of industrial structure of the capitalist system, evidenced for example in the fact that the burden of drug prohibition falls more heavily on the working class than on other segments of the population. Drug prohibition serves a productive function. (I discuss the intersection of social class and racial caste in this essay: “Mapping the Junctures of Social Class and Racial Class: An Analytical Model for Theorizing Crime and Punishment in US History.” This model applies as well to the drug war.)

In the 1920s, political theorist Antonio Gramsci linked patterns of drug controls to the rise of Fordism and of Taylorism, which sought to increase efficiency of industrial production through careful control over the lives of the proletariat. Gramsci rejected the simplistic explanation that Puritanism was at work in these phenomena. “Those who deride the initiatives and see them merely as a hypocritical manifestation of ‘Puritanism’ will never be able to understand the importance, the significance, and the objective import of the American phenomenon,” he writes, “which is also the biggest collective effort to create, with unprecedented speed and a consciousness of purpose unique in history, a new type of worker and of man.” Since the industrialist could not impose this control upon society-at-large, the organized community of capitalists called on the state to perform its class function. Historians of this period corroborate Gramsci’s observations. British historian E. P. Thompson, in his 1967 article “Time, Work-discipline and Industrial Capitalism,” observes that the transition to industrial society “entailed a severe restructuring of working habits—new disciplines, new incentives, and a new human nature upon which these incentives could build effectively.” Herbert Gutman, in Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America, published in 1977, arrived at similar conclusions. 

In the current period, there has been a renewed interest in criminal justice reform and a desire to roll back, at least to some degree, drug prohibition. Trauma-addiction science has suggested a public health approach rather than a police-carceral one. The shift is most noticeable in cannabis legalization (and decriminalization) and greater empathy for victims of opioid addition. However, there is a political economy factor at work in the shift in policy thinking. The economy is in the midst of a long secular expansion. Unemployment is lower today than at any time in the last 50 years. Wages are starting to rise. One way to address the labor shortage is to tap the industrial reserve army that has heretofore been contained by the state carceral function. The capitalist need for labor, which includes enlarging the pool of competing workers to put downward pressure on wages, appears to be softening the hearts of politicians. At the present moment, drug offenders seem to be the least controversial prisoners to bring into the workforce.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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