Lentis/The War on Drugs


The war on drugs is a global campaign led by the U.S. federal government aimed at reducing the illegal drug trade through the use of drug prohibition and military intervention. The term was first used in 1969 by Richard Nixon but was popularized by him in 1971 during a speech to Congress about drug abuse. At this time, the Vietnam War led to high rates of heroin addiction among servicemen. As a result of increasing drug usage in America, Nixon claimed that drug abuse is “public enemy number one” and created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1973 to combat drug crimes[1].

In 1980, Ronald Reagan used “the War on Drugs” as a campaigning method, and once elected, implemented stricter regulations on drug trafficking. This caused the price of drugs to increase (specifically cocaine), leading to the invention of “crack”, which is a cheaper, smokable form of cocaine. During his second term, President Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which defined mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and allocated $1.7 billion to the War on Drugs[2]. A mandatory minimum is “a sentence, created by Congress or a state legislature, which the court must give to a person convicted of a crime, no matter what the unique circumstances of the offender or the offense are.” These mandatory minimums have created disparities in sentencing for different socioeconomic and racial groups (see Racial Disparity and Disproportionate Incarceration Rates section). Collateral consequences were also faced by those convicted of drug crimes. These are additional state-level civil penalties attached to a criminal conviction such as loss of ability to purchase a firearm, loss of eligibility for food stamps, loss of eligibility for Federal Student Aid, loss of ability to live in federal housing, loss of ability to vote, and deportation[3].

Under President George H.W. Bush, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) was formed in 1989 and the position of “Drug Czar” was created, which was originally a term coined by Nixon. The Drug Czar was promoted to a cabinet-level position by President Clinton in 1993[4].  In 1995, the U.S. Sentencing Commission acknowledged disparities between crack and powder cocaine sentencing, but Congress overrules recommendations that would make sentencing more equitable. As a result, by the 21st century, the U.S. accounts for 25% of the world’s prison population, with approximately 20% of the prisoners are in for drug offenses. The War on Drugs has been coined “the new Jim Crow” and because of the mass incarceration of people of color in the United States[5].

U.S. PoliciesEdit

Controlled Substance Act of 1970Edit

The Controlled Substance Act is the start of the Nixon administration attempting to control the possession and distribution of certain drugs and substances. All substances that are regulated by the government were categorized into one of five schedules. Of the five schedules, schedule one denotes drugs that were deemed highly addictive and destructive[6]. Examples of substances classified under schedule one include Marijuana, LSD, Heroin, MDMA (Ecstasy)[7].

Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984Edit

Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 was passed by the Reagan administration in an attempt to take the War on Drugs a step further. In this act, penalties for the cultivation, possession, and transfer of marijuana increased. Also, mandatory minimum sentencing was established as well as the elimination of federal parole[8].

Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986Edit

Signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 established the disparate treatment of powdered and crack cocaine. Creating a 100:1 disparity, this act put in place a five-year minimum sentence for the possession of both 5 grams of crack cocaine and 500 grams of powdered cocaine[9]. In 2010, the Obama administration passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced this disparity from 100:1 to 18:1[10].

Racial Disparity and Disproportionate Incarceration RatesEdit

Many different racial minorities were negatively impacted by discriminatory policies enacted during this time. Specifically, those from the Black and Latinx communities have been primary targets of anti-drug policies and rhetoric[11]. Although statistics prove that they use drugs at approximately the same rates, People of Color are 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for possession[12]. In turn, mandatory minimum sentencing and escalating laws led to mass incarceration rates for the Black and Latinx communities[13]. Overall, almost 60% of people incarcerated in state prisons, and nearly 80% of people incarcerated in federal prisons for drug offenses are Black and Latino[14].

Black CommunityEdit

Black Americans only comprise 13% of the U.S. population, however, they comprise nearly 40% of those incarcerated in state or federal prisons for drug law violations[14]. Due to the media frenzy on the unsubstantiated crack epidemic in the black community, the government was prompted to pass laws against crack cocaine[11]. The 100:1 disparity between crack and powdered cocaine makes the false distinction between the two clear given the statistics. Powdered cocaine is more commonly used by white people while crack cocaine, often known as the cheaper alternative, is dealt primarily by Black people[15]. As a result of the establishment of the difference, U.S. prisons were filling up and incarceration rates were skyrocketing. By 2001, over 80% of federal crack defendants were black[11].

The manner in which drug laws were being enforced heavily impacted the Black community. Due to the U.S Supreme Court Case Terry v. Ohio, police officers were given the power to stop an individual for a pat-down search if the officer had reasonable suspicion that said individual is engaged, or about to be engaged, in criminal activity[16]. This has resulted in a massive racial profiling issue as People of Color are more likely to be stopped, searched, and arrested by the police[17]. For example, in 2019 in New York, out of all of the reported stop-and-frisks, 66% of those individuals were innocent and 59% were Black[18]. The 2013 court case Floyd v. City of New York ruled that New York City violated the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures[16].

Latinx CommunityEdit

Similarly, the Latinx community comprises only 17% of the U.S. population, but they represent almost half of all cases in federal courts for drug offenses, specifically marijuana[14]. Cannabis has been in the process of being decriminalized since 1996[19]. Colorado laws legalized marijuana for recreational use and sales in 2012[20]. However, In 2013, simple marijuana possession was the fourth most common cause for deportation[17]. Today, the U.S. has created the largest immigrant exclusion, detention, and deportation structure in the world[17].


Private Prison CompaniesEdit

Since the early stages of the War on Drugs incarceration rates in the U.S. have nearly tripled to 800 prisoners per 100,00 people[21]. This has led to overcrowding and funding issues for government owned prisons. In response local and state governments have contracted out to private companies to manage and run prisons[22]. CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America, is one of the largest private prison corporations in the world. It currently operates over 65 correctional facilities with yearly revenues of over $1.7 billion[23].

Private prison companies, like CoreCivic, have faced a wide variety of legal issues, ranging from inadequate staffing to treatment of inmates[24]. However, CoreCivic has done little to change their practices. Instead, these lawsuits have resulted in state and local governments attempting to terminate their contracts and take back control of the prisons[25].

The Communities Being AffectedEdit

Community members feel the policing and enforcement policies used during the War on Drugs were excessive and targeted, particularly towards black Americans[17]. A member of the community stated that "they're spending so much money on these prisons to keep kids locked up, they don't even spend a fraction of that money sending them to college or some kind of school."[26] Despite this disapproval of federal spending, the national drug control budget is expected to hit a historic high of $41 billion in 2022[27]. This had led community members to believe that the War on Drugs, and its disastrous effects, will not be over anytime soon[28].

Advocacy GroupsEdit

Advocacy groups range from broad international organizations, like the Global Commission on Drug Policy, to more specific groups like the National Harm Reduction Coalition[29][30]. These groups oppose the tactics of the War on Drugs and propose a reassessment of current policy to favor a more rehabilitative and healthcare related approach to the drug problem. The Global Commision on Drug Policy states “putting health and community safety first requires a fundamental reorientation of policy priorities and resources, from failed punitive enforcement to proven health and social interventions,” demonstrating their recommended reevaluation of drug policy[31]. To accomplish their agendas both advocacy groups have supplied grants to local drug treatment facilities and have taken on lobbying roles to push Congress to reevaluate its current drug policy[32][33].


The War on Drugs remains a continuous issue as many of the laws enacted during the 1980’s and 1990’s are still in effect today[34]. The United States still has the highest incarceration rate in the world and Black Americans are still arrested at higher rates[35][36]. In the future, it may be helpful to extend this research to include the use of the term “war” and the effect the use of this metaphor has on the participants. Additionally, as the philosophy on how to deal with drug abuse is ever changing it may be helpful to include updates on new legislation that is passed and developments in the areas of rehabilitation and treatment.


  1. NPR. (2007, April 2). Timeline: America's war on drugs. NPR. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9252490.
  2. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (n.d.). War on drugs. Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/war-on-drugs.
  3. Mandatory minimums in a nutshell example must - FAMM. (n.d.). https://famm.org/wp-content/uploads/FS-MMs-in-a-Nutshell.pdf.
  4. The United States Government. (2021, February 3). Office of National Drug Control Policy. The White House. https://www.whitehouse.gov/ondcp/.
  5. Federal Bureau of Prisons. BOP Statistics: Inmate Offenses. (n.d.). https://www.bop.gov/about/statistics/statistics_inmate_offenses.jsp.
  6. The Controlled Substances Act. (n.d.). DEA.gov. https://www.dea.gov/drug-information/csa
  7. Anderson, A. (2020, June 17). CSA Schedules. Drugs.com. https://www.drugs.com/csa-schedule.html
  8. Mandatory Minimums — Equal Justice Under Law. (n.d.). Equal Justice Under Law. https://equaljusticeunderlaw.org/mandatory-minimums-1
  9. ACLU Releases Crack Cocaine Report, Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 Deepened Racial Inequity in Sentencing. (2006, October 26). American Civil Liberties Union. https://www.aclu.org/press-releases/aclu-releases-crack-cocaine-report-anti-drug-abuse-act-1986-deepened-racial-inequity
  10. Frankecruz. (2016, December 10). The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986: The Impact of Mandatory Minimum Sentencing. foundations of law and society. https://foundationsoflawandsociety.wordpress.com/2016/12/10/the-anti-drug-abuse-act-of-1986-the-impact-of-mandatory-minimum-sentencing/#_ftnref30
  11. a b c Gunja, F. (n.d.). Race & the War on Drugs. American Civil Liberties Union. http://aclu.org/other/race-war-drugs
  12. Mrkonjić, E. (2021, October 11). 41 Surprising War on Drugs Statistics [The 2021 Edition]. The High Court. https://thehighcourt.co/war-on-drugs-statistics/
  13. Perry, M. J. (2018, June 14). The shocking story behind Richard Nixon's 'War on Drugs' that targeted blacks and anti-war activists. American Enterprise Institute. https://www.aei.org/carpe-diem/the-shocking-and-sickening-story-behind-nixons-war-on-drugs-that-targeted-blacks-and-anti-war-activists/
  14. a b c Drug Policy Alliance. (2015, June). The Drug War, Mass Incarceration and Race. UNODC. https://www.unodc.org/documents/ungass2016/Contributions/Civil/DrugPolicyAlliance/DPA_Fact_Sheet_Drug_War_Mass_Incarceration_and_Race_June2015.pdf
  15. Blumstein, A. (2003, October). Federal Sentencing Reporter. The Notorious 100:1 Crack: Powder Disparity--The Data Tell Us that It Is Time to Restore the Balance, Vol. 16(No. 1), 87-92. JSTOR.
  16. a b Legal Information Institute. (n.d.). Terry Stop / Stop and Frisk | Wex | US Law | LII / Legal Information Institute. Legal Information Institute. https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/terry_stop/stop_and_frisk
  17. a b c d Race and the Drug War. Drug Policy Alliance. (2021). https://drugpolicy.org/issues/race-and-drug-war.
  18. NYCLU. (n.d.). Stop-and-Frisk Data. New York Civil Liberties Union. https://www.nyclu.org/en/stop-and-frisk-data
  19. University of Georgia School of Law. (n.d.). LibGuides: Survey of Marijuana Law in the United States: History of Marijuana Regulation in the United States. Alexander Campbell King Law Library. https://libguides.law.uga.edu/c.php?g=522835&p=3575350v
  20. AspenRidge Recovery. (2021, October 19). Colorado Legalization Results | Marijuana Legal in Colorado. AspenRidge Recovery. https://www.aspenridgerecoverycenters.com/colorado-legalization-results/
  21. Rugy, V. de, Doherty, B., Boehm, E., Sullum, J., & Mangu-Ward, K. (2011, June 24). The facts about American prisons. Reason.com. https://reason.com/2011/06/24/the-facts-about-americas-priso/.
  22. Project, A. T. S. (2015, May 27). Prison privatization and the use of incarceration. In the Public Interest. https://www.inthepublicinterest.org/prison-privatization-and-the-use-of-incarceration/.
  23. CoreCivic. (2021). CoreCivic properties. CoreCivic. https://www.corecivic.com/properties.
  24. Kirkham, C. (2012, February 14). With states facing shortfalls, Private Corporation offers cash for prisons. HuffPost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/private-prisons-buying-state-prisons_n_1272143.
  25. Horan, K. (2017, June 23). Sheriff: Sheriff's office will try to take over CoreCivic contract in 2020. WTVF. https://www.newschannel5.com/news/sheriff-sheriffs-office-will-try-to-take-over-corecivic-contract-in-2020.
  26. Mann, B. (2021, June 17). After 50 years of the War on Drugs, 'what good is it doing for us?'. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2021/06/17/1006495476/after-50-years-of-the-war-on-drugs-what-good-is-it-doing-for-us.
  27. The United States Government. (2021, June 10). President's budget. The White House. https://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/.
  28. Lee, N. (2021, June 17). America has spent over a trillion dollars fighting the war on drugs. 50 years later, drug use in the U.S. is climbing again. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/06/17/the-us-has-spent-over-a-trillion-dollars-fighting-war-on-drugs.html.
  29. The five pathways to drug policies that work. The Global Commission on Drug Policy. (2018, November 11). https://www.globalcommissionondrugs.org/the-five-pathways-to-drug-policies-that-work.
  30. National Harm Reduction Coalition. (2021, May 24). Policy & Advocacy Work. National Harm Reduction Coalition. https://harmreduction.org/our-work/policy-advocacy/.
  31. The five pathways to drug policies that work. The Global Commission on Drug Policy. (2018, November 11). https://www.globalcommissionondrugs.org/the-five-pathways-to-drug-policies-that-work.
  32. Kuntz, L. (2021, December 1). Stopping the opioid crisis: Evidence-based public health approaches. Psychiatric Times. https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/stopping-the-opioid-crisis-evidence-based-public-health-approaches.
  33. Angell, T. (2021, December 6). DEA-HHS cannabis dispute brought to White House Office (Newsletter: December 6, 2021). Marijuana Moment. https://www.marijuanamoment.net/dea-hhs-cannabis-dispute-brought-to-white-house-office-newsletter-december-6-2021/.
  34. Farber, D. (2021, June 16). Perspective | The War on Drugs Turns 50 today. it's time to make peace. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/06/17/war-drugs-turns-50-today-its-time-make-peace/.
  35. BBC. (2005, June 20). World Prison Populations. BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/uk/06/prisons/html/nn2page1.stm.
  36. Nellis, A., & Porter, N. D. (2021, November 1). The Color of Justice: Racial and ethnic disparity in state prisons. The Sentencing Project. https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/color-of-justice-racial-and-ethnic-disparity-in-state-prisons/.