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War on drugs

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War on drugs

A U.S. government PSA from the Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration with a photo image of two marijuana cigarettes and a "Just Say No" slogan
DateJune 17, 1971 – present
(53 years, 1 month and 1 day)
Status Ongoing, widely viewed as a policy failure[2][3][4][5]

 United States

Allies of the United States
 United Nations

Drug traffickers

Drug users[note 1]

The war on drugs is the policy of a global campaign,[6] led by the United States federal government, of drug prohibition, military aid, and military intervention, with the aim of reducing the illegal drug trade in the United States.[7][8][9] The initiative includes a set of drug policies that are intended to discourage the production, distribution, and consumption of psychoactive drugs that the participating governments, through United Nations treaties, have made illegal.

The term "war on drugs" was popularized by the media shortly after a press conference, given on June 17, 1971, during which President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse "public enemy number one".[10] He stated, "In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive. [...] This will be a worldwide offensive. [...] It will be government-wide [...] and it will be nationwide." Earlier that day, Nixon had presented a special message to Congress on "Drug Abuse Prevention and Control", which included text about devoting more federal resources to the "prevention of new addicts, and the rehabilitation of those who are addicted", but that aspect did not receive the same media attention as the term "war on drugs".[11][10][12][13]

In the years since, presidential administrations and Congress have generally maintained or expanded Nixon's original initiatives, with the emphasis on law enforcement and interdiction over public health and treatment. Cannabis presents a special case; it came under federal restriction in the 1930s, and since 1970 has been classified as having a high potential for abuse and no medical value, with the same level of prohibition as heroin. Multiple mainstream studies and findings since the 1930s have recommended against such a severe classification. Beginning in the 1990s, cannabis has been legalized for medical use in 38 states, and also for recreational use in 24, creating a policy gap with federal law and non-compliance with the UN drug treaties.

In June 2011, the Global Commission on Drug Policy released a critical report, declaring: "The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world."[6] In 2023, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that "decades of punitive, 'war on drugs' strategies had failed to prevent an increasing range and quantity of substances from being produced and consumed."[14] That year, the annual US federal drug war budget reached $39 billion, with cumulative spending since 1971 estimated at $1 trillion.[15]

As of 2024, the war on drugs continues, with a focus on fentanyl and other synthetic drugs.


Drugs in the US were largely unregulated until the early 20th century. Opium had been used to relieve pain since the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), particularly in the treatment of soldiers during wartime. In the 1800s, opium on the world stage was large-scale and lucrative: Britain, and to a lesser degree the other European colonial powers and the US, were making huge profits in the opium trade in China and southeast Asia; two opium wars were fought mid-century by Britain against China to ensure the trade continued to serve millions of Chinese opium addicts.[16] At the same time in America, the use of opiates in the civilian population began to increase dramatically,[17] and cocaine use became prevalent.[18][19] Alcohol consumption steadily grew, as did the temperance movement, well-supported by the middle class, promoting moderation or abstinence.[20][21] The practice of smoking cannabis began to be noticed in the early 1900s.[22] Under the US Constitution, the authority to control dangerous drugs exists separately at both the federal and state level.[23] State and local governments began enacting drug laws in the mid-1800s, while federal drug legislation arrived after the turn of the century.

Mid-1800s–1909: Proliferation of unregulated drug use

The latter half of the 19th century saw a ramping up of opiate use in America. Early in the century, morphine had been isolated from opium, decades later, heroin was created from morphine, each more potent than the previous form.[24][25] With the invention of the hypodermic syringe, introduced in America mid-century, opiates were easily administered and became a preferred medical treatment. During the Civil War (1861–1865), millions of doses of opiates were distributed to sick and wounded soldiers, addicting some;[17] home gardens were turned to poppies for opium processing in the war effort.[26] In the civilian population, physicians treated opiates like a wonder drug, prescribing them widely, for chronic pain, irritable babies, asthma, bronchitis, insomnia, "nervous conditions", hysteria, menstrual cramps, morning sickness, gastrointestinal disease, "vapors", and on.[17][27][28]

Drugs were also sold over-the-counter as home remedies, and in refreshments. Laudanum, a powdered opium solution, was commonly found in the home medicine cabinet.[27][28] Heroin was available as a cough syrup.[29][30][26] Cocaine was introduced as a surgical anesthetic, and more popularly as a pick-me-up,[18][19] found in soft drinks, cigarettes, blended with wine, in snuff, and other forms.[18][19] Brand names appeared: Coca-Cola contained cocaine until 1903;[31] Bayer created and trademarked "Heroin" as the name of their diamorphine product.[32] In the 1890s, the Sears & Roebuck catalog, distributed to millions of American homes, offered a syringe and a small amount of heroin for $1.50.[26][29][30]

America's "first opioid crisis"

The 1880s saw opiate addiction surge among among housewives, doctors, and Civil War veterans,[33] creating America's "first opioid crisis."[34][35] By the end of the century, an estimated one in 200 Americans were addicted to opiates, 60% of them women, typically white and middle- to upper-class.[17] Medical journals of the later 1800s were replete with warnings against overprescription. As medical advances like the x-ray, vaccines, and germ theory, presented better treatment options, prescribed opiate use began to decline. Meanwhile, smoking opium remained popular among Chinese immigrant laborers, thousands of whom had arrived during the California gold rush; opium dens were established in Chinatowns in cities and towns across America. The public face of opiate use began to change, from affluent white Americans, to “Chinese, gamblers, and prostitutes.”[17][36]

During this period, states and municipalities began enacting laws banning or regulating certain drugs.[37] In Pennsylvania, an anti-morphine law was passed in 1860.[38] In 1875, San Francisco enacted an anti-opium ordinance, vigorously enforced, imposing stiff fines and jail for visiting opium dens. The rationale held that "many women and young girls, as well as young men of a respectable family, were being induced to visit the Chinese opium-smoking dens, where they were ruined morally and otherwise." The law catered to resentment towards the Chinese laborer population who were being accused of taking jobs; other uses of opiates or other drugs were unaffected. Similar laws were enacted in other states and cities. The federal government became involved, selectively raising the import tariff on the smoking grade of opium. None of these measures proved effective in significantly reducing opium use,[39] while the anti-Chinese fervor lead to Congress halting Chinese laborer immigration for 10 years with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.[40] In the following years, opioids, cocaine, and cannabis were associated with various ethnic minorities and targeted in other local jurisdictions.[36][38]

In 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act, also known as the Wiley Act, addressed problems with tainted and adulterated food in the growing industrial food system, and with drug quality, by mandating ingredient labels and prohibited misleading or false labeling. For drugs, a listing of active ingredients was required; a set of drugs deemed addictive or dangerous, including opium, morphine, cocaine, caffeine, and cannabis, was specified. Oversight of the act was assigned to the US Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Chemistry, which evolved into the Food and Drug Administration in 1930.[41][42]

1909–1971: Rise of federal drug prohibition

On February 9, 1909, the Smoking Opium Exclusion Act, "to prohibit the importation and use of opium for other than medicinal purposes", became the first federal law to ban the non-medical use of a substance.[37][43][44] This was soon followed by the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914, that regulated and taxed the production, importation, and distribution of opiates and coca products.[45][46] Amending the Smoking Opium Exclusion Act, the Anti-Heroin Act of 1924 specifically outlawed the manufacture, importation and sale of heroin.[24]

During World War I (1914–1918), soldiers were commonly treated with morphine, giving rise to addiction among veterans.[47] An international wartime focus on military use of opiates and cocaine, for medical treatment and performance enhancement, and concern over potential abuse, lead to a post-war adoption among nations of the 1912 Hague International Opium Convention of 1912, with oversight by the newly established League of Nations. This became the basis of current international drug control policy,[48][49] initially concerned with regulating the free trade of drugs, without affecting production or use. The US, one of the most prohibitionist countries, felt these provisions did not go far enough in restricting drugs.[50]

In 1919, the US passed the 18th Amendment, prohibiting the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol, with exceptions for religious and medical use, and the National Prohibition Act, also known as the Volstead Act, to carry out the provisions of the 18th Amendment. By the 1930s, the policy was seen as a failure: production and consumption of alcohol did not decrease, organized crime flourished in the alcohol black market, and tax revenue, particularly needed after the start of the Great Depression in 1929, was lost. Prohibition was repealed by passage of the 21st Amendment in 1933, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–1945) asking Americans not to abuse "this return to personal freedom."[51]

In 1922, the Narcotic Drugs Import and Export Act broadened federal regulation of opiates and coca products by prohibiting import and export for non-medical use,[52] and established the Federal Narcotics Control Board (FNCB) to as overseer.[53]

Anslinger era begins

The Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) was established as an agency of the US Department of the Treasury by an act of June 14, 1930,[54] with Harry J. Anslinger appointed as commissioner, a position he held for 32 years, until 1962.[55] Anslinger supported Prohibition and the criminalization of all drugs, and spearheaded anti-drug policy campaigns.[56] He did not support a public health and treatment approach, instead urging courts to "jail offenders, then throw away the key." He has been characterized as the first architect of the punitive war on drugs.[57][58][59] According to a report prepared for the Senate of Canada, Anslinger was "utterly devoted to prohibition and the control of drug supplies at the source" and is "widely recognized as having had one of the more powerful impacts on the development of US drug policy, and, by extension, international drug control into the early 1970s."[60]

During his three decades heading the FBN, Anslinger zealously and effectively pursued harsh drug penalties, with a particular focus on cannabis. He used his stature as the head of a federal agency to draft legislation, discredit critics, discount medical opinion and scientific findings, and convince lawmakers. Publicly, he used the media and speaking engagements, to introduce hyperbolic messages about the evils of drug use.[57][61] In the 1930s, he referred to a collection of news reports of horrific crimes that he attributed, without evidence, to drugs, particularly cannabis. He announced that youth become "slaves" to cannabis, "continuing addiction until they deteriorate mentally, become insane, turn to violent crime and murder.” He promoted a racialized view of drug use, saying that blacks and Latinos were the primary abusers.[57] In Congressional testimony, he declared “of all the offenses committed against the laws of this country, the narcotic addict is the most frequent offender.”[62] He was also an effective administrator and diplomat, attending international drug conferences and steadily expanding the FBN's influence.[63]

In 1935, President Roosevelt publicly supported the adoption of the Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act; the New York Times used the headline "Roosevelt Asks Narcotic War Aid".[64][65] The Uniform Law Commission developed the Act to address the 1914 Harrison Act's lack of state-level enforcement provisions, creating a model law reflecting the Harrison Act, that states could adopt to replace the existing patchwork of state laws.[64] Anslinger and the FBN were centrally involved in drafting the Act, and in convincing states to adopt it.[66]

Cannabis effectively outlawed, prescription drugs

With the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937,[67] federal law reflected state law – by 1936, the non-medical use of cannabis had been banned in every state.[68][69] That year, the first two arrests for tax non-payment under the Act, for possession of a quarter-ounce (7g), and trafficking of four pounds (1.8 kg), resulted in sentences of nearly 18 months and four years respectively.[70] The American Medical Association (AMA) had opposed the tax act on grounds that it unduly affected the medical use of cannabis. The AMA's legislative counsel testified that the claims about cannabis addiction, violence and overdoses were not supported.[71][72] Scholars have posited that the Act was orchestrated by powerful business interests – Andrew Mellon, Randolph Hearst, and the Du Pont family – to head off cheap competition from the hemp industry: Mellon was invested in DuPont's new synthetic plastic, nylon; Hearst was involved with pulp and timber.[73][74][75][76][77][78][79][80][81][82][83][84][note 2] After the act, cannabis research and medical testing became rare.[87]

In 1939, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, an opponent of the Marihuana Tax Act, formed the LaGuardia Committee to conduct the first US in-depth study of cannabis use. The report, produced by the New York Academy of Medicine and released in 1944, systematically contradicted government claims, finding that cannabis is not physically addictive, not a gateway drug, and its use does not lead to crime.[88][89] The FBN's Anslinger branded the study "unscientific", denounced all involved and disrupted other cannabis studies at the time.[90]

In the late 1930s, questions emerged from League of Nations' Opium Advisory Committee concerning the focus on drug prohibition over public health measures such as mental health treatment, drug dispensaries and education. Anslinger, backed by his Canadian counterpart and policy ally, Charles Henry Ludovic Sharman, successfully argued against this view, and kept the focus on increasing global prohibition and supply control measures.[60]

While narcotics were under the jurisdiction of the FBN, the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 required the FDA to ensure that non-narcotic drugs were labeled for safe use. The act determined that certain drugs, including amphetamines, commercialized in the later 1930s, and barbiturates, were too open to misuse or abuse and they could only be obtained by medical prescription. This marked the beginning of the federal distinction between over-the-counter and prescription drugs (clarified in the Durham-Humphrey Amendment of 1951).[91]

Amphetamines, harsher penalties, international obligations

During World War II (1939-1945), in addition to opiates, amphetamines entered military use to combat fatigue and improve morale. In the US, the Benzedrine brand quickly became popular for a variety of medical and recreational applications. During the war, it was widely used in the military and by the public; beginning in 1943, American soldiers could buy Benzedrine directly from the army on demand.[92][93] Post-war, amphetamines were promoted as mood elevators and diet pills, to great success; by 1945, an estimated 750 million tablets a year were being produced in the US, enough to provide a million people with a daily supply, a trend that grew during the 1950s and 1960s.[94][95]

Having failed to preserve world peace, the League of Nations ended post-war, transferring responsibilities to its successor, the United Nations. Anslinger, supported by Sharman, successfully campaigned to ensure that law enforcement and the prohibitionist view remained central to international drug policy. With the 1946 Lake Success Protocol, he helped to ensure that law enforcement was represented on the UN's new drug policy Supervisory Body (today's International Narcotics Control Board), and that it did not fall under a public health-oriented agency like the WHO.[60]

In the early 1950s, "white suburban grassroots movements", concerned about dealers preying on teenagers, pushed liberal politicians at state level to crack down on drugs. California, Illinois, and New York passed the first mandatory minimums sentences for drug offenses; Congress soon followed with the Boggs Act of 1951, creating the first federal mandatory minimums for drugs.[96][97] The act unified penalties for the Narcotic Drugs Import and Export Act and the Marijuana Tax Act, effectively criminalizing cannabis. Anslinger testified in favor of the inclusion of cannabis, describing a "stepping-stone" path leading from cannabis to harder drugs and crime.[98] First-offense possession of cannabis carried a 2-10 year minimum and a fine of up to $20,000.[99] This marked a change in Congress's approach to mandatory minimums, increasing their number, severity, and the crimes they covered. According to the United States Sentencing Commission, reporting in 2012: "Before 1951, mandatory minimum penalties typically punished offenses concerning treason, murder, piracy, rape, slave trafficking, internal revenue collection, and counterfeiting. Today, the majority of convictions under statutes carrying mandatory minimum penalties relate to controlled substances, firearms, identity theft, and child sex offenses.".[100]

In 1961, the United Nations' Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs became the first of three UN treaties that together form the legal framework for international drug control, and required that domestic drug laws in member countries comply with the conventions.[1] The Single Convention unified existing international drug agreements,[101] and limited possession and use of opiates, cannabis and cocaine to “medicinal and scientific purposes", prohibiting recreational use. Sixty-four countries initially signed on; it was ratified and came into force in the US in 1967. The Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971 added synthetic, prescription and hallucinogenic drugs. The Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988 required criminalization of possession for personal consumption.[1][102][103]

In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969) decided that the government needed to make an effort to curtail the social unrest that blanketed the country at the time. He decided to focus on illegal drug use, an approach that was in line with expert opinion on the subject at the time. In the 1960s, it was believed that at least half of the crime in the US was drug-related, and this estimate grew as high as 90% in the next decade.[104] He created the Reorganization Plan of 1968 which merged the Bureau of Narcotics and the Bureau of Drug Abuse Control to form the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs within the Department of Justice.[105]

Federal drug schedule system introduced

The Richard Nixon presidency (1969-1974) did not back away from the anti-drug precedent set by his predecessor. In his 1968 presidential nomination acceptance speech, Nixon's tough-on-crime pledge promised, "Our new Attorney General will ... launch a war against organized crime in this country. ... will be an active belligerent against the loan sharks and the numbers racketeers that rob the urban poor. ... will open a new front against the filth peddlers and the narcotics peddlers who are corrupting the lives of the children of this country."[106][107] In a 1969 special message to Congress, he identified drug abuse as "a serious national threat".[108][109]

On October 27, 1970, Nixon signed into law the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, setting his approach to drug control. The Act largely repealed mandatory minimum sentences:[110] simple possession was reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor, the first offense carried a maximum of one year in prison, and judges had the latitude to assign probation, parole or dismissal. Penalties for trafficking were increased, up to life depending on the quantity and type of drug. Funding was authorized for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to provide treatment, rehabilitation and education. Additional federal drug agents were provided, and a "no-knock" power was instituted, that allowed entry into homes without warning to prevent evidence from being destroyed. Licensing and stricter reporting and record-keeping for medical drug manufacturers and distributors would occur under the Act.[111] Title II of Act, the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), helped align US law with the UN Single Convention, with "many of the provisions of the CSA ... enacted by Congress for the specific purpose of ensuring U.S. compliance with the treaty." The CSA established five drug Schedules, categories based on medical value and potential for abuse, an implementation of the Single Convention four schedule system.[112][113]

Under the new drug schedules, cannabis was provisionally placed by the administration in the most restrictive Schedule I, "until the completion of certain studies now underway to resolve the issue."[114] As required by the CSA, Nixon appointed the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, known as the Shafer Commission, to investigate. The Shafer report, "Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding" (1972), combined a review of the medical literature and a national drug survey. It recommended decriminalization for personal possession and use of small amounts of cannabis, and prohibition only of supply. The conclusion was not acted on by Nixon or Congress.[115][116] Citing the Shafer report, a lobbying campaign from 1973 to 1978, spearheaded by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), convinced 11 states to decriminalize cannabis for personal use.[117]

1971–present: The "War on Drugs"

On May 27, 1971, after a trip to Vietnam, two congressmen, Morgan F. Murphy (Democrat) and Robert H. Steele (Republican), released a report describing a "rapid increase in heroin addiction within the United States military forces in South Vietnam". They estimated that "as many as 10 to 15 percent of our servicemen are addicted to heroin in one form or another."[118][113][119][120] On June 6, a New York Times article, "It's Always A Dead End On 'Scag Alley'", cited the Murphy-Steele report in a discussion of heroin addiction. The article stated that, in the US, "the number of addicts is estimated at 200,000 to 250,000, only about one‐tenth of 1 per cent of the population but troublesome out of all proportion." It also noted, "Heroin is not the only drug problem in the United States. 'Speed' pills – among them, amphetamines – are another problem, and not least in the suburbs where they are taken by the housewife (to cure her of the daily 'blues') and by her husband (to keep his weight down)."[121]

On June 17, 1971, Nixon presented to Congress a plan for expanded anti-drug abuse measures. He painted a dire picture: "Present efforts to control drug abuse are not sufficient in themselves. The problem has assumed the dimensions of a national emergency. ... If we cannot destroy the drug menace in America, then it will surely in time destroy us." His strategy involved both treatment and interdiction: "I am proposing the appropriation of additional funds to meet the cost of rehabilitating drug users, and I will ask for additional funds to increase our enforcement efforts to further tighten the noose around the necks of drug peddlers, and thereby loosen the noose around the necks of drug users." He singled out heroin and broadened the scope beyond the US: "To wage an effective war against heroin addiction, we must have international cooperation. In order to secure such cooperation, I am initiating a worldwide escalation in our existing programs for the control of narcotics traffic."[122]

Later the same day, Nixon held a news conference at the White House, where he described drug abuse as "America's public enemy number one." He announced, "In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive. … This will be a worldwide offensive dealing with the problems of sources of supply ... It will be government wide, pulling together the nine different fragmented areas within the government in which this problem is now being handled, and it will be nationwide in terms of a new educational program." Nixon also stated that the problem wouldn't end with soldier addiction in the Vietnam War.[123] He pledged to ask Congress for a minimum of $350 million for the anti-drug effort (when he took office in 1969, the federal drug budget was $81 million).[124]

The news media focused on Nixon's militaristic tone, describing his announcement with variations of the phrase "war on drugs". The day after Nixon's press conference, the Chicago Tribune proclaimed, "Nixon Declares War on Narcotics Use in US". In England, The Guardian headlined, "Nixon declares war on drug addicts." The US anti-drug campaign came to be commonly referred to as the war on drugs;[125] the term also became used to refer to any government's prosecution of a US-style prohibition-based drug policy.[126]

Facing reelection, with drug control as a campaign centerpiece, Nixon formed the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement (ODALE) in late 1971. ODALE, armed with new federal enforcement powers, began orchestrating drug raids nationwide to improve the administration's watchdog reputation. In a private conversation while helicoptering over Brooklyn, Nixon was reported to have commented, "You and I care about treatment. But those people down there, they want those criminals off the streets." From 1972 to 1973, ODALE performed 6,000 drug arrests in 18 months, the majority of the arrested black.[127]

In 1973, Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), by executive order accepted by Congress, to “establish a single unified command to combat an all-out global war on the drug menace.”[128] It was charged with enforcing US controlled substances laws and regulations, nationally and internationally, coordinating with federal, state and local agencies and foreign governments, and overseeing legally-produced controlled substances.[129] The DEA absorbed the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, ODALE, and other drug-related federal agencies or personnel from them.[113]

Nixon's role reviewed

Decades later, a controversial quote attributed to John Ehrlichman, Nixon's domestic policy advisor, claimed that the war on drugs was fabricated to undermine the anti-war movement and African-Americans. In a 2016 Harper's cover story, Ehrlichman, who died in 1999,[130] was quoted from journalist Dan Baum's 1994 interview notes: "... by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."[131][132][133][134] The quote was challenged by Ehrlichman's children,[135] and Nixon-era officials.[136] In the end, the increasingly punitive reshaping of US drug policy by later administrations was most responsible for creating some of the conditions Ehrlichman described.[137]

In a 2011 commentary, Robert DuPont, Nixon's drug czar, argued that Comprehensive Drug Abuse Act had rolled back mandatory minimum sentencing and balanced the "long-dominant law enforcement approach to drug policy, known as 'supply reduction'" with an "entirely new and massive commitment to prevention, intervention and treatment, known as 'demand reduction'", thus Nixon was not in fact the originator of what came to be called the "war on drugs".[138] During Nixon's term, some 70% of federal anti-drug money was spent on demand-side public health measures, and 30% on supply-side interdiction and punishment, a situation reversed under subsequent administrations.[139][140]

The war on drugs under the next two presidents, Gerald Ford (1974-1977) and Jimmy Carter (1977-1981), was essentially a continuation of their predecessors' policies. Carter's campaign platform included decriminalization of cannabis and an end to federal penalties for possession of up to one ounce.[108] In a 1977 "Drug Abuse Message to the Congress", Carter stated, "Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself." None of his advocacy was translated into law.[141][142]

Reagan escalation, militarization, and "Just Say No"

The presidency of Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) saw an increase in federal focus on interdiction and prosecution. Shortly after his inauguration, Reagan announced, "We're taking down the surrender flag that has flown over so many drug efforts; we're running up a battle flag."[143] From 1980 to 1984, the federal annual budget of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) drug enforcement units went from eight million to 95 million.[144][145] In 1982, Vice President George H. W. Bush and his aides began pushing for the involvement of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and US military in drug interdiction efforts.[146]

Early in the Reagan term, First Lady Nancy Reagan, with the help of an advertising agency, began her youth-oriented "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign. Propelled by the First Lady's tireless promotional efforts through the 1980s, "Just Say No" entered the American vernacular. Later research found that the campaign had little or no impact on youth drug use.[147][148][149] One striking change attributed to the effort: public perception of drug abuse as America's most serious problem, in the 2-6% range in 1985, rose to 64% in 1989.[150]

In January 1982, Reagan established the South Florida Task Force, chaired by Vice President Bush, targeting a surge of cocaine, an estimated 65-70% of the US supply, and cannabis entering the US through the Miami region, and the sharp rise in related crime. It was the "most ambitious and expensive drug enforcement operation" in US history, involving the DEA, Customs Service, the FBI and other agencies, and ships and planes from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard. Critics called the initiative an election year political stunt. By 1986, the task force had made over 15,000 arrests and seized over six million pounds of cannabis and 100,000 pounds of cocaine, doubling cocaine seizures annually – administration officials called it Reagan's biggest drug enforcement success. That same year, federal and state law enforcement agents said their impact was minimal, and that cocaine imports had increased in that period, to 75-80% of America's supply. According to the DEA agent heading the task force's investigative unit, "Law enforcement just can't stop the drugs from coming in. We're just not able to do it." A Bush spokesperson stated, "We measure success by how much we can disrupt the smuggler and deny him his preferred routes of entry, not by how much we catch."[151][152][153]

In 1984, Reagan signed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act, which included harsher penalties for cannabis cultivation, possession, and distribution, and established equitable sharing, a new civil asset forfeiture program that allowed state and local law enforcement to share the proceeds from asset seizures made in collaboration with federal agencies.[154][155] Under the controversial program, up to 80% of seizure proceeds can go to local law enforcement, and most of it does, expanding their budgets. By 2019, $36.5 billion worth of assets had been seized, much of it drug-related.[156]

Crackdown on crack

As the media focused on the emergence of crack cocaine in the early 1980s, the Reagan administration shored up negative public opinion, encouraging the DEA to play up the harmful effects of the drug. Stories of "crack whores" and "crack babies" became commonplace.[157] In the summer of 1986, crack dominated the news. Time declared crack the issue of the year.[157] Newsweek compared the magnitude of the crack story to Vietnam and Watergate.[158] The cocaine overdose deaths of rising basketball star Len Bias, and young NFL football player Don Rogers,[159] both in June, received wide coverage.[158] Riding the wave of public fervor, that October Reagan signed into law much harsher sentencing for crack through the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, commonly known as the Len Bias law.[158][160] According to historian Elizabeth Hinton, "[Reagan] led Congress in criminalizing drug users, especially African American drug users, by concentrating and stiffening penalties for the possession of the crystalline rock form of cocaine, known as 'crack', rather than the crystallized methamphetamine that White House officials recognized was as much of a problem among low-income white Americans".[161]

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act appropriated an additional $1.7 billion to drug war funding, and established 29 new mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses (until then, the American legal system had seen 55 minimum sentences in total).[162] Of particular note, the Act made sentences for larger amounts of cocaine 100 times more severe for crack than for the powder form.[163] With the 100:1 ratio, conviction in federal court for possession of 5 grams of crack would receive the same 5-year mandatory minimum as possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine.[164][165] Debate at the time considered whether crack, generally used by blacks, was more addictive than the powder form, generally used by whites,[157] comparing the effects of snorting powder cocaine with the briefer, more intense high from smoking crack;[166] pharmacologically, there is no difference between the two.[167] According to the DEA, at first crack "was not fully appreciated as a major threat because it was primarily being consumed by middle class users who were not associated with cocaine addicts ... However, partly because crack sold for as little as $5 a rock, it ultimately spread to less affluent neighborhoods."[168]

Support for Reagan's drug crime legislation was bipartisan. According to historian Hinton, Democrats supported drug legislation as they had since the Johnson administration,[161] though Reagan was a Republican.

Internationally, the Reagan term saw a huge increase in US military anti-drug activity in other countries. The Department of Defense budget for interdiction increased from $4.9 million in 1982 to $397 million by 1987. The DEA also expanded its presence on foreign soil. Countries were encouraged to adopt the same type of punitive drug approach that was in place in the US, with the threat of economic sanctions for non-compliance. The UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs provided a legal framework, and in 1988, the Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances expanded that framework, working the US-style punitive approach into international law.[169]

Hard line maintained and a new opioid crisis

Next to occupy the Oval Office, Reagan protégé and former VP George H. W. Bush (1989-1993) maintained the hard line drawn by his predecessor and former boss. In his first prime-time address to the nation, Bush held up a plastic bag of crack "seized a few days ago in a park across the street from the White House" (turned out that DEA agents had to lure the seller to Lafayette Park to make the requested arrest).[170] The administration increased narcotics regulation in the first National Drug Control Strategy, issued by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) in 1989.[171] The director of ONDCP became commonly known as the US drug czar.[113] In the National Defense Authorization Act for 1990-1991, Congress included Section 1208 – the 1208 Program, expanded into the 1033 Program in 1996 – authorizing the Department of Defense to transfer surplus military equipment that the DoD determined to be "suitable for use in counter-drug activities", to local law enforcement agencies.[172]

Mexican troops during a gun battle in Michoacán, 2007. Mexico's drug war claims nearly 50,000 lives each year.[citation needed]

As president, Bill Clinton (1993–2001), seeking to reposition the Democratic Party as tough on crime,[173] dramatically raised the stakes for drug felonies with his signing of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. The Act introduced the federal "three-strikes" provision that mandated life imprisonment for violent offenders with two prior convictions for violent crimes or drugs, and provided billions of dollars in funding for states to expand their prison systems and increase law enforcement.[174] During this period, state and local government initiated controversial drug policies that demonstrated racial biases such as the stop-and-frisk police practice in New York City, and state-level "three strikes" felony laws, which began in California in 1994.[175]

During the 1990s, opioid use in the US dramatically rose, leading to the ongoing, commonly called opioid epidemic. A loose consensus of observers describe three main phases to date: overprescription of legal opioids beginning in the early to mid-1990s, a rise in heroin use in the 2000s, and the rise of fentanyl and other synthetics in the mid-2010s.[176][177]

The George W. Bush (2001–2009) administration maintained the hard line approach.[178] In a TV interview in February 2001, Bush's new Attorney General, John Ashcroft, said about the war on drugs, "I want to renew it. I want to refresh it, relaunch it if you will."[179] In 2001, after 9/11 and the Patriot Act, the DEA began promoting the tie between drug trafficking and international terrorism, gaining the agency expanded funding to increase its global presence.[180]

Growing dissent

The US incarceration rate peaked in 2008. The US rate was the highest in the world in 2008. Chart is for prisoners per 100,000 population of all ages.[181][182]
US timeline graphs of number of people incarcerated in jails and prisons[183]

In the summer of 2001, a report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), "The Drug War is the New Jim Crow", tied the vastly disproportionate rate of African American incarceration to the range of rights lost once convicted. It stated that, while "whites and blacks use drugs at almost exactly the same rates ... African-Americans are admitted to state prisons at a rate that is 13.4 times greater than whites, a disparity driven largely by the grossly racial targeting of drug laws." Between federal and state laws, those convicted of even simple possession could lose the right to vote, eligibility for educational assistance including loans and work-study programs, custody of their children, and personal property including homes. The report concluded that the cumulative affect of the war on drugs amounted to "the US apartheid, the new Jim Crow".[179] This view was further developed by lawyer and civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander in her 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.[184]

In the year 2000, the US drug-control budget reached $18.4 billion,[185] nearly half of which was spent financing law enforcement while only one-sixth was spent on treatment. In the year 2003, 53% of the requested drug control budget was for enforcement, 29% for treatment, and 18% for prevention.[186]

During his time in office, Barack Obama (2009-2017) implemented a "tough but smart" approach to the war on drugs. While he claimed that his method differed from those of previous presidents, in reality, his practices were similar.[187] In May 2009, Gil Kerlikowske, Director of the ONDCP – Obama's drug czar – indicated that the Obama administration did not plan to significantly alter drug enforcement policy, but that it would not use the term "war on drugs", considering it to be "counter-productive".[188] In August 2010, Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law, reducing the 100:1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine to 18:1 for pending and future cases.[163][189][190] In 2013, Obama's Justice Department issued a policy memorandum known as the Cole Memo, stating that it would defer to state laws that authorize the production, distribution and possession of cannabis, "based on assurances that those states will impose an appropriately strict regulatory system."[191][192]

In 2011, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, an international non-governmental group composed primarily of former heads of state and government, released a report that stated, "The global war on drugs has failed." It recommended a paradigm shift, to a public health focus, with decriminalization for possession and personal use.[193] Obama's ONDCP did not support the report, stating: "Drug addiction is a disease that can be successfully prevented and treated. Making drugs more available ... will make it harder to keep our communities healthy and safe."[138]

International divisions, state-level changes

California Attorney General Kamala Harris visiting the U.S.–Mexico border on March 24, 2011, to discuss strategies to combat drug cartels

In May 2012, the ONDCP published "Principles of Modern Drug Policy", broadly focusing on public health, human rights, and criminal justice reform, while targeting drug traffickers.[194] According to ONDCP director Kerlikowske, drug legalization is not the "silver bullet" solution to drug control, and success is not measured by the number of arrests made or prisons built.[195] That month, a joint statement, "For a humane and balanced drug policy", was signed by Italy, Russia, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the US, promoting a combination of "enforcement to restrict the supply of drugs, with efforts to reduce demand and build recovery."[196] Meanwhile, at the state level, 2012 saw Colorado and Washington become the first two states to legalize the recreational use of cannabis with the passage of Amendment 64 and Initiative 502 respectively.[197]

A 2013 ACLU report declared the anti-marijuana crusade a "war on people of color". The report found that "African Americans [were] 3.73 times more likely than whites to be apprehended despite nearly identical usage rates, and marijuana violations accounting for more than half of drug arrests nationwide during the previous decade". Under Obama's policies, nonwhite drug offenders received less excessive criminal sanctions, but by examining criminals as strictly violent or nonviolent, mass incarceration persisted.[187]

In March 2016, the International Narcotics Control Board stated that the UN's international drug treaties do not mandate a "war on drugs" and that the choice is not between "'militarized' drug law enforcement on one hand and the legalization of non-medical use of drugs on the other", health and welfare should be the focus of drug policy.[198] That April, the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the "World Drug Problem" was held.[199] The Wall Street Journal assessed the attendees' positions as "somewhat" in two camps: "Some European and South American countries as well as the U.S. favored softer approaches. Eastern countries such as China and Russia and most Muslim nations like Iran, Indonesia and Pakistan remained staunchly opposed."[200] The outcome document recommended treatment, prevention and other public health measures, and committed to "intensifying our efforts to prevent and counter" drug production and trafficking, through, "inter alia, more effective drug-related crime prevention and law enforcement measures."[201][202]

Under President Donald Trump (2017-2021), Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed the previous Justice Department's cannabis policies, rescinding the Cole Memo that deferred federal enforcement in states where cannabis had been legalized[191][203] He instructed federal prosecutors to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense” in drug cases, regardless of whether mandatory minimum sentences applied, which could trigger mandatory minimums for lower-level charges.[204][205][206] With cannabis legalized to some degree in over 30 states, Sessions' directive was seen by both Democrats and Republicans as a rogue throwback action, and there was a bipartisan outcry. Trump fired Sessions in 2018, over other issues.[207]

Some policy reversal attempts and successes

In 2018, Trump signed into law the First Step Act which, among other federal prison reforms, made the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act retroactive. A US Supreme Court decision in 2021 determined that retroactivity applied to cases where mandatory minimum penalties had been imposed.[208]

In 2020, both the ACLU and the New York Times reported that Republicans and Democrats were in agreement that it was time to end the war on drugs. While on the presidential campaign trail, President Joe Biden (2020–present) stated that he would take the steps to alleviate the war on drugs and end the opioid epidemic.[209][210]

On December 4, 2020, during the Trump administration, the House of Representatives passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE Act), which would decriminalize cannabis at the federal level by removing it from the list of scheduled substances, expunge past convictions and arrests, and tax cannabis to "reinvest in communities targeted by the war on drugs".[209][211] The MORE Act was received in the Senate in December 2020 where it remained.[212] In April 2022, the Act was again passed by the House, and awaits Senate action.[213]

Over time, states in the US have approached drug liberalization at a varying pace. Initially, in the 1930s, the states were ahead of the federal government in prohibiting cannabis; in recent decades, the trend has reversed. Beginning with cannabis for medical use in California in 1996, states began to legalize cannabis. As of 2023, 38 states, four US territories, and the District of Columbia (DC) had legalized cannabis for medical use;[214] for non-medical use, 24 of the states, three territories, and DC, had legalized it, and seven states decriminalized.[215] Decriminalization in this context usually refers to first-time offenses and small quantities, such as, in the case of cannabis, under an ounce (28g).[216] In November 2020, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize a number of drugs, including heroin, methamphetamine, PCP, LSD and oxycodone, shifting from a criminal approach to a public health approach;[217][218][209] portions of that policy were reversed in April 2024.[219]

In 2022, Biden signed into law the Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act, to allow cannabis to be more easily researched for medical purposes. It is the first standalone cannabis reform bill enacted at the federal level.[220][221][222] That October, Biden stated on social media, "We classify marijuana at the same level as heroin – and more serious than fentanyl. It makes no sense," and pledged to start a review by the Attorney General on how cannabis is classified.[223] On October 6, he pardoned all those with federal convictions for simple cannabis possession (to a degree symbolic, as none of those affected were imprisoned at the time), and urged the states, where the large majority of convictions rest, to do the same. His action affected 6,500 people convicted from 1992 to 2021, and thousands convicted in the District of Columbia.[224]

The War continues, focus on fentanyl

In 2023, the US State Department announced plans to launch a "global coalition to address synthetic drug threats", with more than 80 countries expected to join.[225][226][227] That April, Anne Milgram, head of the DEA since 2021, stated to Congress that two Mexican drug cartels posed "the greatest criminal threat the United States has ever faced." Supporting a DEA budget request of $3.7 billion for 2024, Milgram cited fentanyl in the "most devastating drug crisis in our nation's history."[228][229]

In January 2024, the DEA confirmed that it was reviewing the classification of cannabis as a Schedule I narcotic. Days later, documents were released from the Department of Health and Human Services stating that cannabis has "a currently accepted medical use” in the US and a “potential for abuse less than the drugs or other substances in Schedules I and II."[223] On April 30, indicating a DEA decision, the Justice Department announced, "Today, the Attorney General circulated a proposal to reclassify marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III. Once published by the Federal Register, it will initiate a formal rulemaking process as prescribed by Congress in the Controlled Substances Act.”[230] Schedule III drugs, considered to have moderate to low potential for dependence, include ketamine, anabolic steroids, testosterone, and Tylenol with codeine.[231]

Foreign involvement

Colin Powell, then the United States Secretary of State, visiting Colombia in the early 2000s as part of the United States' support of Plan Colombia[232][233][234][235][236]

US international involvement rests on the belief that assisting foreign governments in stopping drugs results in less drugs and drug use in the US.[237]

Scholars have claimed that the war on drugs, a metaphorical war, is propaganda cloaking an extension of earlier military or paramilitary operations.[9] Others have argued that large amounts anti-drug foreign aid money, training, and equipment actually goes to fighting leftist insurgencies and is often provided to groups who themselves are involved in large-scale narco-trafficking, such as corrupt members of the Colombian military.[8]

UN treaties and US influence

The three UN drug control conventions, adopted by over 180 countries, provide a legal basis for cooperation between countries. Each state is obligated to incorporate the treaty provisions in their domestic laws. While there is a degree of interpretative flexibility, "each of the treaties encourages – and often requires – that member countries put in place strong domestic penal provisions" to deal with illicit drugs; punitive policies have been the common approach.[60] The US, emerging as the dominant power after WWII, exerted considerable influence over how the conventions were adopted by other nations, promoting a prohibitionist and criminalizing view.[238] Historically, the US has been "the key player in most multilateral negotiations" and the prohibitionist approach "derives largely from U.S. policy – the various forms, past and present, of the U.S. 'war on drugs'".[60]

Foreign operations initially focused on Latin America, and expanded globally over time. During the 1970s, the US treated drugs as a policing issue in foreign countries. Billions of dollars were given to support anti-drug activity by police forces in Latin American countries, including Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. Beginning in the 1980s, the US increasingly involved the military and private security firms, to provide training and support to armed forces in drug-producing and transit countries.[239] As of 2024, the DEA has, in addition to 241 domestic offices, 93 foreign offices in 69 countries.[240] In addition to numerous cooperative law enforcement actions worldwide against drug trafficking and money laundering, the DEA and other agencies, and the US military, have been involved in multi-year foreign drug campaigns, including in Colombia, Mexico and Afghanistan.

Latin America

In 2021, Gustavo Gorriti, journalist and founder of corruption-focused IDL-Reporteros news media, wrote a scathing editorial in the Washington Post on the impact of 50 years of the war on drugs on Latin America. He described the flow of drugs to the US as an "unstoppable industry" that triggered an economic revolution throughout the region, where the illegal drug trade with its high profit margins far exceeded the potential of legitimate businesses. Corruption among politicians and anti-drug forces soared, even as those in charge were "cultivating close relationships with U.S. enforcement and intelligence agencies." An underclass of poor farmers became economic hostages, depending on drug crops for their survival. The big winners were "the systems built to wage a fight that they soon realized would have no end. ... [The war on drugs] became a source for endless resources, inflated budgets, contracts, purchase orders, power, influence – new economies battling drug trafficking but also dependent on it."[241]

At a meeting in Guatemala in 2012, three former presidents from Guatemala, Mexico and Colombia said that the war on drugs had failed and that they would propose a discussion on alternatives, including decriminalization, at the Summit of the Americas in April of that year.[242] Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina said that the war on drugs was exacting too high a price on the lives of Central Americans and that it was time to "end the taboo on discussing decriminalization".[243] At the summit, the government of Colombia pushed for far-reaching changes to drugs policy, citing the catastrophic effects of the war on drugs in Colombia.[244]


Through the Plan Colombia program, between 2000 and 2015, the US provided Colombia with $10 billion in funding,[245][246] primarily for military aid, training, and equipment,[247] to fight left-wing guerrillas such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP), which has been accused of being involved in drug trafficking.[248] The Clinton administration initially waived all but one of the human rights conditions attached to Plan Colombia, considering such aid as crucial to national security at the time.[249] Private US military contractors, including the former DynCorp, the largest private company involved, were contracted by the State Department and Defense Department, to carry out anti-drug initiatives as part of Plan Colombia.[250] Colombian military personnel received extensive counterinsurgency training from US military and law enforcement agencies, including the School of Americas (SOA). US-trained officers have been accused of being directly or indirectly involved in many massacres during the 1990s, including the Trujillo Massacre and the 1997 Mapiripán Massacre.[citation needed]

The efforts of the US and Colombian governments have been criticized for focusing on fighting leftist guerrillas in southern regions without applying enough pressure on right-wing paramilitaries and continuing drug smuggling operations in the north of the country.[251][252] Human Rights Watch, congressional committees and other entities have documented the existence of connections between members of the Colombian military and the AUC, which the US government has listed as a terrorist group, and that Colombian military personnel have committed human rights abuses which would make them ineligible for US aid under current laws.[citation needed]

A report by the RAND Corporation, examining the Colombian experience for insights applicable to the Mexican drug war, noted that "Plan Colombia has been widely hailed as a success, and some analysts believe that, by 2010, Colombian security forces had finally gained the upper hand once and for all." The report cited dramatic reductions in kidnappings and terrorist acts, and the recapture of territory, attributed to "a reinforced military and reinvigorated police force." It also found that, as of 2010, "Colombia is still a major source country for illicit narcotics. Moreover, the state continues to share sovereignty with a range of violent nonstate actors, including rebel groups and rightwing paramilitaries allied with drug traffickers and wealthy landowners."[253] The Washington Office on Latin America concluded in 2010 that both Plan Colombia and the Colombian government's security strategy "came at a high cost in lives and resources, only did part of the job, are yielding diminishing returns and have left important institutions weaker."[254]


One of the first anti-drug efforts in the realm of foreign policy was President Nixon's Operation Intercept, announced in September 1969, targeted at reducing the amount of cannabis entering the United States from Mexico. The effort began with an intense inspection crackdown that resulted in a near shutdown of cross-border traffic.[255] The burden on border crossings was controversial in border states; the effort lasted only 20 days.[256]

The Mérida Initiative, launched in 2008, was a security cooperation program between the US and Mexico, aimed at combating drug trafficking and transnational crime. From 2008 to 2021, the US provided $3.5 billion in funding. The initial focus was anti-drug and rule-of-law measures, later broadened to include US-Mexico border activities. Components included military and law enforcement training and equipment, and technical advice and training to strengthen the national justice systems. In 2021, it was replaced by the Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health, and Safe Communities.[257]

In 2013, a Pew Research Center poll found that 85% of Mexican citizens supported using the Mexican army against drug cartels, 74% supported US training assistance for their police and military, 55% supported the US supplying of weapons and financial aid, and 59% were against deploying US troops on Mexican soil.[258] Anti-drug efforts were seen as making progress by 37%, losing ground by 29%, and staying the same by 30%; 56% believed that the US and Mexico are both to blame for drug violence in Mexico.[259]

Central America

The countries of Central America – Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama – are major transit and storage points for drugs headed to Mexico and the US.[260] The seven countries appear on the annual US "majors list".[261] The US has had varying levels of direct anti-drug involvement in each of these countries over the past several decades.

Ecuador is located between the world's two largest cocaine-producing countries, Colombia and Peru, and has long been a major drug transit point.[262] From 1999, the Manta air base was the US military's most prominent South American presence, originating some 100 drug surveillance flights monthly. In 2009, citing unwanted internal influence by the CIA, Ecuador declined to renew the base's lease, ending official US military presence.[263][264] Drug activity and anti-drug efforts in Ecuador have dramatically intensified since 2018.[265] In 2023, the US-Ecuador Defense Bilateral Working Group was formed to address the Ecuadorian situation, and a memorandum of agreement to help strengthen the Ecuadorian military was signed.[264] A drug-related wider conflict broke out in 2024.[266]

In 2012, the US sent DEA agents to Honduras to assist security forces in counternarcotic operations. Honduras has been a major stop for drug traffickers, who use small planes and landing strips hidden throughout the country to transport drugs. The US government made agreements with several Latin American countries to share intelligence and resources to counter the drug trade. DEA agents, working with other US agencies such as the State Department, the CBP, and Joint Task Force-Bravo, assisted Honduran troops in conducting raids on traffickers' sites of operation.[267]

During the 1980s civil war in Nicaragua, Senator John Kerry's 1988 Senate Committee on Foreign Relations report on Contra drug links concludes that members of the State Department "who provided support for the Contras are involved in drug trafficking... and elements of the Contras themselves knowingly receive financial and material assistance from drug traffickers."[268] The involvement included payments to drug traffickers from funds authorized by the Congress for humanitarian assistance to the Contras, in some cases after the traffickers had been indicted by federal law enforcement agencies on drug charges, in others while traffickers were under active investigation by these same agencies."[citation needed]

The U.S. military invasion of Panama in 1989

On December 20, 1989, the US invaded Panama with 25,000 American troops, as part of Operation Just Cause, to depose and arrest the Panamanian head of government, Gen. Manuel Noriega. Noriega had been giving military assistance to Contra groups in Nicaragua at the request of the US, which in turn tolerated his drug trafficking activities, known since the 1960s.[269][270] The CIA prevented the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs from indicting him in 1971 and, under the directorship of future president George H. W. Bush, provided Noriega with hundreds of thousands of dollars annually as payment for his work in Latin America.[269] When CIA pilot Eugene Hasenfus was shot down over Nicaragua by the Sandinistas in 1986, documents aboard the plane revealed many of the CIA's Latin American activities, making the agency's connection with Noriega a public relations liability for the US. The DEA was finally permitted to indict him for drug trafficking.[269] Operation Just Cause and Nifty Package were launched to capture Noriega and overthrow his government. He surrendered to US soldiers on January 3, 1990,[271] and was sentenced by a US court to 45 years in prison for racketeering, drug smuggling, and money laundering.[269][272] The United Nations General Assembly resolved that the invasion was a "flagrant violation of international law."[273]

Mexico is scheduled to receive US$1.6 billion in equipment and strategic support from the United States through the Mérida Initiative.

Aerial herbicide application

The US regularly sponsored the spraying of large amounts of herbicides such as glyphosate over the jungles of Central and South America as part of its drug eradication programs. Environmental consequences resulting from aerial fumigation have been criticized as detrimental to some of the world's most fragile ecosystems;[274] the same aerial fumigation practices are further credited with causing health problems in local populations.[275]

Impact on growers

The coca eradication policy has been criticised for its negative impact on the livelihood of coca growers in South America. In many areas of South America, the coca leaf has traditionally been chewed and used in tea and for religious, medicinal and nutritional purposes by locals.[276] For this reason, many insist that the illegality of traditional coca cultivation is unjust. In many areas, the US government and military forced the eradication of coca, at the same time destroying other food or market crops, without providing an alternative, leaving farmers starving and destitute.[276] In Bolivia, president Evo Morales (2006–2019), a former coca growers' union leader, promised to legalize the traditional cultivation and use of coca. His legalization efforts, combined with aggressive and targeted eradication efforts, lead to some success, using coca growers' federations to ensure compliance with the law rather than deploying security forces; a 12–13% decline in coca cultivation was noted in 2011.[277]


In 2001, a US-led military coalition invaded Afghanistan as part of the war on terror response to 9/11, toppling the ruling Taliban. For generations, Afghanistan had been producing opium; the Taliban, in power since 1996, banned opium in 2000, reducing domestic production by 90% within a year, cutting the world opium supply by an estimated 65%. With the invasion, poppy cultivation and opium manufacture resumed, and the war on drugs became an element of the US presence. Initially, "everyone did their own thing, not thinking how it fit in with the larger effort. State was trying to eradicate, USAID was marginally trying to do livelihoods, and DEA was going after bad guys,” a senior Department of Defense official stated on the record in a later report. In 2004, opium production dramatically increased and efforts focused on eradication. The DEA operating budget in Afghanistan grew from $3.7 million in 2004 to $40.6 million in 2008. In 2009, eradication was halted – a senior US official called it “the least effective program ever” – in favor of an "alternative livelihoods" approach that encouraged farmers to grow other crops. In 2017, eradication once again became the main initiative. The US military launched Operation Iron Tempest, an aerial campaign involving B-52 bombers and F-22 fighters striking a network of drug labs. This failed when most of the targets turned out to be empty compounds, although there were significant civilian casualties. As the occupation neared an ending in 2020, Afghanistan was producing an estimated 85% of the world's opium. The US had spent some $9 billion in the 20-year anti-drug campaign. US forces left Afghanistan in 2021, and the Taliban returned to power.[278][279][280]

Domestic impact

The social consequences of the drug war have been widely criticized by such organizations as the ACLU as being racially biased against minorities and disproportionately responsible for the exploding United States prison population. Critics have compared the wholesale incarceration of the dissenting minority of drug users to the wholesale incarceration of other minorities in history.[citation needed] Psychiatrist Thomas Szasz wrote in 1997, "Over the past thirty years, we have replaced the medical-political persecution of illegal sex users ('perverts' and 'psychopaths') with the even more ferocious medical-political persecution of illegal drug users."[281] Assessing from a health perspective, a study in the Annals of Medicine noted: "The U.S. war on drugs has subjected millions to criminalisation, incarceration, and lifelong criminal records, disrupting or altogether eliminating their access to adequate resources and supports to live healthy lives."[282]

Arrest and incarceration

The war on drugs caused soaring arrest rates in the US that disproportionately targeted African Americans due to various factors.[283] Anti-drug and tough-on-crime policies from the 1970s through the 1990s created a situation where the US, with less than 5% of the world population, houses nearly 25% of the world's prisoners. Increased demand lead to the development of privatization and the for-profit prison industry.[284] As of 2015, the US prison population rate was 716 per 100,000 people, the highest in the world, six times higher than Canada and six to nine times higher than Western European countries.[285]

Graph demonstrating increases in United States incarceration rate

In the 1980s, while the number of arrests for all crimes had risen by 28%, the number of arrests for drug offenses rose 126%.[286] In 1994, the New England Journal of Medicine reported that the war on drugs resulted in the incarceration of one million Americans each year.[287] In 2008, The Washington Post reported that of 1.5 million Americans arrested each year for drug offenses, half a million would be incarcerated, and one in five black Americans would spend time behind bars due to drug laws.[288] In 2019, the FBI estimated about 1.5 million drug arrests nationally, 32.1% for cannabis and 31% for "other dangerous nonnarcotic drugs".[289]

Federal and state policies also impose collateral consequences on those convicted of drug offenses, separate from fines and prison time, that are not applicable to other types of crime.[290] In order to comply with a federal law known as the Solomon–Lautenberg amendment, a number of states require a six-months driver's license suspension for anyone convicted of a drug offense.[291][292][293] Other examples of collateral consequences for drug offenses, or for felony offenses in general, include loss of professional license, loss of ability to purchase a firearm, loss of eligibility for food stamps, loss of eligibility for Federal Student Aid, loss of eligibility to live in public housing, loss of ability to vote, and deportation,[290] a total of over 460 benefits at risk at the federal level alone.[294] The US provides for the deportation of non-citizens convicted of drug offenses.[295]

Prison overcrowding

One consequence of the war on drugs policy has been the overcrowding of American prisons. The policy's approach to prosecuting drug-related crimes led to a surge in incarcerated individuals for nonviolent drug offenses. As a result, many prisons have become overburdened, often operating at capacities far beyond their intended limits. Overcrowding strains the prison system and raises questions about the effectiveness of incarceration as a solution to drug-related issues.[296] Resources that could be allocated to address the root causes of drug abuse, provide rehabilitation and treatment programs, or support communities affected by drug-related issues, are instead used to manage the considerable prison population. Critics argue that focusing solely on incarceration fails to address the underlying social factors contributing to drug abuse and perpetuates a cycle of criminality without offering pathways to recovery and reintegration into society.[297]

Racial disparities in sentencing

Racial disparities have been a prominent and contentious aspect of the war on drugs in the US. In 1957, a belief at the time about drug use was summarized by journalist Max Lerner in his work, America as a Civilization: "As a case in point we may take the known fact of the prevalence of reefer and dope addiction in Negro areas. This is essentially explained in terms of poverty, slum living, and broken families, yet it would be easy to show the lack of drug addiction among other ethnic groups where the same conditions apply."[298]

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created a 100:1 sentencing disparity in the US for the trafficking or possession of crack when compared to penalties for trafficking of powder cocaine.[299][164][165][300] The bill had been widely criticized as discriminatory against minorities, mostly blacks, who were more likely to use crack than powder cocaine.[301] In 1994, studying the effects of the 100:1 sentencing ratio, the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) found that nearly two-thirds of crack users were white or Hispanic, while nearly 85% of those convicted for possession were black, with similar numbers for trafficking. Powder cocaine offenders were more equally divided across race. The USSC noted that these disparities resulted in African Americans serving longer prison sentences than other ethnicities. In a 1995 report to Congress, the USSC recommended against the 100:1 sentencing ratio.[302][303] In 2010, the 100:1 sentencing ratio was reduced to 18:1.[301][190]

Other studies indicated similarly dramatic racial differences in enforcement and sentencing. Statistics from 1998 show that there were wide racial disparities in arrests, prosecutions, sentencing and deaths. African-American drug users made up for 35% of drug arrests, 55% of convictions, and 74% of people sent to prison for drug possession crimes.[164] Nationwide African-Americans were sent to state prisons for drug offenses 13 times more often than other races,[304] even though they supposedly constituted only 13% of regular drug users.[164] Human Rights Watch's report, "Race and the Drug War" (2000), provided extensive documentation of racial disparities, citing statistics and case studies highlighting the unequal treatment of racial and ethnic groups by law enforcement agencies, particularly in drug arrests.[305] According to the report, in the US in 1999, compared to non-minorities, African Americans were far more likely to be arrested for drug crimes, and received much stiffer penalties and sentences.[306]

Reporting on the effects of state initiatives, the Department of Justice found that, from 1990 through 2000, "the increasing number of drug offenses accounted for 27% of the total growth among black inmates, 7% of the total growth among Hispanic inmates, and 15% of the growth among white inmates."[citation needed]

In Malign Neglect – Race Crime and Punishment in America (1995), criminologist Michael Tonry wrote, "The War on Drugs foreseeably and unnecessarily blighted the lives of hundreds and thousands of young disadvantaged black Americans and undermined decades of effort to improve the life chances of members of the urban black underclass."[307]

Permanent underclass creation

Approximately 1 million people are incarcerated every year in the United States for drug law violations.

Penalties for drug crimes among American youth almost always involve permanent or semi-permanent removal from opportunities for education, strip them of voting rights, and later involve creation of criminal records which make employment more difficult. One-fifth of the US prison population are incarcerated for a drug offence.[308] Thus, some authors maintain that the War on Drugs has resulted in the creation of a permanent underclass of people who have few educational or job opportunities, often as a result of being punished for drug offenses which in turn have resulted from attempts to earn a living in spite of having no education or job opportunities.[309][310]

In her 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander argues that the war on drugs has effectively perpetuated a racial caste system, with African American and Hispanic individuals experiencing disproportionately high rates of arrest, conviction, and incarceration for drug-related offenses. This system functions as a modern form of racial control, stripping individuals of their rights and opportunities, and reinforcing societal inequalities. According to Alexander, the consequences extend beyond criminal justice, affecting economic opportunities, access to education, and overall social mobility for affected individuals and communities.[311]

D.C. Mayor Marion Barry captured on a surveillance camera smoking crack cocaine during a sting operation by the FBI and D.C. Police

Drug testing in the workplace

Workplace drug testing has been widespread and controversial in the US since the late 1980s: there is no clear measure of its effectiveness in improving safety and productivity, and testing affects significantly more non-whites than whites. Testing is more prevalent in the US than elsewhere in the world.[312] Most common is urine analysis for amphetamines, cocaine, marijuana, opioids and PCP;[313] usually with no practical discrimination between the effects of the different drugs.[312] Workplace testing rapidly gained popularity after the Reagan administration made it mandatory for federal workers, peaking in 1996, with 81% of companies reporting drug screening, up from 21% in 1987.[314][312]

In the 1980s, testing had been promoted to business as a way to reclaim what were said to be huge losses in productivity caused by drug use. Studies released in the 1990s refuted these claims; a 1994 report from the National Academy of Sciences, "Under the Influence? Drugs and the American Work Force“, concluded that "the data... do not provide clear evidence of the deleterious effects of drugs other than alcohol on safety and other job performance indicators.” By 2004, workplace testing was down to 62% of companies,[314] in 2015, it was reported as below 50%. Drug use continues to be blamed for productivity losses, and testing remains common.[312]

In 2021, some companies began to reduce drug testing in order to improve hiring prospects in a tight labor market. Amazon, America's second largest employer, eliminated cannabis testing in job pre-screening, where not required by government regulations, stating, "Pre-employment marijuana testing has disproportionately affected communities of color by stalling job placement." In a survey of 45,000 companies worldwide, 9% reported the elimination of testing in order to improve hiring.[315] In 2022, thousands of US truck drivers were taken off the road after testing positive for cannabis, contributing to a severe driver shortage; a conflict between the majority of states with some form of cannabis legalization, and the federal Department of Transportation's zero-tolerance cannabis policy, even for medical use, is cited as an issue.[316]

Public opinion

A US government domestic public interest poster c. 2000 concerning cannabis in the United States

In the 21st century, according to polling, a majority of Americans have been skeptical about the methods and effectiveness of the war on drugs. In 2014, a Pew Research Center poll found found that 67% of Americans feel that a movement towards treatment for drugs like cocaine and heroin is better versus 26% who feel that prosecution is the better route. Moving away from mandatory prison terms for drug crimes was favored by two-thirds of the population, a substantial shift from a fifty-fifty for-against split in 2001. A large majority saw alcohol as a greater danger to health (69%) and society (63%) than cannabis.[317][318] In Gallup polls on whether cannabis should be legal, 15% of Americans agreed in March 1972, rising to 28% in April 1977, where it roughly stayed until 2000, when it began rising again, to 68% in October 2021.[319] In May 2021, a Bully Pulpit Interactive/ACLU poll found that 83% of Americans, across party lines, considered the war on drugs a failure, and 12% considering it a success.[320][321]


The legality of drug prohibition within the US has been challenged on various grounds. One argument holds that drug prohibition, as presently implemented, violates the substantive due process doctrine in that its benefits do not justify the encroachments on rights that are supposed to be guaranteed by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.[322][323] Another argument interprets the Commerce Clause to mean that drugs should be regulated in state law not federal law.[324] A third argument states that the reverse burden of proof in drug-possession cases is incompatible with the rule of law, in that the power to convict is effectively taken from the courts and given to those who are willing to plant evidence.[325]


There is no clear measure of the effectiveness of the war on drugs, and it has been widely called a policy failure.[6][326][note 3] Thirty years into the campaign, a National Research Council report, "Informing America's Policy on Illegal Drugs" (2001), found that "existing drug-use monitoring systems are strikingly inadequate to support the full range of policy decisions that the nation must make." The report noted that studies of efforts to address drug usage and smuggling, from US military operations to eradicate coca fields in Colombia, to domestic drug treatment centers, had all been inconclusive, if the programs had been evaluated at all: It concluded, "It is unconscionable for this country to continue to carry out a public policy of this magnitude and cost without any way of knowing whether and to what extent it is having the desired effect."[333][334]

Writing in the New Statesmen in 2021, journalist James Bloodworth stated, "The war on drugs is a failure. We know this. We've long known it. In fact, there is such an abundance of evidence for its failure that we have more certainty here than in most areas of policy. ... According to the International Drug Policy Consortium there was a 31 per cent global increase in drug taking between 2011 and 2016. ... It is impossible to suppress the demand for drugs." He quoted Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand and head of the Global Commission on Drug Policy: “The total elimination of drugs? Dream on, there's never been a time in human history where human beings haven't resorted to some kind of substances that will take them out of their current reality for whatever reason.”[335]

USS Rentz (FFG-46) attempts to put out a fire set by drug smugglers trying to escape and destroy evidence.


External videos
video icon A Conversation with President Obama and David Simon (The Wire creator), discussing The Wire and the War on Drugs, The White House[336]

In 1988, the RAND Corporation released a Department of Defense-funded two-year study, Sealing the Borders: The Effects of Increased Military Participation in Drug Interdiction. It concluded that the use of the armed forces to interdict drugs coming into the US would have little or no effect on cocaine traffic and might, in fact, raise the profits of cocaine cartels and manufacturers. It noted that seven prior studies, including one by the Center for Naval Research and the Office of Technology Assessment, had come to similar conclusions.[337]

2009 Mother Jones magazine cover

In mid-1995, the US government tried to reduce the supply of methamphetamine precursors to disrupt the market of this drug. According to a 2009 study, this effort was successful, but its effects were largely temporary.[338]

In the six years from 2000 to 2006, the U.S. spent $4.7 billion on Plan Colombia, an effort to eradicate coca production in Colombia. The main result of this effort was to shift coca production into more remote areas and force other forms of adaptation. The overall acreage cultivated for coca in Colombia at the end of the six years was found to be the same, after the US Drug Czar's office announced a change in measuring methodology in 2005 and included new areas in its surveys.[339] Cultivation in the neighboring countries of Peru and Bolivia increased, some would describe this effect like squeezing a balloon.[340]

Richard Davenport-Hines, in his book The Pursuit of Oblivion, criticized the efficacy of the war on drugs by pointing out that "10–15% of illicit heroin and 30% of illicit cocaine is intercepted. Drug traffickers have gross profit margins of up to 300%. At least 75% of illicit drug shipments would have to be intercepted before the traffickers' profits were hurt."[341]

Alberto Fujimori, president of Peru from 1990 to 2000, described US foreign drug policy as "failed": "For 10 years, there has been a considerable sum invested by the Peruvian government and another sum on the part of the American government, and this has not led to a reduction in the supply of coca leaf offered for sale. Rather, in the 10 years from 1980 to 1990, it grew 10-fold."[342]

According to a report commissioned by the Drug Policy Alliance, and released in March 2006 by the Justice Policy Institute, harsher sentences for drug offenses committed in drug-free school zones are ineffective at keeping youths away from drugs, and instead create strong racial disparities in the judicial system.[343]

According to data collected by the Federal Bureau of Prisons 45.3% of all criminal charges were drug related and 25.5% of sentences for all charges last 5–10 years. Furthermore, non-whites make up 41.4% of the federal prison system's population and over half are under the age of 40.[344] The Bureau of Justice Statistics states that over 80% of all drug related charges are for possession rather than the sale or manufacture of drugs.[345]

Drug use

In 2005, the federally funded Monitoring the Future annual survey reported about 85% of high school seniors found marijuana "easy to obtain", virtually unchanged since 1975, never dropping below 82.7% in three decades of national surveys.[346] The DEA stated that the number of users of cannabis in the US declined between 2000 and 2005, even with many states passing new medical cannabis laws, making access easier,[347] though usage rates remain higher than they were in the 1990s according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.[348]

US yearly overdose deaths, and the drugs involved. There were around 110,500 drug overdose deaths overall in 2022 in the US.[349]

The ONDCP stated in April 2011 that there has been a 46% drop in cocaine use among young adults over the previous five years, and a 65% drop in the rate of people testing positive for cocaine in the workplace since 2006.[350] At the same time, a 2007 study found that up to 35% of college undergraduates used stimulants not prescribed to them.[351]

A 2013 study found that prices of heroin, cocaine and cannabis had decreased from 1990 to 2007, while the purity of these drugs had increased.[352][353]

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health for 2019 found that 1.7% of US adults over 25 had used cocaine in the previous 12 months, compared to 1.8% in 2002, and cannabis use went from 7% in 2002 to 15.2%. The DEA's 2021 National Drug Threat Assessment stated that "a steady supply of cocaine was available throughout domestic markets" in 2019 and 2020.[354]

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), drug abuse fatalities in 2021 reached an all-time high of 108,000 deaths,[355] a 15% increase from 2020 (93,000)[356] which, at the time, was the highest number of deaths and a 30% increase from 2019, .[355]

During alcohol prohibition, from 1920 to 1933, alcohol use initially fell but began to increase as early as 1922. It has been extrapolated that even if prohibition had not been repealed in 1933, alcohol consumption would have surpassed pre-prohibition levels. One argument against the war on drugs is that it uses similar measures as Prohibition and is no more effective.[357]

Government efficiency

In 1997, Rolling Stone published a comprehensive snapshot of the US government's implementation of the war on drugs, spanning 44 federal agencies and hundreds of thousands of government workers, and without unified management, oversight, or cohesive strategy. Among the agencies there were over a dozen separate drug intelligence operations. The White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, home of the drug czar and ostensibly the coordinating agency, had a staff of 150, and a $36 million dollar budget; the overall federal drug war budget for 1998 was $16 billion. Most of the agencies involved did not report to the ONDCP, instead to one of 13 congressional appropriations subcommittees. The largest single share of the budget, $2 billion, went to the Bureau of Prisons. Federal agencies also passed on billions of anti-drug dollars to the states, with little oversight or accountability.[358] In 2024, the ONDCP requested $461 million of a $46 billion federal budget allocated across some 50 federal agencies.[359]


Alternatives to the predominantly punitive, law enforcement approach to the war on drugs in the US fall under two broad categories: a public health-oriented education, prevention and treatment approach, and decriminalization or legalization with regulation similar to the handling of alcohol. Jefferson Fish has edited scholarly collections of articles offering a wide variety of public health-based and rights-based alternative drug policies.[360][361][362]

A public-health approach

A prevalent critical view holds that the war on drugs has been costly and ineffective largely because US federal and state governments have chosen the wrong methods, focusing on interdiction and punishment rather than regulation and treatment of drug abuse and addiction.[363] The US leads the world in both recreational drug usage and incarceration rates; 70% of men arrested in metropolitan areas test positive for an illicit substance,[364] and 54% of all men incarcerated will be repeat offenders.[365] Making drugs illegal rather than regulating them also creates a highly profitable black market.

In 2015 The U.S. government spent over to $25 billion on supply reduction, while allocating only $11 billion for demand reduction. Supply reduction includes: interdiction, eradication, and law enforcement; demand reduction includes: education, prevention, and treatment.

In the US, current public health-oriented interventions include harm reduction, drug courts, and Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) programs which give police treatment or social services options rather than arrest with minor drug offenses. Harm reduction approaches include provision of sterile syringes, medically supervised injection sites (SIF), and availability of the opioid overdose-countering drug naloxone.[363]

As an alternative to imprisonment, drug courts in the US identify substance-abusing offenders and place them under strict court monitoring and community supervision, as well as provide them with long-term treatment services.[366] According to a National Drug Court Institute report, 16.4% of the nation's drug court graduates are rearrested and charged with a felony within one year of completing the program; overall 44.1% of released prisoners end up back in prison within one year. The drug court program is also significantly cheaper than imprisonment.[367] Annual per offender cost is $20,000–$50,000 for imprisonment, and $2,500–$4,000 in the drug court system.[368]

A survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that substance abusers who remain in treatment longer are less likely to resume their former drug habits. Of the people studied, 66% were cocaine users. After experiencing long-term in-patient treatment, only 22% returned to the use of cocaine.[185]

During the 1990s, the Clinton administration commissioned a major cocaine policy study by the RAND Drug Policy Research Center. The report recommended that $3 billion be switched from federal and local law enforcement to treatment, concluding that treatment is the cheapest way to cut drug use, and twenty-three times more effective than the supply-side war on drugs.[369]

In the constitution of the multinational non-governmental World Federation Against Drugs, the "Declaration of the World Forum Against Drugs" (2008), advocates for "no other goal than a drug-free world", and states that a balanced policy of drug abuse prevention, education, treatment, law enforcement, research, and supply reduction provides the most effective platform to reduce drug abuse and its associated harms and calls on governments to consider demand reduction as one of their first priorities. It supports the UN drug conventions, the inclusion of cannabis as one of the "hard drugs", and the use of criminal sanctions "when appropriate" to deter drug use. It opposes legalization in any form, and harm reduction in general.[370]

Decriminalization and legalization

In a 2023 UN report, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that "decades of punitive, 'war on drugs' strategies had failed to prevent an increasing range and quantity of substances from being produced and consumed", described punitive drug policies as a failure, and called for an approach "based on health and human rights, including through the legal regulation of drugs."[14][371][372]

Considering outright legalization of recreational drugs, New York Times columnist Eduardo Porter noted: "Jeffrey Miron, an economist at Harvard who studies drug policy closely, has suggested that legalizing all illicit drugs would produce net benefits to the United States of some $65 billion a year, mostly by cutting public spending on enforcement as well as through reduced crime and corruption. A study by analysts at the RAND Corporation, a California research organization, suggested that if marijuana were legalized in California and the drug spilled from there to other states, Mexican drug cartels would lose about a fifth of their annual income of some $6.5 billion from illegal exports to the United States."[373]

In 2007, "An Open Letter to the President, Congress, Governors, and State Legislatures" signed by over 550 economists, including Nobel Laureates Milton Friedman, George Akerlof and Vernon L. Smith, endorsed the findings of a 2006 paper, "The Budgetary Implications of Marijuana Prohibition," by Harvard economist Jeffrey A. Miron. Comparing the cost of prohibition to the tax revenue if cannabis was taxed as regular consumer good, or similarly to alcohol, the letter stated that the budgetary impact, considered alongside evidence that "suggests prohibition has minimal benefits and may itself cause substantial harm", favors "a regime in which marijuana is legal but taxed and regulated like other goods."[374] According to a 2010 report on co-authored by Miron, the annual savings on enforcement and incarceration costs from the legalization of drugs would amount to roughly $41.3 billion, with $25.7 billion being saved among the states and over $15.6 billion accrued for the federal government. Miron further estimated at least $46.7 billion in tax revenue based on rates comparable to those on tobacco and alcohol: $8.7 billion from marijuana, $32.6 billion from cocaine and heroin, and $5.4 billion from other drugs.[375]

Regarding economic arguments for legalization that make a comparison with alcohol, a 2013 study noted that the $14.6 billion in annual alcohol tax collected at the US federal and state levels represented less than 10% of the estimated $185 billion of alcohol-related health care, criminal justice and lost productivity costs.[376]

See also


  1. ^ As a party to the United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, the US is required to "criminalize possession for personal consumption"; only use for medical and scientific purposes is permitted[1] (the treaty wording also provides significant latitude in interpreting personal use criminalization by individual countries).
  2. ^ Despite media reports at the time touting hemp as the new wonder fiber, harvesting and processing technology weren't sufficiently developed to compete commercially.[85][86]
  3. ^ News media, scholarly studies, government officials and leaders, and a variety of NGOs have determined the war on drugs to be a policy failure[327][328][329][330][331][332]


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  2. ^ Mann, Brian (June 17, 2021). "After 50 Years Of The War On Drugs, 'What Good Is It Doing For Us?'". NPR.
  3. ^ Lopez, German (January 30, 2017). "How the war on drugs has made drug traffickers more ruthless and efficient". Vox. Retrieved February 17, 2024.
  4. ^ Scherlen, Renee (January 4, 2012). "The Never-Ending Drug War: Obstacles to Drug War Policy Termination". PS: Political Science & Politics. 45: 67–73. doi:10.1017/S1049096511001739. S2CID 153399320 – via Cambridge Core.
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  376. ^ Paterson, Pat; Robinson, Katy (July 2014). "Measuring Success in the War on Drugs" (PDF). William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies. p. 19. Retrieved May 17, 2024.

Further reading

  • Hari, Johann (2015). Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. London; New York: Bloomsbury. ISBN 978-1620408902.
  • Blanchard, Michael; Chin, Gabriel J. (1998). "Identifying the Enemy in the War on Drugs: A Critique of the Developing Rule Permitting Visual Identification of Indescript White Powders in Narcotics Prosecutions". American University Law Review (47): 557. SSRN 1128945.
  • Daniel Burton-Rose, The Celling of America: An Inside Look at the U.S. Prison Industry. Common Courage Press, 1998.
  • Stephanie R. Bush-Baskette, "The War on Drugs as a War on Black Women," in Meda Chesney-Lind and Lisa Pasko (eds.), Girls, Women, and Crime: Selected Readings. Sage, 2004.
  • Chin, Gabriel (2002). "Race, the War on Drugs and the Collateral Consequences of Criminal Conviction". Gender, Race & Justice (6): 253. SSRN 390109.
  • Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press. New York: Verso, 1998.
  • Mitchell Earlywine, Understanding Marijuana: A New Look at the Scientific Evidence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Kathleen J. Frydl, The Drug Wars in America, 1940–1973. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
  • Nunn, Kenneth B. (2002). "Race, Crime and the Pool of Surplus Criminality: Or Why the War on Drugs Was a War on Blacks". Gender, Race & Justice. 6 (6): 381.
  • Tony Payan, "A War that Can't Be Won." Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2013.
  • Preston Peet, Under the Influence: The Disinformation Guide to Drugs. The Disinformation Company, 2004.
  • Thomas C. Rowe, Federal Narcotics Laws and the War on Drugs: Money Down a Rat Hole. Binghamton, NY: Haworn Press, 2006.
  • Eric Schneider, "The Drug War Revisited," Berfrois, November 2, 2011.
  • Peter Dale Scott and Jonathan Marshall, Cocaine Politics: Drugs, Armies, and the CIA in Central America. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1911.
  • Dominic Streatfeild, Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography. Macmillan, 2003.
  • Douglas Valentine, The Strength of the Wolf: The Secret History of America's War on Drugs. New York: Verso, 2004.

Government and NGO reports

External links