What Is the “War on Drugs?”

President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” in 1971. To conduct it, he initiated government policies, procedures and programs to stop illegal drug usage and distribution in the U.S. by substantially increasing funding for illegal drug investigation and enforcement.

Nixon preceded his official declaration of drug war by signing the Controlled Substances Act into law in 1970. This Act established the following five schedules and the drugs composing each:

  1. Schedule I: Heroin, LSD, Marijuana, Methaqualone
  2. Schedule II: Morphine, PCP, Cocaine
  3. Schedule III: Anabolic Steroids, Codeine, Hydrocodone, and some Barbiturates
  4. Schedule IV: Most Benzodiazepines such as Valium and Xanax
  5. Schedule V: Over-the-counter cough medications containing codeine

Nixon followed up by creating the Drug Enforcement Administration in 1973. This agency is actually a federal police force tasked with targeting illegal drug usage and smuggling within the U.S. Originally given a budget of about $75 million and 1,470 agents, today’s DEA is composed of upwards of 500,000 agents with a budget of $2.03 billion.

80s and 90s

After a brief de-escalation during the Carter administration of the late 70s, President Ronald Reagan reinforced most of Nixon’s original war on drugs policies in 1980 and subsequent years. First Lady Nancy Reagan helped by launching her “Just Say No” campaign in 1984 that sought to explain the dangers of drug usage to teenagers and why they should just say no when one of their peers attempted to get them to try drugs.

Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986 that codified mandatory minimum prison sentences for conviction of various drug crimes. The result was a massive increase in the U.S. prison population, which rose from about 50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 in 1997.

21st Century

Public opinion about drug usage, particularly marijuana, has undergone a radical change since the 1970s. Today, the laws of 33 states and the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana usage, and 15 of those states and the District of Columbia allow its recreational usage as well.

Nevertheless, the war on drugs is still being waged, although in a much less strident manner. Marijuana remains a Schedule I drug, and federal agents still have the authority to arrest and prosecute people for possession as well as for sale, distribution, cultivation and trafficking. They seldom do so, however.

Virtually all drug prosecutions today are at the state level, and convictions can still carry heavy penalties. Therefore, if you find yourself facing drug charges or DWI/DUI charges, your best strategy consists of hiring an experienced local criminal defense attorney.