War on Drugs Essay

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The War on Drugs refers to an international, United States-led campaign  to prohibit specific psychoactive substances. Although the terminology and scope of the current War on Drugs are relatively new, prohibition of psychoactive substances can be traced to antiquity. The current iteration of the War on Drugs began during the late 20th century and is characterized by a moralistic and combative approach to drug use and users. The 21st century has seen increased criticism of the War on Drugs, driven in part by the long-term failure to stem distribution, consumption, and possession of regulated substances. Moreover, evidence-based analyses of War on Drugs’ policies consistently identify substantial negative political, health, and environmental consequences. In light of these criticisms, new directions are being implemented in the United States and internationally to combat the harms associated with the use and the prohibition of psychoactive drugs.

History of Drug Laws

Societal attempts to regulate the availability of psychoactive substances can be traced to antiquity, with Plato recommending alcohol prohibition for minors as early as the 5th century B.C.E. A historical review of drug prohibition reveals dramatic variation across  historical  contexts; drugs  that  currently  enjoy widespread acceptance may have histories of staunch prohibition, whereas others with a history of broad acceptance are now subject to stringent regulation. For example, prior to the 17th century coffee consumption was strictly prohibited in many European nations, and tobacco use was punishable by death in Russia, Germany,  and Turkey shortly after its introduction as a novel substance from the Americas. In contrast, in the early 20th century cannabis, heroin, and cocaine were widely used for medicinal purposes and promoted for their salutary effects. These divergent and apparently contradictory policies highlight the ongoing tendency to privilege custom and bias at the expense of evidence-based  assessment  of risks and benefits in determining the sociolegal status of a given psychoactive substance.

The 20th century marked a turning point in drug policy that mirrored the growing global influence of the United States. The internationalization  of drug policy can be traced  to the opium wars of the 19th century, in which Britain enforced its access to Chinese markets. However, the beginning of the current War on Drugs is better traced to the Shanghai Opium Commission and Hague Opium Conventions of the early 1900s, which restricted the use of opiates and cocaine to medical purposes. In the United States, enactment of the Harrison Narcotic Act followed in 1914, requiring opium and cocaine producers to register and pay taxes on each transaction, limiting the use of these drugs for nonmedical purposes, and prescribing harsh penalties for drug offenses. This was followed by the national prohibition of alcohol from 1920 to 1933, during which time several U.S. states also enacted a brief prohibition of tobacco. The production of cannabis was encouraged in the 1920s and early 1930s, but the plant fell into disfavor a few decades later and was strongly restricted by the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which mandated lengthy jail sentences for those in possession of cannabis.

Increased criminalization of cannabis was accompanied by aggressive propaganda typified by the film Reefer Madness (1936) and sensationalized journalism that tied cannabis use to growing ethnic tension. Subsequent rounds of legislation  delivered ever-more  severe penalties for violations of drug laws, and the 1956 Narcotics Control Act mandated possible life sentences and capital punishment for drug offenses. These policy changes served as the foundation of what was to become the War on Drugs.

Contemporary War on Drugs

The phrase War on Drugs entered popular vernacular when it was first used by President Richard Nixon in 1971. In 1970, Congress passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act and the Controlled Substances Act, which assigned substances to five categories on the basis of medical value, harmfulness, and potential for abuse. For example,  Schedule I substances  are those that have a high potential for abuse, no accepted medical use, and no accepted safety for consumption under medical supervision.

As such, no prescriptions may be made for Schedule I drugs, and offenders can face life sentences for trafficking. Notable Schedule I drugs include heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), cannabis, MDMA (i.e., ecstasy), and naturally occurring psychedelics, such as mescaline, peyote, and psilocybin. In contrast, substances in Schedule V have low potential for abuse and a number of accepted medical uses. Substances in this schedule include cough medicines with small amounts of codeine and medical preparations with minute amounts of opium. In 1973, the Drug Enforcement  Administration was established  and  has since been the primary  agency responsible  for drug control  enforcement  in the United States. These legislative initiatives provide the current basis for drug policy in the United States.

The institutionalization of the drug war was accompanied by a profound polarization of public opinion regarding the use of psychoactive substances, characterized by the literal demonization of drug users and counterbalanced by growing countercultural resistance to the perceived prejudice and ineffectiveness of prohibitionist policies. The expansion of the drug war continued under the Ronald Reagan administration of 1981 through 1989, with increasing federal expenditure on drug control, aggressive national drug legislation, and national drug prevention programs. During this period the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986  dramatically increased  the  federal  drug control budget and imposed heavier penalties on illicit drug use, including mandatory minimum sentences and civil penalties for use or possession. The act also resulted in the creation of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the director of which is commonly known as a “drug czar.”

Drug policies and law enforcement directives during the Reagan administration were characterized by a “zero-tolerance” approach, in which even mild infractions  were severely punished. Zero-tolerance applications of drug laws resulted in the arrest and prosecution of drug users who were in possession of even small amounts of controlled substances intended for personal use, and is implicated as a leading cause of the massive increase in incarceration commonly  referred to as the “prison crisis.” Two broadly disseminated national prevention programs were implemented during  the  Reagan  administration: the  Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program and the Just Say No campaign spearheaded by First Lady Nancy Reagan, both of which have since been widely discredited as being costly and ineffective.

Global Drug Control

The War on Drugs approach to regulating psychoactive substances has been adopted, to varying degrees, by virtually all industrialized Western nations, and has been internationalized by several prominent United Nations (UN) treaties. The beginning of the globalization of the War on Drugs can be traced to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and the more recent 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, which included over 150 nations among its parties. The Single Convention initiated the inclusion of penal provisions  in international drug policy, and as such is cited as providing the basis for global drug control  efforts. The Single Convention obliged signing nations  to limit the production, trade, use, and consumption of controlled substances to medical and scientific purposes, and created the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) to regulate  pharmaceutical markets  for controlled substances. The 1988 convention added measures designed to counter  international trafficking of illicit drugs, provisions on money laundering and asset seizure, and criminalization of personal possession of controlled substances.

Although the conventions are generally interpreted  as mandating that  members  enact War on Drugs-style policies at the national level, they allow considerable room for interpretation. For example, the Single Convention does not explicitly define the parameters of allowed medical and scientific purposes of specific substances, and the INCB has limited power to sanction noncompliant nations.  Nonetheless, the UN conventions have played an important role in the globalization of the War on Drugs and have become a prominent target of drug war reform.

Consequences of the War on Drugs

The stated aims of the War on Drugs are to eliminate illicit drug use, manufacturing, and trafficking, as well as reduce drug-related crime and health consequences. However, while drug-related incarceration rates are at historic highs, drug policies have been largely ineffective at reducing access or use. According to UN estimates, illicit opiate, cannabis,  and cocaine consumption has increased substantially during the course of the drug war, with increased supply and lower prices. These trends have led many experts from across the political and scientific spectrum to declare the War on Drugs an unmitigated failure.

Whereas the drug war has not accomplished its stated aims, it has resulted in a number of economic, political, health, and environmental consequences. The mass incarceration of drug offenders has put enormous economic strain on state and federal resources. Corrections-related spending in the United States increased tenfold between 1980 and 2006, and it has been estimated that global spending on drug law enforcement exceeds

$100 billion annually. At the personal level, the unprecedented increase in incarceration has led to the prolonged imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens and has  differentially  deprived  vulnerable  minority and economically challenged communities of vast human capital. At the international level, the criminalization of drug use is directly responsible for the creation of the largest illegal commodity market in history. Illegal drug markets operate predominantly in underdeveloped regions  and are implicated in the corruption of government agencies. For example,  in Afghanistan, opiate production dominates the economy and it has led to unprecedented government corruption and the funding of terrorist groups, such as the Taliban.

Drug markets are also lucrative business opportunities for criminal organizations, and they are often accompanied by extensive violence. The involvement of violent Mexican drug cartels in the drug trade has resulted in an estimated 50,000 deaths since 2006, and as of 2013 shows little sign of abating. With regard to public health, the best evidence suggests that prohibitionist polices have aggravated existing public health risks and have contributed to the HIV pandemic.  Specifically, zero-tolerance policies often  complicate  access to sterile syringes, and the incarceration of users has increased the spread of HIV in prison populations. Moreover, fear of incarceration has inhibited the effective treatment of countless individuals who struggle with addiction. Finally, attempts to eliminate drug production through aerial fumigation have been implicated in the destruction of vulnerable flora and fauna and the contamination of groundwater, whereas illegal manufacturing results in the uncontrolled release of dangerous compounds into the environment.

Alternatives to the War on Drugs: Harm Reduction

The damaging consequences and mounting costs of the drug war have led to increasing interest in alternative approaches to the regulation of psychoactive substances, among which harm reduction approaches are perhaps the most prominent. A harm reduction approach to drug policy focuses on laws, practices, and programs that reduce the damage caused by illicit drugs and antidrug measures. Whereas prohibitionist drug war policies typically identify prevalence of illicit drug use as a chief outcome of interest, harm reduction focuses on reducing damages associated with the misuse of psychoactive drugs. For example, supervised injection sites reduce overdose and transmission of blood-borne diseases, and outreach programs provide  assistance  to individuals  who wish to reduce or discontinue problematic substance use.

Since 2001 the government of Portugal has adopted a novel approach to drug regulations that has emphasized harm reduction. In response to high levels of drug use and drug related-problems, the Portuguese government implemented decriminalization for use, acquisition, and possession of drugs and has redirected resources to provide support for individuals who suffer from problematic substance use. Fears that decriminalization would lead to a wider acceptability of illicit substances and increased rates of substance use were not realized; despite a slight rise in illicit drug use among adults, rates of use have dropped among problematic drug users and adolescents. In addition, drug treatment rates have risen, and the burden of drug offenders on the criminal justice system has lessened. Moreover, there have been decreases in opiate-related deaths and the spread of infectious disease related to injection drug use. In general, the Portuguese experiment has been hailed as evidence for the important role of harm reduction in addressing substance use.

Future Directions and Drug Policy Reform

The first decades of the 21st century have marked a shift away from what many perceive to be the unproductive excesses of the War on Drugs. Internationally, critics of prohibitionist global drug policies  have  become  increasingly  vocal.  The 2009 Report of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy declared the global War on Drugs a failure, noting that prohibitionist policies have failed to stem the consumption of illicit drugs in Latin America. The commission called for a shift in policy toward maximizing public health, repressing organized crime, and reducing illicit drug use through education and prevention. In a similar vein, the 2011 Global Commission on Drug Policy Report calls for the end of the criminalization and marginalization of drug users who pose no risk to others, and suggests that governments consider decriminalization as a viable policy option. In 2012, the UN General Assembly responded to these developments by accepting a proposal to hold an emergency drug policy summit to debate alternative approaches to the War on Drugs. The proposal, introduced by Mexico, Colombia, and Guatemala and backed by 95 nations, has the potential to garner international support for substantial drug law reform and legalization.

The movement  to reform the drug war has largely been led by forces outside of the United States. However, the United States has also witnessed recent changes to the zero-tolerance strategies of the past. The Barack Obama administration has professed to endorse alternatives to the unsuccessful strategies of the prior half century and has made modest shifts in resources from law enforcement to prevention and treatment. Concurrently, several U.S. states have rejected harsh  penalties  for drug offenders,  and some have begun to implement policy reforms that acknowledge a role for harm reduction. Several U.S. states have legalized the sale of cannabis for medical purposes, and landmark ballot  initiatives in Washington and Colorado resulted in the legalization of cannabis for nonmedical use in 2012. However, cannabis remains illegal under federal  law,  and  federal  authorities officially reject legalization as a legitimate drug policy. As of this writing, the reconciliation of U.S. federal and state laws regarding cannabis use remains an open and contentious issue.

In sum, the War on Drugs has been waged for more than half a century with little progress toward reduction of drug use or attenuation of supply. This apparent failure has been coupled with strong negative consequences for personal liberty, public health, and economic and political stability. The increasing recognition of this failure of the War on Drugs has resulted in widespread reappraisal of strategies  for regulating  psychoactive substances. The global landscape of drug policy appears to be shifting toward harm reduction strategies: Drug use is becoming increasingly decriminalized worldwide and medical cannabis holds legal status in an ever-increasing number of nations. It appears likely that the coming decades will witness a paradigm shift in global drug policies away from the War on Drugs model.


  1. Bewley-Taylor, David R. “Challenging the UN Drug Control Conventions: Problems and Possibilities.” International Journal of Drug Policy, v.14 (2003).
  2. Global Commission on Drug Policy. “War on Drugs: Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, June 2011.” http://www.globalcommissionondrugs.org/Report (Accessed January 2013).
  3. Hughes, Caitlin. E. and Alex Stevens. “What Can we Learn From the Portuguese Decimalization of Illicit Drugs?” British Journal of Criminology, v.50 (2010).
  4. Reuter, Peter. “Ten Years After the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS): Assessing Drug Problems, Policies, and Reform Proposals.” Addiction, v.104 (2009).
  5. Szaz, Thomas. Ceremonial Chemistry. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1974.

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