Modern Drug Policy

Drug Policy: The History

For a more in-depth look on what drug policy will look like moving forward check out this post on how the opioid conversation impacted the 2020 election campaign. It’s pretty clear that America has a drug problem.  The United States of America, the land of the free, houses less than 5% of the world’s population, and yet we have nearly 25% of the incarcerated population. This is due in large part to the overly harsh penalties of drug convictions. Over 1.6 million people are arrested, prosecuted, incarcerated, placed under criminal justice supervision and/or deported each year on a drug law violation.  This hasn’t always been the case. Take a look at this chart courtesy of Vox:

The number of Americans locked up has increased tenfold over the past 30 years.  The sharp rise is no coincidence and directly relates to our drug policy. We spend over $100 billion every year to illegally purchase controlled substances. Furthermore, around 19 million Americans use illegal drugs each month (

1970s: The Modern Day Drug War and the Controlled Substances Act

Modern drug policy really came out of the 1970s with President Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs.  According to Nixon, “America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive (” During this period a greater emphasis was placed on law enforcement to police substance abuse.  Nixon pressured for the passage of a comprehensive federal drug law. This led to the Controlled Substances Act which placed the control of certain plants, drugs, and chemical substances under the control of the feds.

Our prison population has grown by approximately 900% since the Act became law. Congress passed the legislation, in part, to replace previous federal drug laws with a single statute. This created the legal framework that the Drug Enforcement Administration uses as the basis for their authority.  Speaking of the DEA, in July 1973, President Nixon signed off on the creation of the agency to carry out the Controlled Substances Act. Why the shift? According to top Nixon aide John Ehrlichman:

You want to know what this was really all about. The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. 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.

The 1980s: Reefer Madness and Unprecedented Incarceration Rates

Modern drug policy might have started under Nixon, however it turned into a witch hunt during Ronald Reagan’s Presidency.  On October 14, 1982, President Reagan declared a “war on drugs,” leading way to a series of legislation focused on “getting tough” on drugs.  The program became known as “zero tolerance”, with punitive measures against users being prioritized. In 1986 Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. The bill appropriated $1.7 billion to fight the drug war and created mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses. From 1980 to 1986 the number of American’s convicted of federal drug offenses more than doubled from 5,244 to 12,285. The number of people behind bars for nonviolent drug law offenses increased from 50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 by 1997.

The 1990s and the Turn of the Century

Bill Clinton campaigned for treatment rather than incarceration during his 1992 presidency. Despite this after a few months in the White House he returned to the drug war strategies of his predecessors by continuing to expand on the drug war. One of Clinton’s most noteworthy acts to further the war on drugs was to reject a U.S. Sentencing Commission recommendation to change the enormous discrepancy between prison sentences for crack and powder cocaine.  

With the drug war losing momentum when George W. Bush entered the White House, the new president managed to allocate more money than ever to the initiative.  Drug policy during the Bush era consisted of the militarization by law enforcement to combat domestic drug offenses. By the end of his presidency there were about 40,000 paramilitary-style SWAT raids on Americans every year. Mostly for nonviolent drug law offenses that were frequently misdemeanors.

Drug Policy Today

Slowly, the United States has changed to a more comprehensive drug policy over the last decade. This policy centers on prevention, treatment, and enforcement. President Obama coordinated “an unprecedented government-wide public health and public safety approach to reduce drug use and its consequences”. With that being said, federal spending mostly goes to law enforcement.

The most recent figures on the drug budget released by the Office of National Drug Control Policy show approximately sixty percent of all federal drug control spending earmarked to supply reduction, with about thirty seven percent of the total drug control budget going to domestic law enforcement.  Dozens of states, including Michigan, have passed laws increasing access to the overdose antidote naloxone, as well as passing “Good Samaritan” Laws to support people looking for help due to overdose. We’ve seen a shift in public opinion in favor of sensible reforms that grow the health-based efforts while decreasing the role of criminalization in drug policy.

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