The “War on Drugs:” Societal and Legal Implications

The “War on Drugs:” Societal and Legal Implications

Historical Background

The War on Drugs

The War on Drugs

During the 1960s, drugs became symbolic of youthful rebellion, social upheaval, political dissent, and a rejection of the ‘norms’ of society. Under a psychedelic wave of citizen dissent, the government halted scientific research to evaluate the medical safety and efficacy of certain drugs. It was in June of 1971 that President Nixon, who was facing significant disapproval relating to the economic standing of the country and the crumbling of the Bretton Woods Conference system for international economics and global finance, declared a “war on drugs.” President Nixon dramatically increased the size and presence of federal drug control agencies and pushed measures, such as mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants, through congress and via executive orders.[1] Moreover, President Nixon placed marijuana on the “Schedule One” list, highlighting the most restrictive category of drugs. Despite calls for the decriminalization of marijuana possession and distribution by a bipartisan review commission, President Nixon moved in 1972 to reject the commission’s findings and maintain the illegality of marijuana.

During the tumultuous period of 1973 and 1977, some eleven states moved to decriminalize marijuana possession. During the Carter administration, starting in 1977, the Senate Judiciary Committee decriminalized marijuana of up to one ounce designated for personal use.[2] However, a mere few years following this decriminalization, proposals to continue to decriminalize the substance across the country were abandoned as nationwide angst over high teen marijuana use grew amidst a societal rejection of the policies of the 1970s. This angst reached a watershed moment with the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980.

The Reagan administration marked the beginning of a long period of exacerbating rates of incarceration in the country, largely due to the administration’s widespread expansion of the drug war. In the period between 1980 and 1997, the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses increased from some 50,000 to over 400,000 individuals.[3] This wave of incarceration was pushed through by President Reagan under the auspices of a highly publicized anti-drug campaign to “Just Say No.” The media campaign utilized pre-existing stereotypes at the heart of American society, such as portrayals of African Americans other minorities as animalistic and violent, with drugs turning “moral and just” white Americans into the same creatures. Nowhere was this more evident than in the media portrayals of people addicted to the smokeable form of cocaine dubbed “crack.”[4] In these advertisements, the drug user was almost exclusively African American or a minority, impoverished, and without conscience, empathy, or religion.

The dichotomy between “crack” and cocaine illustrates how racial stereotypes at the heart of American society played a pivotal role in the construction of the prison industrial complex and the increased incarceration rates in the country. Whereas cocaine was traditionally seen as a product for affluent, white Americans, “crack” was more brutal, cheaper, and common. “Crack,” the Reagan administrated argued, was a product of the inner cities and gang members. As such, media targeting for the ‘War on Drugs’ focused on “crack” and other minority focused narcotics, while more “civilized” cocaine was left out of the discussion. This highlights how the ‘War on Drugs’ itself was a product of pre-existing stereotypes and utilized said stereotypes to “clean up the streets” and make the country safe from minorities. This directly ties into how the prison industrial complex grew out of increased incarceration rates and the necessity to play off of stereotypes at the heart of American society in order for the tentacles of influence for the private sector to grow.

The zero tolerance policies of the Reagan administration when it came to drugs led to further augmentation of mandatory minimums and Three Strikes Laws in the country. Former Los Angeles Police Chief, Daryl Gates, who was the chief law enforcement officer in the city during the Reagan administration, summarized how the poles of political power in the United States felt about drugs best: “casual drug users should be taken out and shot.”[5] Public hysteria over drug use in the country reached extreme levels during the 1980s, leading Congress and state legislatures to pass extremely harsh, draconian penalties for drug use. These penalties greatly exacerbated the prison population in the country. And, despite the decrease in public hysteria and media interest as the 1980s ended, the draconian measures pushed forward remained and continued to increase levels of arrest and incarceration in the country.

Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential Campaign brought hope that the country might reject its mindset of punishment and, instead, move towards a treatment and rehabilitation mindset when it came to drug use in the country. This hope was short lived, however, as President Clinton’s administration soon felt the pressures from both sides of the aisle to be ‘tough on crime.’ A mere few months after ascending to office, President Clinton reverted back to previous Republican administration’s drug war strategies.[6] Perhaps the best example of this was President Clinton’s 1994 decision to reject a United States Sentencing Commission recommendation to eliminate the disparity between “crack” and powder cocaine sentences in the country. This decision highlights how the Clinton administration continued to play off of the existing racial stereotypes that its predecessors relied on to push through tough drug regulations and increased incarceration rates.

Moreover, President Clinton continued the push for Three Strikes Laws, Mandatory Minimum sentencing, and the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. President Clinton, like President Reagan before him, utilized media portrayals to cast a dark light on drug use in the country and establish the image of “Super Predators” who lived without conscience or empathy and needed to be incarcerated. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act allowed for increased funding to be directed to state and local police, as well as the reallocation of used Federal policing and military vehicles to local municipalities. This set the groundwork for the militarization of America’s police forces and is why rural municipalities are armed to the teeth in defense of the drug war. Although President Clinton set the groundwork for the militarization of police, his successor, George W. Bush, greatly expanded the influence of police forces and augmented their weapons and capabilities.

George W. Bush ascended to office just as the drug war in the United States was slowing down. Despite this, President Bush allocated more money than ever to the drug war and scoping out new methods of drug elimination programs. President Bush’s appointed drug czar, John Walters, focused more heavily on marijuana than any of the previous administrations, even dating back to President Nixon. Walters continually pushed for campaigns to promote student drug testing and reporting, having little effect on the total rates of narcotic use in the country. What’s more, the Bush administration saw the rapid escalation of the militarization of domestic drug law enforcement and policing. By the end of President Bush’s second term in office, some 40,000 paramilitary style SWAT raids were conducted on Americans each year, predominantly for nonviolent drug law offenses. During this time period, as well, most federal reform stalled for drug reform despite the success of some state-level reforms to curb the drug war.[7]

From President Nixon through President George W. Bush, the ‘War on Drugs’ and ‘War on Crime’ systematically utilized pre-existing racial stereotypes to target, arrest, and, ultimately, incarcerate millions of Americans for harmful offenses. What resulted was a massive buildup of prisons in the country to house the rapidly growing prisoner population.

Implications for Today

The so-called “war on drugs” has continued to influence societal impressions, legal strategies, and the general atmosphere regarding drug related offensives, today. Stricter penalties and greater resources are driving prosecutorial offices to crack down harder and harder on these offensives.

There are many nuances of any potential drug related case to consider before moving forward. My experience as an Assistant State Attorney has exposed me to numerous types of these cases and their commonality lies in their differences. Given the numerous defenses available to contest these charges, an attorney is a vital asset for avoiding a conviction.

If you have question about your drug related case please call my office at 407-415-9626 or email me at

[1] “A Brief History of the Drug War.” A Brief History of the Drug War | Drug Policy Alliance. N.p., 3 June 2016. Web. 03 Dec. 2016.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “A Brief History of the Drug War.” A Brief History of the Drug War | Drug Policy Alliance. N.p., 3 June 2016. Web. 03 Dec. 2016.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “A Brief History of the Drug War.” A Brief History of the Drug War | Drug Policy Alliance. N.p., 3 June 2016. Web. 03 Dec. 2016.

[6] “A Brief History of the Drug War.” A Brief History of the Drug War | Drug Policy Alliance. N.p., 3 June 2016. Web. 03 Dec. 2016.

[7] “A Brief History of the Drug War.” A Brief History of the Drug War | Drug Policy Alliance. N.p., 3 June 2016. Web. 03 Dec. 2016.