October 14, 1982: War on Drugs Declared, 36 Years Later No Progress?

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A Brief History

On October 14, 1982, President Ronald Reagan declared a “War on Drugs,” meaning of course a war against illegal drugs.  His wife, First Lady Nancy Reagan coined the phrase, “Just Say No” in an effort to inspire the youth of America to resist the urge to use drugs illegally.  Neither the government law enforcement campaign nor the simplistic exhortation by the First Lady had much of an effect on illegal drug availability or use back then and no discernible effect on curbing illegal drug use since.

Digging Deeper

The 1980’s was a time when cocaine became the stylish drug of choice, with athletes, Hollywood types, and an array of celebrities snorting bajillions of dollars of the white powder.  Movies such as Scarface (1983), The Falcon and the Snowman (1985), Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987), Licence to Kill (1989, superspy James Bond fights coke dealers), Tequila Sunrise (1988) are some of the 1980’s movies about the rampant cocaine problem in the United States, while the 2007 documentary, American Drug War: The Last White Hope, bemoans the long and costly war on drugs that seems to that point to have been an abject failure.  Television glorified the law enforcement effort against cocaine in the hit show, Miami Vice.

Title screen

President Reagan was not the first President to use the term, “War on Drugs,” as President Richard Nixon actually first used the phrase back in 1971.  Obviously, his anti-drug efforts, which included swearing in Elvis Presley as a drug enforcement agent, did not have much effect on illegal drug sales and use in the US, either.

Since the 1980’s we have seen the rise of “Crack,” a new form of ingesting cocaine, a resurgence of Heroin with greater availability and lower prices, the scourge of “Crystal Meth” manufactured in suburban drug labs throughout the country, and an out of control prescription tsunami for opioid type of pain killers such as Oxycontin and Vicodin.  Oh, and people still manufacture cheap and easy to make LSD at home as well.   The opioid problem is especially troubling today because of the large number of fatal overdoses each year, 42,000 in 2016 of which at least 40% were from prescription opioids.  (Opioids include Heroin and synthetic pain killers.)  Unscrupulous doctors and medical clinics overprescribe opioid pain killers to people that abuse the drugs or sell them for a profit.  Prosecutions of doctors and clinics has done little to stem the flow of such drugs.  Heroin is not only cheap and available, the lower cost allows for a higher level of purity when sold on the street, leading to more overdoses, often fatal.  Adulteration of Heroin with other drugs such as the anesthetic Fentanyl has also increased the lethality of the drugs.

A fentanyl transdermal patch with a release rate of 12 micrograms / hour, on a person’s arm.

To put the opioid crisis in perspective, a relatively small number of people die in car crashes (37,416 in the US in 2016) and “only” 15,549 American were killed by firearms in 2017 (excluding suicides but including self-  defense and legitimate police shootings).  Seriously, well over double and almost triple the number of Americans killed by opioids than guns?  (Why are gun control activists not more focused on opioids???)  Attempts during the 1980’s to reduce the impact of drugs on society in the US have failed, and yet incarceration rates have soared, especially for minority males.  Critics of the War on Drugs say the effort unfairly affects minority populations while proponents of stiff prison sentences for drug offenses are just fine with the ever growing amount of people in prison and the throngs of ex-cons that are released each year to find little available work for convicted felons.  (Note: We do not have the answer to the debate over stiff drug sentences and laws and are not taking sides.  We see the valid points on both sides of the argument and honestly cannot ourselves come up with the magic balance point between enforcing laws and incarceration or lax enforcement and leniency.  Both sides have serious negative ramifications.)

What if the US took the Libertarian route and allowed people to take whatever drugs they want to?  No laws (except maybe to protect minors) and no jail time.  Would natural selection get rid of the weak members of society or would the human carnage get so bad as to be unacceptable?  Would drug lords be out of business and crack-heads would not have break into your house or business?  Or would rampant drug abuse result in an increase in unproductive citizens that would drain government funds taking care of them?  Would productivity and the vitality of society go downhill if drugs were legalized?  Or would everyone chill and do their own thing?

Newspaper article from The Daily Picayune, New Orleans, Louisiana in 1912 reporting on a drug arrest, a month after the International Opium Convention was signed and ratified at The Hague.

Then there is marijuana.  Pot, weed, maryjane, grass, cannabis, you call it what you want.  What if the trend toward legalizing marijuana that is sweeping some states finally reaches a national level and pot is legal everywhere in the US?  Would it be ok for police officers, judges, doctors, jury members, truck drivers and teachers to be stoned on the job?  How would driving be on the streets and highways if pot was legal?  Would things be better or worse?  Years ago marijuana laws were relaxed across the many states to make possession of minor amounts a misdemeanor, and in some states a minor misdemeanor with no police record attached to the citation.  Has that relaxation of pot laws helped or hurt?  How would cops know if someone smoking weed was actually smoking adulterated weed that contained more potent drugs?  An estimated $7 billion per year is spent on enforcing marijuana laws and prosecuting cases.  Is this amount of money well spent?  Our previous 3 presidents (Clinton, Bush II and Obama) were marijuana users and we elected them into the Presidency!  Does this mean other people should also get a pass on drug use?

How does freedom of religion play into this debate?  Should we allow people to use mind bending substances in accordance with their religious beliefs?  For that matter, if the answer is yes, then why would a citizen have to justify his drug use with religion, is that not a form of discrimination?  (These questions are not so easy to answer.)  Some people argue that anti-drug laws are un-Constitutional including due process violations, while others claim only the states and not the Federal Government can control drug trafficking.  Other Drug War critics complain about the impact of drug laws on segments (minorities) of the population and further claim that enforcement is uneven between races and social economic classes, as is sentencing.

The 2015 US prison population by race, ethnicity, and gender. Does not include jails.

As stated above, we do not have the answers, as the entire subject of recreational drug use is a tangled web indeed.  While voices from both sides of the drug debate are loud, it does not appear that any major change in US Government drug policy is coming any time soon.  Drug use to the point of abuse, where drug use intrudes on a person’s health and ability to successfully run his or her life, occupation, etc., is either a weakness and a choice, or an illness that needs to be treated as other illnesses are treated without stigma attached to the “victim.”  Could drug abuse be defined in a less polarizing way than the either/or we just presented?  Should drug abuse be defined differently?  If so, how?

Questions for Students (and others): Should marijuana possession, cultivation and use be legalized?  (Why or why not?)  Should other drugs be legalized?  Do you know anyone that died from drug overdose or actions taken under the influence of drugs?  Do you believe drug laws are discriminatory and unevenly enforced?  Should prison sentences be made lighter, longer, or stay the same?  Is our War on Drugs worthwhile or should it be scaled up or down?  Are there any drugs you would outlaw no matter what?  What do you think would happen if drugs were legalized?

Opium den in San Francisco boarding house, late 19th century

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Atwood, Shaun. War On Drugs Box Set. Gadfly Press, 2017.

War On Drugs Box Set (Kindle Edition)


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Mallea, Paula. The War on Drugs: A Failed Experiment. Dundurn, 2014.

The War on Drugs: A Failed Experiment (Kindle Edition)


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Kindle Edition: Check Amazon for Pricing Digital Only
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The featured image in this article, a photograph of Operation Mallorca, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, 2005, from http://www.usdoj.gov/dea/pubs/pressrel/pr061405.html, is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.