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Failure with Benefits: The War on Drugs Rolls on

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

In June 1970, under the influence of a flawless midwestern day and the imminent launch of life after college, my friend Mary and I agreed that marijuana would be legal very soon.

By 1985, I wondered how America had gone from Jimmy Carter’s support for decriminalizing cannabis to Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign.

In 2023, the war on drugs soldiers on. From the start, historians and others have tracked its evolution and probed its motivations and effects.

Two recent books enrich our understanding of Americans’ intense love-hate relationships with dozens of chemicals. They show how the war on drugs has been global for 200 years; how local and state policing has shaped the war in America; and how the effort has been tied to larger geopolitical goals.

But before we look at these books more closely, let’s see where we are today.


In fiscal 2022, the U.S. federal drug control budget was $39 billion, with 18 agencies involved. State and local outlays pushed spending much higher.

How’s the war going? Since 1971 we’ve spent an estimated one trillion dollars and have arrested roughly 30 million people. Since 1999 we’ve lost about a million Americans to overdoses, with more than 100,000 such deaths in 2021 … a grim new record. In 2019, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that 13 percent of Americans aged 12 or older had used an illicit drug in the past month. This was close to the peak in 1979.

Are we getting anywhere? A 2018 study by the Pew Charitable Trust yielded no meaningful links between how many drug offenders a state incarcerates and self-reported drug use or overdose deaths.

With these outcomes, how to account for the war’s longevity? In 2010, scholar and activist Michelle Alexander laid bare a key part of the answer: its role in systemic racism. She wrote that “…mass incarceration had emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.” Where earlier drug-control efforts were adjuncts to America’s prevailing caste system, today the war on drugs “is the system of control.” Even though black and white Americans use illegal drugs at similar rates, blacks are six times more likely to be imprisoned for drugs.


Two recent works present diverse scholarship and share some emphases. From P.E. Caquet, an Associate at Hughes Hall, University of Cambridge, Opium’s Orphans: The 200-Year History of the War on Drugs describes how opium and its derivatives, harnessed to different nations’ ambitions and domestic realities, have been at the war’s heart.

David Farber is the Roy A. Roberts Distinguished Professor at the University of Kansas and editor of The War on Drugs: A History. Its 11 essays span substances, geographies, and time periods in examining the war’s political utility, the role of local policing, and the impact on global relationships.

“Fundamentally,” Farber writes, “we want readers to understand how profoundly the war on drugs has figured in the history of the United States.” He notes that who uses which drugs, in what circumstances, can reveal “how government officials … identify and define illegitimate drug use.” Cocaine is an example. Long-standing disparities in federal sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine and powder cocaine, now modified but not eliminated, have embodied the war’s racial and class biases.

Caquet shows how a steadily expanding roster of drugs was criminalized “throughout the world, for what reasons, and with what effects.” Since the 1820s, Caquet writes, diverse substances have been brought under a legal regime based on opium’s attributes and on treaties such as the pivotal United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961.


Caquet highlights a telling moment in the war. Compared with 1929, federal drug crimes in the U.S. had dropped to very low levels by 1950. This was when Congress raised the bar on punitive enforcement with the Boggs Act of 1951 and the Narcotic Control Act of 1956. The first law set minimum sentences for drug violations, the second increased them. Caquet notes that these laws passed when drug use was rare, dealers almost unknown, and drug behavior so marginalized that governments had room to treat users “like pariahs.”

In 2023, drug use is not rare. It’s more than fair to ask how America’s ongoing opioid emergency relates to the war on drugs. In “The Pharma Cartel,” in the Farber book, historian Kathleen Frydl unearths the epidemic’s roots.

It’s clear that Purdue Pharma spent massively to promote OxyContin, a powerfully addictive opioid that has propelled the emergency.

But “the vilification of Purdue Pharma substitutes for an analysis and understanding of the opioid crisis itself.” Frydl shows how specific policies, other companies, and persistent regulatory laxity played key roles. America’s opioid crisis is “a drug epidemic made, and made catastrophically worse, by neoliberalism.”

Caquet says that, with opiates, “the drug-control system provided false comfort.” More fundamentally, the crisis has “made a mockery” of the war on drugs. Successive U.S. administrations stayed on the sidelines as the body count from opioids sped past the death toll from illegal drugs. This domestic passivity contrasted with vigorous campaigns in Asia and Latin America to take down traffickers in heroin, cocaine, and cannabis. Still, for Caquet, “the pharmaceutical origins [of the opioid emergency] remain clear for all to see.”


So where do we go from here?

Veteran drug war observers might be allowed some discomfort in reading the 2022 National Drug Control Strategy. The report touts its “first ever” basis in harm reduction, an approach that activists for reform have championed for decades. The 2022 strategy is quite a shift for someone who carried his drug war fervor as comfortably, and took as much political capital from it, as Joe Biden. In 1989, then-Senator Biden took President George H. W. Bush to task for drug policies Biden felt were too weak.

Farber credits Biden for changing. “As president, Biden has acknowledged the harm the merciless War on Drugs has caused, especially on low-income African-Americans. On the 2020 campaign trail, he insisted that education, prevention and redemption – not incarceration – should govern American drug policy. ‘No one should be incarcerated for drug use,’ he said.”

Farber believes that America is at a transformative point in the war. Richard Nixon’s 1971 blueprint allocated more money for public health solutions than for punishment. “Before Nixon was booted out of office that had changed. The Biden administration, if barely, has begun to redirect more funds to non-punitive measures.”

Caquet agrees that change is afoot — “The termites are at the building.” Legal marijuana, war fatigue in Latin America, and the dizzying world of new synthetic drugs are among the termite forms.


In 2016, Dan Baum’s article for Harper’s included Nixon advisor John Ehrlichman recounting the war’s start. “You want to know what this [war on drugs] was really all about? [After 1968], the Nixon White House had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” Ehrlichman said.

Nixon and his advisors saw a way forward, as Ehrlichman described. “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.”

And then the capper: “Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”


Nixon might have had an instinct for a drug war’s broader potential. Over time, his successors adapted the drug-war toolbox to circumstances well beyond its initial focus on American voters.

In a 2013 Points interview with Ron Roizen, Kathleen Frydl said that the contours of the drug war have had less to do with crime and addiction than with how governments manage and deploy power.

One example, described by Michelle Alexander and others, is how the war has helped militarize policing. Long-running programs of the Department of Justice and the Pentagon have offered strong incentives, in funding and equipment, to local and state law enforcement agencies that want to fight the war.

Another drug-war enhancement has helped the pharmaceutical industry. In “Between the Free Market and the Drug War,” David Herzberg examines how the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 took different approaches to heroin, cannabis, and LSD compared with the law’s provisions on prescription drugs. For the first group, punishment was the strategy, whereas regulation sought to make sedatives and stimulants “more safely available to [their] consumers.” It’s one way that policies have “ambivalently allowed and even encouraged mass use of sedatives, stimulants, and narcotics for over a century.”

A third instance of useful adaptability has been the drug war’s capacity to deliver access to local actors in pursuit of geopolitical goals. Essays by Aileen Teague on Mexico and James Bradford on Afghanistan show how the war has shaped, and been shaped by, internal forces, often economic, in nations America engages with on many fronts.


After more than five decades, it’s ironic, for starters, that the very same market forces that many drug warriors championed have done so much to keep drugs plentiful.

I wonder how Americans’ drug behavior is involved with changes in our ideas and practices of selfhood. Growth in the authority of a person’s own perceptions and experiences seems to have affected people’s drug behavior.

In 2023, America’s war on drugs has moved from institutional stability to cultural inertia. Somewhere around 1990 it became an unremarked part of the natural sociopolitical order. Like an aging uncle, the war may be off its glory days, but it still has juice.

The prediction Mary and I made about marijuana’s future has long since missed badly. Drug war historians scour a terrain whose legacies and evolution endure.      

The associated illustration is by Bryce C. Hendry.


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