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The War on Drugs at 50

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Editor’s Note: This post by Social History of Alcohol and Drugs Editors Nancy Campbell, David Herzberg, and Lucas Richert kicks off Points’s commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the declaration of the War on Drugs.

In a White House press conference on June 17, 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs. His message was stark: “America’s public enemy number one, in the United States, is drug abuse.” He announced that it was “necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive” on this enemy, and his campaign would be “worldwide” in size and scope. Fifty years later, the United States and, indeed, many other countries are reckoning with the fallout.

President Richard Nixon’s June 17, 1971, press conference announcing a “a new all-out offensive” against drugs and “drug abuse.” Source: Richard Nixon Foundation YouTube channel.

At the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs (SHAD), we are all too aware of the long term ramifications of President Nixon’s pronouncement, but we also recognize that the “War on Drugs” did not strictly begin in June 1971 and was rooted in prohibitionist impulses that built up over the decades; still, one can’t deny the power of branding—and in formalizing the “War” agenda at the highest level.

We are also committed to understanding the War on Drugs in locales and populations beyond the United States. And we are committed to understanding how harm reduction was minimized at the expense of more punitive measures, leading the War on Drugs to also become a War on People who Use Drugs.

Thanks to the University of Chicago Press, we are happy to share below a free selection of six SHAD articles that help explain the War on Drugs on the home front and outside American borders. These articles, which will be freely available and open access until the end of August 2021, present, we think, a valuable and broader perspective on the War on Drugs, which we hope will be of use to you. Interested readers can see the abstracts below and click through to read the articles.

The impact of Nixon’s declaration has taken many forms: the increased authority of federal drug control agencies, increased rates of incarceration, the weaponization of drug laws to target people of color, and of course the stigmas associated with various intoxicants. The impacts, moreover, have been felt across the globe—from the Philippines to Peru, Colombia, and Mexico, and from Afghanistan to Vietnam, and beyond.

Yet, National Public Radio asked “What Good is it Doing for Us?” The New York Daily News called it a “long slog,” and suggested the war has been fought the “wrong way.” Some federal legislators in Washington, meanwhile, have introduced a bill—the Drug Policy Reform Act—to decriminalize drugs and end the War.

We hope the articles below will help readers further understand the fifty-year (and counting…) history of the War on Drugs.


Select Articles from the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs about the War on Drugs (open access until the end of August 2021):

Abstract: This article offers a systematic and comprehensive account of the activities and policies of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Mexico between 1973, the year in which the agency was founded, and 1980, the year when most of the documents related to the DEA’s presence in Mexico were declassified. The essay draws on primary sources found in various archives in Mexico and the United States, including many recently declassified cables, letters, intelligence reports, and internal memorandums produced by DEA officials.


Abstract: This essay examines the fallout from a 1979 proposal by the National Association of Financial Institutions (ANIF) to legalize marijuana production and commerce in Colombia as a strategy to reduce the violence stemming from the eradication and interdiction campaign taking place on the country’s Caribbean coast. The essay proposes a new perspective to the study of the “war on drugs” by decentering its history from domestic disputes within the United States and following instead the networks of exchange and debate running between Washington and Bogotá. I argue that ANIF’s effort in the late 1970s to articulate a less punitive solution to the illicit drug traffic prompted a conservative backlash in both countries that strengthened the forces that insisted on the need to militarize drug policy in the Americas. This new consensus worked against President Carter’s agenda toward decriminalization and harm reduction; acted to silence the voices calling for a tolerant approach; and ultimately helped pave the way for Colombia to become the principal anti-narcotics laboratory of the Americas in the 1980s and 1990s.


Abstract: The United States led the initial steps toward global prohibition in the early years of the twentieth century in part in order to support prohibition in the Philippines (1908) and the rest of the United States (1914). These steps occurred despite the variety of opinions about the legitimacy of recreational and medicinal marijuana in Europe and Asia. The US policy set precedents that would come to fruition as the war on drugs in later years, including emphasis on source control rather than treatment, efforts to internationalize the prohibition of narcotics, and reliance on intelligence services and secret police tactics to enforce the law. These policies shaped law enforcement, policing, medical practice, and public health policy in the United States and Philippines alike.


Abstract: This essay focuses on the local effects and unintended consequences of the US drug war in Mexico. Mexico’s internal divisions and political challenges go beyond its role in the regional drug traffic. US drug-control policies intersected with and exacerbated many of Mexico’s domestic problems, including what activists and scholars have begun calling la guerra sucia (Dirty War), a period from the late 1950s to the early 1980s during which Mexico’s ruling party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), violently put down dissidence. Whereas a rather clean and organized image of United States–Mexico narcotics diplomacy emerges at the upper echelons of policy making, a focus on drug enforcement actors in Mexico charged with executing drug control and carrying out the PRI’s concurrent policies of domestic repression during the 1960s and 1970s reveals a very different picture. Using materials from Mexico’s Federal Security Directorate (DFS), a PRI intelligence agency, this essay demonstrates how the PRI’s actions against leftist threats shaped the Mexican government’s response to US drug issues, especially in rural, drug-producing areas already prone to political instability. As drug enforcement collided with the PRI’s efforts at domestic repression, it empowered certain state actors at the expense of others and led to a number of violent abuses.


Abstract: The Mexican government’s “war on drugs,” carried out with full support from the United States, has gained a visible media presence in the past few years, particularly because of extremely high levels of violence. This violence, however, has been largely represented in the media as a masculinized battle between cartels and military forces. Official discourses often insist that most victims are men directly involved in narco-trafficking, oversimplifying the nature of the violence (which is often created by military forces) and missing women’s presence among the victims as well in activist circles. This essay problematizes these misconceptions by examining the recent emergence of activism among Mexican women affected by the violence of the “war on drugs.” In particular, I analyze, first, how women who lost family members to this violence became active protestors of government policies and, second, the affective and political relations they forge as part of this activism. Based on fieldwork in Mexico City and the United States, I examine the trajectories and experiences of women involved in the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity (Movimiento por la Paz con Justicia y Dignidad) and The Mothers’ Network (La red de las madres). Specifically, I analyze the way that gender roles, kinship ties, and motherhood informs the experience of many activists but also the ways in which some of them make sense of their agency in their roles as sisters, daughters or indeed through their experiences of violence not expressed through an affiliation with kin.


Abstract: This article analyzes local debates around the enactment of New York’s 1973 Rockefeller Drug Laws, which marked a watershed moment in the turn towards punitive drug policy. This history contributes to a growing body of literature that has challenged and complicated the traditional backlash narrative of “law and order.” Governor Nelson Rockefeller did not root his campaign for harsh new drug laws in the politics of white racial backlash. Instead, he championed the laws by publicizing their endorsement by several African American community leaders from Harlem. This article argues that historians must take seriously Americans’ perceived threats to security and safety in order to better understand the public’s embrace of punitive politics in the later twentieth century. More attention to the ways local community leaders debated and promoted crime policy better informs our understanding of the punitive turn and the formation of a bipartisan legislative effort responsible for the War on Drugs.



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