The War on Drugs: History, Statistics & Facts

Instructor: Matthew Loux

Currently working on DM in Management from CTU. College instructor at several universities.

The War on Drugs has been a political hotspot since the early 1970s when President Nixon highlighted an increase in juvenile drug and street crimes. Let's examine the history and statistics of the War on Drugs.

Drugs in the United States

The use of drugs in the United States can be traced back to the early Jamestown settlers around 1600 when marijuana was a major source of revenue for the United States. Marijuana was used for medicinal purposes and could be purchased over the counter until 1937 when it was banned.

In the 1800s, cocaine became widely popular and was used by Coca-Cola in making soft drinks until 1903. The Surgeon General of the United States Army even endorsed the use of cocaine. The military also used amphetamines in WWII to reduce fatigue, increase endurance, and fight depression. Opiates were introduced to the United States in the 19th century by China as a tonic and opiate morphine was used in the Civil War as a pain reliever to treat wounded soldiers.

It was the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 that started to change drug use in America. The Pure Food and Drug Act required doctors to label prescription medicines accurately and the Harrison Narcotics Act restricted the sale and manufacture of marijuana, cocaine, morphine, and heroin.

War on Drugs

It was not until 1971 when President Nixon declared a 'war on drugs' that presidential leaders started to really take notable measures to fight drug violations. Nixon implemented substantially higher numbers of drug enforcement agents and investigators, as well as mandatory sentences for drug convictions. While President Carter supported decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana for personal use, the tide turned again when President Reagan took office in 1981 and his wife, Nancy, created the slogan 'Just Say No'. This crackdown on drugs led to increased prison populations in the late 1980s, which led to a 64 percent affirmative response to a poll identifying drug abuse as the number one problem in the United States.


1970–1979: President Richard Nixon notes an increase in juvenile arrests for drug and street crime, which calls for a national drug policy. He declares a 'war on drugs'. This brought about the creation of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Also during this period, Jimmy Carter's election campaign seeks to legalize marijuana and stop arresting individuals for one ounce or less of marijuana.

1980–1989: Vice President George H.W. Bush forms a multi-agency team to combat cocaine smuggling and First Lady Nancy Reagan starts her 'Just Say No' anti-drug campaign. President Reagan designates $1.7 billion in the signing of his Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which includes mandatory minimum drug penalties. President Bush is elected in 1989 and creates the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and appointing William Bennett as his first 'drug czar'. Bennett aims to make drug abuse socially unacceptable. Forbes magazine named Pablo Escobar the 7th richest man in the world. In 1989, the United States invades Panama.

1990–1998: General Manuel Noriega surrenders to the DEA and is eventually convicted of drug trafficking, money laundering, and racketeering, receiving a 40-year sentence. The Colombian assembly bans extradition in its new constitution and Pablo Escobar turns himself in, later escaping from a luxury Colombian prison. Congress rejects the U.S. Sentencing Commission's recommendation to reduce the racial discrepancy of those sentenced for crack cocaine violations.

2000–2009: President Bill Clinton attempts to decrease the amount of cocaine produced in Colombia by giving $1.3 billion to Plan Colombia. The Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act is enacted, that centers on methamphetamine, ecstasy, and predatory drugs. The DEA, State Department, and the Department of Defense become involved in the U.S. Embassy Kabul Counternarcotics Implementation Plan to limit the production of heroin in Afghanistan.


Money Spent

The allocated budget to fight the drug war under Nixon was $100 million, and in 2010, it was more than $15 billion. The Associated Press conducted research of records, budgets, and interviews that show the following money spent on the War on Drugs that includes the following statistics:

  • $33 billion to the 'Just Say No' campaign and similar programs;
  • $49 billion to border security to limit the illegal smuggling of drugs;
  • $121 billion to detain or arrest about 37 million nonviolent drug offenders; and
  • $450 billion to arrest and prosecute drug offenders violating federal laws.

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