America's War On Drugs

by Navya Mohindra

The War on Drugs is a campaign, led by the U.S. Federal Government, of drug prohibition, military aid and military intervention, aimed at reducing the illegal drug trade in the United States. But is that all there is to it?

The United States’s War on Drugs

The War on Drugs campaign was initiated by USA’s 37th President Richard Milhous Nixon (January 9,1913-April 22, 1994) from the Republican Party.

Drugs have been used for recreational and medical purposes since the inception of the country; hypodermic syringes were constructed in 1851 and were very significant when wounded soldiers were treated by morphine during the American Civil war.

Even Heroin was sold over the counter as cough syrup until 1912. However, in the 1960s, drugs became a symbol of youthful rebellion, social upheaval, and political dissent resulting in authorities dramatically increasing the presence of Federal Drug Control agencies.


The Smoking Opium Exclusion Act in 1904 banned the possession, importation, and use of opium for smoking, except for medical use.

Congress passed the Harrison Act in 1914, which regulated and taxed the production, importation, and distribution of opiates and cocaine.

The Marihuana Tax Act placed a tax on the sale of cannabis, hemp, or marijuana.

President Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) in 1970, calling for regulation of certain drugs. The CSA outlines five ‘schedules’ used to categorize drugs based on their medical benefits and potential addiction.

Schedule one are the most high-risk drugs such as LSD, Marijuana, Heroin, MDMA (Ecstasy), etc. while the least addictive such as cough medications are classified in schedule five categories.

In June 1971, Nixon officially declared ‘War on Drugs' aimed that drug abuse ‘Public enemy number one’. The reach of the drug war largely increased under the presidency of Ronald Reagen (1981-1989).

In 1984, his wife Nancy Reagen started the ‘Just Say No’ campaign, which raised awareness and intended to highlight the dangers and risks of drug abuse.

Is the campaign racist?

During a 1994 interview, conducted by journalist Dan Baum and published in the Harper magazine, President Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman elucidated how the campaign had an underlying motive, as the Nixon campaign had two enemies, ‘The anti-war left and black people’.

Nixon was further quoted saying,

“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.
Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”

Black defendants convicted for drug crimes had 13.1% longer prison sentences than white defendants between 2007 and 2009. In the Federal system, an average Black convict with charges of a drug offense will nearly serve the same amount of time (58.7 months) as a white convict charged with violent crime (61.7 months).

Black Americans are 4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana charges than their white peers, In fact, Black Americans make up nearly 30% of all drug-related arrests, despite accounting for only 12.5% of all substance users.

Approximately 80% of people serving time for federal drug offenses are either Black or Latino.

Economics of the Campaign

Since 1971, the war on drugs has cost the United States an estimated $1 Trillion. In 2015, the federal government spent approximately $9.2 million every day to imprison drug offenders, that’s more than $3.3 billion annually.

In contrast, marijuana legalization would save roughly $7.7 billion per year in averted enforcement costs and would produce an additional $6 billion in tax revenue.

The net total-13.7 billion-could send more than 650,000 students to public universities every year. Despite so much money being pumped into the War on Drugs Campaign, it has shown almost no sign of achieving its goal.

While in Mexico

With its location, Mexico has been the perfect transshipment point for narcotics and contraband between Latin America and the United States.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, Colombia’s Pablo Escobar was one of the most dominant drug lords and the main exporter of cocaine.

He also had connections with various organized criminal networks all over the world making him very powerful. When enforcement efforts intensified in South Florida and the Caribbean, the Colombian organizations formed partnerships with Mexico-based traffickers to transport cocaine through Mexico to the US.

This was easily accomplished as Mexico has long been a major source of Hemp and Cannabis before you know it the Mexican organizations are well established and reliable transporters of Colombian Cocaine. Soon Mexico became involved with distribution as well.

Major Cartels

  • Beltran Leyva

  • Gulf Cartel

  • Jalisco New Generation

  • Juarez Cartel

  • La Familia Michoacana

  • Los Zetas Cartel

  • Tijuana/Arellano Felix Cartel

  • Sinaloa Cartel

Sinaloa Cartel

Sinaloa Cartel, also known as the Guzman-Loera Organisation, the Pacific Cartel, the Federation, and the Blood Alliance, is considered the most powerful drug trafficking organization in the world.

Back then, the Colombian cartels were declining, partly due to the death of various drug lords, especially Pablo Escobar (died 1993).

As Mexico gained preference as a drug route, the strength of its criminal organizations grew, especially the Sinaloa Cartel which benefited from Guzman’s innovative smuggling methods.

In July 2019, American officials celebrated the conviction of Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman following one of the most high profile trials in recent US history.

With Guzman’s fall, other groups fought for dominance, but Sinaloa Cartel remained hugely powerful.

While most people believed El Chapo was running the show, his capture hasn’t weakened the Sinaloa Cartel, which continues to send millions of dollars worth of drugs to the United States.

These drug wars have led to a lot of violence which has even resulted in the death of innocents who didn’t deserve it.

In Mexico, people took to the streets and came out on roads holding banners to protest against these drug wars. But should drugs really be banned or was it just President Nixon’s propaganda carried out by future American officials?

Whatever your opinion, one thing we can all agree on is that even after decades, the ongoing drug extermination attempt by the United States seems to be failing.


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