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The War on Drugs: What It Is & Why It Started

A Guide to the War on Drugs

The War on Drugs is a well-known campaign initiated by the United States government. It aimed to fight illegal drug use by drastically increasing the penalties, enforcement, and imprisonment for illicit activities revolving around drug distribution and consumption.

Though the basic idea behind the War on Drugs is easy to understand and agree with, the implementation of the process is a highly controversial subject because of the effects it had on the U.S. prison system, as well as minority groups.

To help you better understand the history of the War on Drugs, including the difference between the Reagan or Nixon War on Drugs, as well as its overall impact on society, let's answer some of the most important questions below.

What is the War on Drugs?

The War on Drugs refers to drug enforcement measures that were put in place by President Richard Nixon in the 70s. These were taken to combat and "destroy the drug menace in America" before it destroyed the country.

Nixon significantly increased federal funding for drug control agencies and also added a range of strict penalties for the possession and distribution of drugs. Some of those measures included mandatory prison sentences for drug offenses, as well as an overall broader scope of laws regulating drug sales and use.

At the same time, President Nixon also founded the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA): a special police force that focused exclusively on drug use and drug smuggling in the United States.

The drug war escalated over the next couple of decades, with the Ronald Reagan War on Drugs campaign clamping down on drug smuggling from Central and South America, both outside of the country and within the United States.

When Did the War on Drugs Start

Now that we've figured out what the drug war is, let's look at who started the War on Drugs, and when.

The official start of the War on Drugs can be traced back to June of 1971, when Richard Nixon made a now-famous speech declaring drugs as the primary issue plaguing the country and announced a set of strict measures to combat it.

Over the next few years, Nixon enacted a few key legislatures, as well as started the aforementioned Drug Enforcement Agency, in an effort to curb drug use and distribution across the country.

However, while the ambitions were high from the start, the biggest push in the efforts to reduce drug use came in the War on Drugs under Reagan. Ronald Reagan made the War on Drugs a top priority for various government agencies and allocated far greater resources than before to make it work.

Notable Moments in the War on Drugs

Although there have been significant dates in the American history of dealing with drugs, such as the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 or Eisenhower's New War, the first reference to the War on Drugs came in 1971, in the Nixon era.

By 1973, the DEA was established. This allowed for better coordinated efforts between multiple agencies in the fight against drugs.

In 1976, former Governor Jimmy Carter based his presidential campaign on the decriminalization of marijuana and ending federal penalties for possession of less than one ounce. 

By that time, a large part of the population was becoming unsettled by the number of people that were being convicted for relatively minor drug offenses—a problem that is still a hot-button-topic to this day.

In 1984, the Reagan War on Drugs gained momentum, as the first lady Nancy Reagan launched the famous "Just Say No" campaign, encouraging young people to resist the temptation of taking drugs. 

In 1986, Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which allocated $1.7 billion towards the War on Drugs and also set minimum penalties for a range of drug offenses. It was later criticized for disproportionally imprisoning offenders from minority and lower-income groups.

How Successful Was the War on Drugs?

As mentioned before, the topic of whether America's War on Drugs was a success or not is still hotly debated today. But there is actually hard data and studies that can show how it impacted the drug situation in the country.

On one hand, some data has shown that drugs are slowly becoming cheaper as the years go by. However, many people knowledgeable on the subject believe that without some of the measures taken as part of the drug war, the situation could be even worse.

Some reports show that the median bulk price of heroin has dropped by more than 90 percent since 1981, with the cost of cocaine also reducing by more than half, but that in itself doesn't prove that all of the policies of the War on Drugs were not effective.

The War on Drugs Today

Recent years have seen a slight shift in U.S. drug policies, although the changing administrations over the last 20 years have had wildly contrasting views on the subject.

Even though the policies were already under scrutiny by the early 2000s, George W. Bush pushed more money than ever into the efforts and launched a nationwide campaign of student drug testing.

Meanwhile, President Obama implemented a few useful changes that resulted in better access to clean syringes. He loosened restrictions on state marijuana laws, and reduced the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity.

The current administration under Donald Trump is once again taking a hard-line stance in favor of War on Drugs policies, suggesting harsher punishments, as well as strict border control to reduce the flow of illegal substances into the country.

The War on Drugs Today

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