1982 – Reagan’s War on Drugs

To illustrate a summarized history of the role the Executive Branch has had in US drug enforcement, here is a bit of legislation passed under certain Presidents…

Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 – President Woodrow Wilson

Federal Bureau of Narcotics created in 1930 – Supported by Harry J. Anslinger and created under the presidency of Herbert Hoover.

Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 – President Richard Nixon.  In 1971, Nixon first used the term ‘War on Drugs’

War on Drugs “Just Say No” 1982 – President Ronald Reagan

On January 20th, 1981, President Ronald Reagan inherited an office exhausted with problems.  The issues brought about in the post-War era seemingly became more defined and pressing as Reagan’s policy agenda outlined issues including: economy, energy, national security, the US position as one of leadership in world affairs, and most important to this blog, crime and drug abuse.  On October 14th, 1982, utilizing the powerful rhetoric of the Capitalism vs. Communism struggle of the time, Pres. Reagan declared illicit drugs to be a “threat to U.S. national security” (Glass).  President Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan’s fight towards ending drug abuse centered around the negative aspects of drug culture.  Pres. Reagan likened his administration’s attack on substance abuse to a French soldier’s speech at Verdun, “there are no impossible situations. There are only people who think they’re impossible” (Politico).  First lady Nancy Reagan worked to proliferate the phrase, “Just Say No” to encourage young members of the US population to denounce drug use. This type of rhetoric highlights a theme of US drug enforcement that places the government in a regulatory, or almost parent-like role upon its citizens.  Although the Reagan’s valiant prevalence of propaganda against drug use was warranted and certainly countered the popularity brought about by the wave of counterculture in this time period, Kenneth B. Nunn argues how the rhetoric, especially the term ‘war’, was eventually detrimental and has allowed government institutions to target minorities in their enforcement of anti-drug policies.

“The War on Drugs that has been a centerpiece of American foreign and domestic policy over the past two decades should not be viewed as a war against a particular collection of inanimate objects. The War on Drugs in this sense is but a convenient, yet inaccurate, metaphor. Instead the War on Drugs should be understood as a special case of what war has always been-the employment of force and violence against certain communities, and/or their institutions, in order to attain certain political objectives. Race has played an important role over the years in identifying the communities that became the targets of the drug war, consequently exposing their cultural practices and institutions to military-style attack and police control” (Nunn).

In 1988, Reagan created the Office of National Drug Control Policy to coordinate drug-related legislative, security, diplomatic, research and health policy throughout the government.  In 2009, R. Gil Kerlikowske, the current director of that office, signaled that the Obama administration would not use the term “war on drugs,” saying it was “counterproductive.”


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