The History and Development of Drug Policy in the United States

By Danielle Payne

US Drug Policies are Unchanged Despite Failure

Drug laws in the United States have been largely unsuccessful in decreasing drug-related crimes and deaths. Despite the growing evidence that strict laws and harsh sentences are doing nothing to curb this, US Drug policies have remained stagnant.

The most recent changes in 2010, and the most drastic in 2021 with Measure 110 in Oregan, US, that decriminalized all drugs. Knowing that current laws do not solve the problem, it is difficult to understand why drastic changes did not happen sooner. We can understand this hesitancy better by investigating the history of Drug Policies in the US, and more importantly, the “War on Drugs.”

Early History of Drug Policy in the US

Richard Nixon began his presidency in 1970 and declared a “War on Drugs” in June of 1971 and combined al existing drug laws into one large statute called the Controlled Substances Act. This declaration by Nixon has recently faced a lot of scrutiny and questions regarding its legitimacy and efficacy, considering that the “War” has been ongoing for decades without success.

Nixon’s “War on Drugs” is not as benevolent as it first seems. In an interview with Nixon’s former domestic-policy adviser, John Erlichman, Erlichman stated that Nixon intended to criminalize drugs and associate them with groups of people who opposed him; this way he could justifiably break up meetings, raid homes, and vilify people. [1] Nixon and his campaign successfully associated marijuana with Black people and anti-war groups and was therefore able to more easily target these groups to strengthen his own campaigns.

This tactic of association and criminalization began in 1875 with anti-opium laws that targeted Chinese immigrants, bolstered by unbased fears that opium made immigrants violent, especially towards white women. It continued in 1937 when Harry J. Anslinger successfully associated marijuana with Mexican immigrants—who had brought the drug with them when travelling to the US during the Great Depression—using existing prejudice to promote the Marijuana Tax Act which included steep fines and jailtime for possessing marijuana. 

By associating a drug with a group of people, typically minorities, the United States had effectively criminalized these groups. This is the foundation that current drug policies and the War on Drugs was built upon.

The War on Drugs

Nixon’s declaration of the “War on Drugs” and creation of the Controlled Substances Act and multiple drug-fighting government agencies created in 1972 remain today. The Controlled Substances Act introduced the class system for drugs which were classified as Schedule 1-5 with 1 being the most restricted with no recognized medical use. Marijuana is still classified as a schedule 1 drug despite research showing its medicinal benefits and against recommendations that it be removed from that list by a committee when Nixon first created the schedule system. 

Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 and expanded the War on Drugs exponentially with an emphasis on punishment. He was able to use the ongoing crack epidemic to boost his campaign and support the expansion of the War on Drugs. Reagan passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 which introduced mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.

The “War on Drugs” has been ongoing in the United States for decades with serious repercussions.

Drug laws and harsh punishments have not decreased drug sales or overdose deaths. Since 1999 the sale of opioid painkillers skyrocketed by 300%. This is a drug, often prescribed for pain relief, with a high rate of abuse that leads many to heroin addiction—a drug whose overdose deaths have quadrupled between the years 2010 and 2019 in the United States.

Harsh sentencing and strict enforcement of drug laws have led to a shocking number of people being imprisoned for drug-related crimes. According to the US Bureau of Prisons, 45% of incarcerated people were imprisoned for drug offenses; the second largest category was for weapons, arson, and explosives charges at 21%. Not only are almost half of America’s prisoners incarcerated for drug offenses, but a disproportionate number are also people of color, which isn’t surprising given the problematic history of drug laws in the US.

Looking forward

Existing laws have not decreased the drug use, drug-related death, or drug-related crime and have greatly harmed people of color in the US. Despite some law changes and increased recognition of the problematic Reagan-era War on Drugs, they have remained largely unchanged.

The most drastic turn happened in Oregan, USA, where Measure 110 passed in November 2020 decriminalizing all drugs in the state effective February 2021. Oregan is the first state to decriminalize all drug possession, opting for a waivable fine instead of jail time. This approach is meant to focus on treatment and sobriety rather than punishment—which has proved ineffective.

Measure 110 is modeled from Portugal’s drug decriminalization. During the 90’s Portugal faced one of the worst drug epidemics in the world. Their solution was to decriminalize drug possession and required that anyone caught with drugs was given mandatory medical treatment. As of 2017 Portugal’s number of drug cases dropped to 75% of what they were in the 90’s, and the drug-induced death rate in the country is 5xs lower than the average in the European Union. This is the success that Oregan would like to duplicate.

Although Measure 110’s effects are difficult to assess now, it is worth continuing and adjusting as needed. The course the United States has taken has not decreased drug use or drug related deaths. A new method that has proven effective elsewhere could lead the United States to an effective solution to its drug problem.

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