The War on Drugs Turns 40

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In 1971 Richard Nixon declared abuse of narcotics public enemy number 1. Trillions later his views are alive and well.

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Police officers, judges, and prison guards opposed to drug prohibition gathered in Washington, D.C., Tuesday to mark an eye-opening milestone: the 40th Anniversary of President Richard Nixon's War on Drugs. "America's public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse," Nixon declared in a June 17, 1971 press conference. "In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive." Just two years later he escalated his rhetoric yet again, asserting that "this Administration has declared all-out, global war on the drug menace," and creating the Drug Enforcement Agency. Ever since we've been doubling down on the strategy. It has never succeeded, even when we've gone much farther down the "get tough" road than Nixon ever did.

Though the size and cost of the DEA is but a fraction of total spending in the War on Drugs, you'd think its utter failure to stop drug use or the global drug trade would've prevented this from happening:

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Almost every year the DEA budget and staff are expanded, never mind if the organization is succeeding or failing at its mission. This isn't the DEA's fault. The illicit trade in narcotics is a black market that cannot be eliminated in a free society. But why do legislators continue to increase its size?


It's especially frustrating when one recalls that presidential candidates have campaigned on the folly of the status quo, been elected to office, and failed to make any significant changes. That first happened when Jimmy Carter was seeking the Oval Office. Here's a quote of his you've likely forgotten or never heard before: "I do favor the decriminalization of marijuana." Under his never enacted plan, an American could've possessed up to an ounce without running afoul of federal law.

As early as 2004, Barack Obama declared the War on Drugs an "utter failure" and promised the federal government would back off if states wanted to permit their residents to use medical marijuana. "What President Obama said during the campaign is now American policy," Attorney General Eric Holder declared shortly after Obama's 2009 inauguration. Alas, it hasn't worked out that way -- and that's a shame since federalism is one way that national politicians can dodge the drug question and give states room to show that pot for cancer patients or decriminalization of soft drugs can be implemented without doing net damage to society.

Norm Stamper, a former Seattle police chief and spokesman for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, put it this way: "It wasn't hard to put together a report showing how the Obama administration continues to wage the failed 'war on drugs' even while pretending to end it. Although President Obama has talked about respecting states' rights to enact medical marijuana laws, his DEA has raided state-legal medical marijuana providers at a higher rate than under the Bush administration. Similarly, this president has continued a Bush-era budget ratio that heavily favors spending on punishment over providing resources for treatment, even though he has said drug addiction should be handled as a health issue."

It's time for the president to live up to his promises.

Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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