Protest against the war on drugs in America

The Lasting Sociocultural Impact from America’s War On Drugs

When former President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs in 1971, the damage that this so-called war would produce was unprecedented. The war was originally announced, as what was perceived by the ruling government at the time, as a last resort to stop the growing ‘drug epidemic’ in the US. Though this war on drugs was intended to control the use of illicit drugs in the US, the results were appalling. Not only did this war contribute to the already-existent racial and class discrimination in America, it also took a toll on other countries, as violence increased among those countries producing these prohibited substances.

Former American President Richard Nixon announcing the war on drugs.
Former president Richard Nixon (Source: NY Daily News)

It is hard to ignore the disastrous events that have occurred as a result of this anti-drug war, as its effects are still felt today by minorities of all kinds. This topic is something that should continue to be highlighted, as we only know about seeing the repercussions of a war announced more than 40 years ago.

America’s Prevailing Anti-Drug Agenda

The US has always had an agenda that targeted the outlawing of drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine, and opium. There has been a long-running process of enforcing anti-drug laws. This anti-drug rhetoric has been highlighted since the late 1800s. 

The first legislation that would spark this anti-drug movement was passed in San Francisco in 1875, banning the smoking of opium. This legislation, incidentally, was passed at around the same time that an influx of Chinese immigrants appeared in California as a result of the Gold Rush. It should be noted that in that period of time, the cultural stereotype that Chinese men were known for smoking opium was prominent, seemingly causing it to be forbidden.

Cartoon depicting the racism that Chinese immigrants faced in America, essentially being banned.
“Throwing Down the Ladder by Which They Rose,” cartoon by Thomas Nast, Harper’s Weekly, July 23, 1870. (Source: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.)

This law against opium was only the stepping stone for what would become the first federal law in the US against smoking opium, which was introduced in 1909, also known as the Anti-Opium Act

The banning of smoking opium was only the beginning of what would become a persistent effort to restrict drug use. Cannabis would quickly join opium, as it was demonized by members of the federal government, especially Harry Anslinger, the man who would be responsible for the declaration of the war on drugs.

Harry Anslinger: Headman of the Drug War

Harry Anslinger can only be described as a man who appealed to those who were full of hatred for minorities, essentially an advocate for those known as white supremacists. Anslinger’s deep-rooted racism was a catalyst for what would eventually be know as the war on drugs.

Anslinger is no stranger to racist discourse. He was well-known for spreading racist falsehoods about the use of cannabis. His motivation for this was the looming loss of his position as commissioner of the United States’ Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics near the end of the Prohibition era. Anslinger’s focus shifted drugs such as heroin and cocaine, to cannabis, as he noticed an increased use of cannabis among minorities. His crusade for anti-cannabis legislation was then set in motion.

Anti-marijuana propaganda poster depicting the horrors of marijuana, including lust, crime, sorrow, and despair.
Anti-marijuana propaganda began to appear in the 1930s, often centered around cannabis causing a loss of morals and values, in addition to more racist designs stating cannabis made white women want to be with black men (Source: Ohio Marijuana Card)

Anslinger enticed public outrage amongst white communities against cannabis by changing its name to marijuana while campaigning, associating it with anti-Mexican discrimination. Though, the Mexican community was not his only target. He would go on to single out the black community, as well as various other minorities. Anslinger caused fear among white people by stating that:

There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.​​

Anslinger’s blatant racism was able to allure white Americans, as America was already suffering from centuries of deep-rooted racism. The 1930s were no exception, as segregation and the Jim Crow Law were still prominent at the time. If anything, he was able to fuel the motives of white supremacists with the notion that members of the white community would be harmed if cannabis was not banned.

Anslinger’s anti-marijuana campaign was influential, as he was able to pass federal legislation known as the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937. This forcefully made marijuana illegal across the United States. Not only would this law evidently prosecute minorities, but would also allow for racism and classism to heighten in the US.

The Boggs Act of 1951

The Boggs Act of 1951 would be one of the most jarring legislation to be passed by the federal government. Placing marijuana and narcotics together, this legislation would call for penalties among those found using drugs illegally. Mandatory minimums would now be put in place for drug offences, starting with 2 to 5 year minimums for first offences. This legislation would only further increase the policing of drug use, with legislation such as the Controlled Substances Act being passed later on.

The War On Drugs: What Really Happened

Though the Nixon presidency came up with the creation of the Drug Enforcement Administration, it was not until Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, that anti-drug campaigning would be amplified. President Reagan would pass legislations that would intensify the already rampant policing of substances.

Former President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan promoting the Anti-Drug Abuse Act  on television.
Former President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan promoting the Anti-Drug Abuse Act (Source: C-Span)

1986: The Anti-Drug Abuse Act

Perhaps one of the most controversial yet important laws passed during the Reagan presidency was the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. This would be the piece of legislation that would indeed fortify the efforts of the federal government against controlled substances. This act consisted of many parts:

  • Mandatory minimum sentences: Though the Boggs Act of 1951 created the first mandatory minimums for illegal drug use, this legislation was repealed in the Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. The Reagan presidency revived this law, but added many more restrictions:

Congress reinstated mandatory prison terms by defining the amounts of various drugs that it believed would be in the hands of drug “kingpins,” or high-level dealers. Those amounts include 1,000 grams of heroin or 5,000 grams of powder cocaine. Offenders possessing, with intent to distribute, these “kingpin” amounts face a minimum ten-year prison sentence. Offenders possessing smaller amounts that would generally be possessed by “mid-level dealers”—such as 100 grams of heroin or 500 grams of powder cocaine—face a minimum five-year sentence.

(Brown, 2021)
  • Money laundering: This act would bring laws that would criminalize the act of moving money illegally in/out of bank accounts. It was thought that drug cartels were heavily money laundering, therefore by criminalizing it, the sales of drugs would reduce.
  • Distinctions between powder cocaine & crack cocaine: The federal government attempted to justify their harsher sentences for crack cocaine by stating:

For crack cocaine, Congress departed from its “kingpin” and “mid-level dealer” categories and simply divided the amounts necessary for powder-cocaine sentences by 100. Thus 50 grams of crack, instead of 5,000 grams of powder cocaine, merit a ten-year minimum sentence, and 5 grams of crack, rather than 500 grams of powder, trigger a five-year sentence. Trafficking in 50 grams of powder cocaine carries no mandatory sentence.

Congress justified this 100-to-1 sentencing disparity by stressing the serious social harms with which crack use was associated. Although crack and powder cocaine are the same chemical substance, crack sells more cheaply on the street and can be smoked, which induces a briefer, more intense intoxicating effect.

(Brown, 2021)

This differentiation was a crucial turn of events in anti-drug campaigning. Crack had been villainized as a drug used mainly by communities of color, with a particular focus on the black community in the US. It was depicted that its effects included predatory and gang related behavior. Law enforcement would focus on low income communities, where people of color were already facing disproportionate conditions. Arrests and incarcerations would drastically increase among these communities as a result.

Just Say No

The Reagan presidency would also bring America the “Just Say No” campaign, started by then First Lady Nancy Reagan, to discourage children from participating in drug use. This campaign was run in schools across the country, in which students made it an obligation to resist drug use. Though this campaign intended to reduce the use of illegal drugs by vilifying them, it failed to warn children that prescription drugs can be just as addicting, if not worse in some cases.

Former First Lady Nancy Reagan advocating for her Just Say No campaign, holding up a football jersey at football game, that says Just Say No at the back
Former First Lady Nancy Reagan advocating for her Just Say No campaign (Source: Campaign US)

The Problematic Persecution of Drugs

It has been a long-told tale that drugs are inherently bad and should be banned as a safe way to discourage drug use. Though the drug war was initialized as an effort to battle the growing drug epidemic, the battle ended up hurting its very own citizens, as well as other countries.

Depiction of citizens criminalized as result of the war on drugs.
Depiction of some of the many citizens targeted by the criminalization of drug use (Source: © 2016 Brian Stauffer for Human Rights Watch)

Criminalization of People of Color

The war on drugs will continue to increase discrimination among people of color. Drug laws were outwardly put in place to further systematically oppress communities of color, who had already faced other systemic issues.

Racial targeting increased among law enforcement, causing incarceration rates among black men, as well as other people of color, to accelerate rapidly. By criminalizing drug possession, people of colour were drastically affected, as racist rhetoric involving communities of colour and drug use were a key factor why anti-drug campaigning was as successful as it was.

Mass incarceration has placed inequality in the criminal justice system, the very system that should be fighting against injustices. Betsy Pearl, associate director for Criminal Justice Reform at American Progress, states that:

People of color account for 70 percent of all defendants convicted of charges with a mandatory minimum sentence. Prosecutors are twice as likely to pursue a mandatory minimum sentence for a black defendant than a white defendant charged with the same offense,16 and black defendants are less likely to receive relief from mandatory minimums.17 On average, defendants subject to mandatory minimums spend five times longer in prison than those convicted of other offenses.18


The discrimination communities of colour face is inescapable when they are constantly being monitored for criminal activity. The war on drugs can be seen as an excuse to covertly spread a racist agenda.

How The War On Drugs Failed To Help Widespread Addiction

The US government failed to consider all the possible outcomes that would result as a side effect of their anti-drug campaigning. The fact is prohibiting drugs leads to illness and in the worst-case scenario, overdoses. By banning drugs, people will simply find more illegal ways to obtain drugs, which often tend to be impure. The opioid crisis that has occurred in recent years is a devastating example of this.

Sharing of a needle among drug users, with one hand handing the needle to another person.
Sharing of needles among drug users (Source:

Prohibition fosters unsafe drug use among citizens. Though there is no guaranteed safe way for drug consumption, legalization helps to reduce serious risks associated with illegal substances. Under the criminalization of drugs, serious problems occur:

First, users will likely switch from lower potency to higher potency for a given type of drug (for example, from marijuana with lower to higher concentrations of THC). Second, users may switch from low-potency drugs to harder drugs (such as from marijuana to cocaine). Third, users are likely to employ ingestion methods that increase the effectiveness of drugs (such as injecting rather than smoking a drug). Taken together, these information and potency effects mean that prohibition likely increases drug overdoses… higher prices encourage more intense methods of use, such as injection. Law enforcement’s desire to promote prohibition generates restrictions on legal needles and syringes. In many states, it is illegal to buy and sell needles and syringes without a prescription. These two effects combine to encourage the reuse and sharing of dirty needles. (Repeated use of needles even by the same individual is unsafe. Needles dull with each use and may break off under the skin, thus causing infections or other problems.) The sharing of needles drastically increases the risk of transmitting blood-borne diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis.

(Coyne and Hall, 2017)

While mandatory minimum sentences were introduced in efforts to stop drug usage, that usually is not the case. Those incarcerated for drug possession face bigger risk of overdose, once let out of prison. Research shows that:

Incarcerating people for drug-related offenses has been shown to have little impact on substance misuse rates.5 Instead, incarceration is linked with increased mortality from overdose. In the first two weeks after their release from prison, individuals are almost 13 times more likely to die than the general population.6 The leading cause of death among recently released individuals is overdose.7 During that period, individuals are at a 129 percent greater risk of dying from an overdose than the general public.8

(Pearl, 2018)

It is clear that the drug war has had lasting effects in the US that have caused more harm than good. While persecuting its very citizens for drug use, the government and criminal justice system has failed to help those suffering from addiction. This could have been prevented if more money was invested into rehabilitation and addiction prevention programs, which are not accessible to those in low-income neighbourhoods. To learn more on why the war on drugs failed, visit this link.

What Was The End Goal of The War On Drugs?

Hippies protesting the Vietnam War
Hippies protesting the Vietnam War (Source:

When reflecting on the war on drugs, the cultural norms that were valued in the 1970s must be highlighted. The decade before introduced the hippie movement, as well as the continuation of the Vietnamese War. The US government was facing an enormous dilemma, with pressure from some citizens to do something about this so-called radicalization among the younger generation.

The Hippie Movement

The hippies were part of a counterculture that rose in America during the late 60s, which can evidently be correlated to the Vietnam War. This movement was perfect for those tired of the mundane reality of everyday life. Being a hippie was a sort of protest against how the country was being run, consisting mostly of the middle-class white community. The youth were focused on advocating peace, love and equality, with their priorities belonging to issues such as women’s rights, segregation, and capitalism.

Summer of Love

1967 brought the Summer of Love, one of the most significant phenomena of the counterculture in the US. The Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco, California would become a place for hippies to participate in:

free sex, drugs and lots of rock ’n’ roll — the more mind-bending and psychedelic the better — [and] fueled an idealistic Utopian vision for world peace, love and anti-materialism.

It was a time when youthful rebellion was in the air, be it against the war in Vietnam, racism, the political status quo and a button-down, 9-to-5 world of “Mad Men”-like conformity.

(Varga, 2017)

Hippies would be seen as a ticking time bomb for older generations, as they were angered by the resistance this community had built in accords to authorities. It was unheard of at this point in time to see such rebellion amongst the youth. The next generation was considered to be promoting taboo things, especially with them being so open to talk about sex and psychedelics, causing:

an effort to quell the movement, government authorities banned the psychedelic drug LSD, restricted political gatherings, and tried to enforce bans on what they considered obscenity in books, music, theater, and other media. 


With the youth becoming so resistant to the government’s agenda, officials had no choice but to do something about it. It would be gruelling for the government to run otherwise, with so many citizens against what the government was doing, particularly with the gruesome Vietnam war. Domestic policy chief of the Nixon administration, John Ehrlichman, admitted in 1994 that:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m 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. 

The government was being heavily criticized, and used the drug war as a last resort to control the upcoming rebellion they were starting to see. Without the war on drugs, the government would either be magnified for their failure to start an overture with its youth, or its failure to put in policies and legislation that would make the country more equal for all citizens, not just the most privileged.

George Harrison makes a surprise visit to San Francisco in August of 1967. He was not impressed. “The Summer of Love was just a bunch of spotty kids on drugs,” he said at the time.
George Harrison makes a surprise visit to San Francisco in August of 1967. He was not impressed. “The Summer of Love was just a bunch of spotty kids on drugs,” he said at the time. (AP file photo)

D.A.R.E: Drug Abuse Resistance Education

Introduced to elementary schools around America in 1983, D.A.R.E was an attempt to inform young children of the dangers of substances. Though the intentions of the program were well-versed, the execution was less than successful. The effects of the D.A.R.E program were virtually invisible, proving that:

D.A.R.E. was (and is) completely ineffective in preventing drug use. The numbers demonstrating this started rolling in way back in 1992, when a study conducted at Indiana University showed that graduates of the D.A.R.E. program subsequently had significantly higher rates of hallucinogenic drug use than those not exposed to the program.

(Wolchover, 2012)

D.A.R.E would eventually lose federal funding, seemingly as the government realized that their efforts to prevent the drug epidemic were failing. Not much could be done without the funding for affordable rehabilitation facilities for those struggling with addiction. The government is working on prioritizing rehabilitation services, with states making efforts to make rehabilitation free. But until the entire health care system is reformed, rehabilitation will continue to be inaccessible to those struggling financially.

Graphic depicting the ineffectiveness of D.A.R.E program. 
- 75% of the nation's school districts implemented DARE at the program's height. 
-29% more likely to experiment with drugs than non-participants
The ineffectiveness of the D.A.R.E program (Source: The Black & White)

Anthropological Significance

The war on drugs was not as successful as it hoped to be when introduced, criminalizing those for the possession of recreational drugs. Though it may have failed, it has allowed us to find methods that remain most successful for reduction of overdoses. Furthermore other countries also face difficulties in similar regards.

With the opening of centres where those who want to participate in drug use can do so without worrying about transmitting diseases and potential overdose, drug use can occur in a safe way without being villainized. Drugs will continue to be stigmatized, as many still believe that it is morally wrong. Nevertheless, the legalization of marijuana in some states allows for more acceptance among citizens.

Incarceration rates among Americans for drug related arrests. 
- Drug-related arrests per 100,000 residents of each race: White - 332, Black - 879
Incarceration rates among Americans for drug-related arrests (Source: Joe Posner/Vox)

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