U05: The War on Drugs

It’s the 1960s, as drugs became symbols of youthful rebellion, social upheaval, and political dissent, the government halted scientific research to evaluate their medical safety and efficacy. In June 1971, President Nixon declared a “war on drugs.” He dramatically increased the size and presence of federal drug control agencies and pushed through measures such as mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants. Nixon temporarily placed marijuana in Schedule One, the most restrictive category of drugs. In 1972, a commission unanimously recommended decriminalizing the possession and distribution of marijuana for personal use. Nixon ignored the report and rejected its recommendations. It’s now the 1980s, the presidency of Ronald Reagan marked the start of a long period of skyrocketing rates of incarceration, largely thanks to his unprecedented expansion of the drug war. The number of people behind bars for nonviolent drug law offenses increased from 50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 by 1997. Public concern about illicit drug use built throughout the 1980s, largely due to media portrayals of people addicted to the smokable form of cocaine dubbed “crack.” Soon after Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, his wife, Nancy Reagan, began a highly-publicized anti-drug campaign, coining the slogan “Just Say No.” This set the stage for the zero tolerance policies implemented in the mid-to-late 1980s. In the late 1980s, a political hysteria about drugs led to the passage of draconian penalties in Congress and state legislatures that rapidly increased the prison population. This can be likened to Lesson 10’s discussion of timeliness. It says, “The nature of crises is that they often demand immediate or almost immediate attention from leadership.” In this case, the administration flooded the media with anti-drug propaganda, specifically marijuana and crack cocaine. The constant media coverage and fear mongering was then used to further justify the administrations’ aggressive stance towards drugs.

Bill Clinton advocated for treatment instead of incarceration during his 1992 presidential campaign, but after his first few months in the White House he quickly reverted to the drug war strategies of his Republican predecessors by continuing to escalate the drug war. In 1994, he signed the crime bill often referred to as the “three strikes” bill. It is the largest crime bill in the history of the United States and consisted of 356 pages that provided for 100,000 new police officers, $9.7 billion in funding for prisons and $6.1 billion in funding for prevention programs. Although incarceration was already rising steadily before the crime bill, several of its provisions helped increase incarceration even further. From 1970 to 1994, the rate of imprisonment exploded nearly 400 percent, due to the war on drugs rhetoric.

Lesson 10 describes a crisis as a “critical event or point of decision which, if not handled in an appropriate and timely manner (or if not handled at all), may turn into a disaster or catastrophe” (Penn State, 2019) The most vulnerable times are often during crisis, where thoughts are scattered and fears are high. We’ve seen this throughout history, and the conditions surrounding crisis are often used for unethical purposes. The War on Drugs is one of the most infamous examples of the importance of ethics during crisis. A top Nixon aide, John Ehrlichman, later admitted what the war on drug’s purpose was (LoBianco, 2016):

“You want to know what this was really all about. 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. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

It’s quite apparent that the war on drugs had malicious intent when we consider that despite committing crime at the same rate as others, African Americans were six times more likely to be arrested, convicted, and jailed as white offenders. Lesson 10 discusses “Points of Decision”, where crises create a decision point where if a leader doesn’t make a decision, something negative will happen either for the organization or individuals in the organization. In this scenario, when the administration saw the mass incarcerations rates soar, the forward/action decision would have been to reexamine the war on drugs and how it is being implemented. Instead, even worse than inaction there was negative action, as the war on drugs continued to ramp up and send hundreds of thousands, typically African American men to jail for nonviolent crimes. This leaves many already struggling families without their father/main provider in the house, which continues the vicious cycle of poverty and crime that is still present to this day.


LoBianco, T. (2016, March 24). Report: Nixon’s war on drugs targeted black people. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2016/03/23/politics/john-ehrlichman-richard-nixon-drug-war-blacks-hippie/index.html

Penn State University. (2019). Unit 05, Lesson 10: Crises.

One Comment

  1. Chelsea Kemper April 21, 2019 at 11:28 PM #


    Your article really made me stop and think about a lot of issues in our past that were handled one way or another and the impact that it had at the time and how much has changed in the present. Your article made me think about the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy that the military had in place for nearly two decades. What certain people view as a crisis, and how they attempt to alleviate that crisis, can ultimately create the actual crisis. You article was a clear example of unethical decisions leading to larger and larger issues. Over populated prisons, and the money and time being spent prosecuting and housing these offenders was an additional crisis that was a result of the behaviors and motives of the leadership at the time.

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