Fun facts Dep’t: Nixon, Reagan, and the drug war

Richard Nixon’s message to Congress usually cited as the beginning of the “War on Drugs” does not in fact include the phrase “war on drugs” or “drug war.” It does mention “an effective war against heroin addiction.” It does use lots of military metaphor. It does embrace the supremely silly idea of replacing all opiate medicines with synthetics and ending world poppy production.

But compared to contemporary drug-hawk rhetoric or anything that came out of the Drug Czar’s office under Bennett, McCaffrey, or Walters, it’s not at all a culture-war document: there’s no sense that drug abusers are social enemies and no attempt to hippie-bait the “drug culture.”

I can’t figure out whether Nixon ever actually said “war on drugs.” But in any case, the impetus for anti-drug policies faded after Nixon left office. Ford cut the DEA budget. Carter wanted to decriminalize pot.

The drug war in its current guise started in 1979, when Carter fired Peter Bourne, and ramped up under Reagan, who managed to become a hero of the drug hawks despite presiding over the rise of crack because of the First Lady’s sponsorship of the mindless “Just Say No” campaign. It was Ronald Reagan’s legislation and budgets – continued by his successors – that gave us the contemporary horror show of paramilitary drug policing, the creation of huge holes in the Fourth Amendment, and half a million dealers behind bars. And it was Nancy Reagan’s White House Conference for a Drug-Free America that organized the ideological thought police which made serious drug policy discussion impossible for most of the next two decades.

So give (dis)credit when it’s due. And always fly to Washington National Airport.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

9 thoughts on “Fun facts Dep’t: Nixon, Reagan, and the drug war”

  1. Sounds kind of like how we got into Vietnam. So how do we get peace with honor in the WoD?

  2. Warren, that’s what the new book whose cover appears on the front page of the blog is all about.

  3. OK, I’ll buy it bundled with WBFF. But do tell – what should be done with all the POW’s we’ve amassed?

  4. It’s not ideology (except for the rubes), it’s money. We get peace with honor when we realize that the illegal drugs industry has a supply side and a law enforcement side. The supply side manages production and distribution, while the enforcement side manages the level of violence and theft at an optimum level to keep it’s imprisonment and civil forfeiture business profitable. When we stop pretending that the drug war is a “failure,” we can start thinking about ways to compassionately dismantle the violent and confiscatory portions of the industry, while mitigating the harm unregulated drug use does to users. As long as we talk about the enforcement side as “failed,” or even “insane,” all they have to do is ramp up the violence and theft a bit, whereupon we run to them with more money and power, asking for “protection.”

  5. Mark, I just bought the book whose cover appears on the front page of the blog. (for our library) Weekend reading is set.

  6. Congrats Mark. I look forward to reading the book – thinking about doing the Kindle on my cell phone during my commute kind of thing (so far I’ve read Moby Dick, Billy Budd and The Education of Henry Adams this way so you’re in good company). Couldn’t agree more that the modern WOD got started with the firing of Peter Bourne and the all out Reagan (e.g. Bill Bennett) effort. Way hard to ratchet back from that. Especially after the Dems (Biden, Feinstein etc.) learned their role as cheerleaders all too well. I have a pretty good idea that we have different prescriptions about how to deal with the WOD but appreciate your strong review. Look forward to also seeing how cover some of the antecedents including some of the early efforts to stamp out marijuana (Mexicans) and cocaine (African Americans). Cheers, Bill

  7. Mark

    One friendly amendment: Reagan’s drug policies drew massive bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, Tip O’Neil was as much an advocate of the policy as was Reagan.

  8. That’s not a half million dealers. it’s a half million ppl that had an extra baggy or bought a bag for a friend or that, just owned something LE wanted. They’re very few if, any dealers in prison.

  9. I really don’t see any consistency in your views, Mark Kleiman. You voted to legalize marijuana in CA, and yet you freak out whenever anyone mentions it and you constantly lie about it when you do media interviews. Obviously, you are trying to separate yourself (still) from the disastrous drug policies that you so strongly advocated for in your youth.

    This is another annoying entry because you hate Reagan *whatever and who cares?* It is not relevant to anything and does not explain why you continue to lie about the fact that MARK KLEIMAN VOTED TO LEGALIZE MARIJUANA IN 2010!

    When are you going to own up to your own views and stop misleading the media/students/anyone who reads this blog? I get it, you are old and full of regret now. Isn’t time to come clean?

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