The ORE of American History will be available for subscription in late September. Speak to your Oxford representative or contact us to find out more.

Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, AMERICAN HISTORY ( (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited. Please see applicable Privacy Policy and Legal Notice (for details see Privacy Policy).

date: 21 August 2017

The Long War on Drugs

Summary and Keywords

The beginning of modern war on drugs in the United States is commonly credited to President Richard Nixon, who evoked fears of crime, degenerate youth, and foreign drugs to garner support for his massive, by early 1970s standards, effort to combat drugs in the United States. Scholars now agree, however, that the essential characteristics of the “war on drugs” stretched back to the early 20th century. The first federal law to prohibit a narcotic in the United States passed in 1909 and banned the import of “smoking opium.” Although opium itself remained legal, opium prepared for smoking—a form believed to be consumed predominantly by ethnic Chinese and imported into the United States—was not. All future anti-narcotics policies drew on these foundational notions: narcotics were of foreign origin and invaded the United States. Thus, interdiction efforts at U.S. borders, and increasingly in producer countries, were an appropriate response. Narcotics consumers were presented as equally threatening, viewed as foreigners or at the margins of American society, and U.S. lawmakers therefore criminalized both drug use and drug trafficking. With drugs as well as drug users defined as foreign threats, militarization of the efforts to prohibit drugs followed. In U.S. drug policy, there is no distinction between foreign and domestic policy. They are intertwined at all levels, including the definition of the problem, the origin of many drugs, and the sites of enforcement.

Keywords: narcotics, gender, ethnicity, crime, Richard Nixon, Philippines, Mexico, Southeast Asia, heroin, opium, marijuana

Promoting Restriction of Opium at Home and Abroad, 1880–1940

Opium has been used as medicine and recreational drug throughout recorded history, and until the late 19th century, opiate use was ubiquitous. In an era before commercially available analgesics, the main choices for pain relief were alcohol or opium. Aspirin was not commercially available until the early 20th century, with acetaminophen and ibuprofen appearing in the mid-20th century. Opium was more effective than alcohol and, for many, more culturally acceptable. As historian David Courtwright has demonstrated, until at least 1880, and in most places for decades after that, opiate addicts were often either Civil War veterans or middle-class white women, both dealing with chronic pain. People also took opium for toothache, dysentery (it is constipating), malarial fevers, headache, and other pains of daily life. Even as they relied on opium, however, people understood that it was addictive. As common as recreational use was, it was criticized by many. And as with alcohol consumption, evangelical Christians in the United States often viewed opium consumption, especially for pleasure, as immoral.

Most Americans who used opium took it in laudanum (a liquid) or in pill form. The prevalence of opium smoking, a form of use associated with ethnic Chinese, recreational rather than medicinal use, addiction and sensuality, appeared to be growing in the 1860s and 1870s. This anti-opium agitation was part of a larger anti-Chinese backlash in the 1870s, which led to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, restricting Chinese immigration to the United States. Some states, mostly in the West, began to pass laws restricting opium.

Starting around 1880, a series of developments prompted some temperance groups to begin agitating against opium in the same way they did against alcohol. Medical and sanitary practice began to improve, reducing the prevalence of diseases for which opium was treatment if not cure. The Civil War veterans whose pain required maintenance levels of opium began to die off. The American public began to perceive recreational opium users as lower class and as ethnic minorities, especially Chinese immigrants. The domestic and international anti-opium movements were linked from the beginning: church denominations with strong missionary presence in China were often the most vocal anti-opium activists. Initially, however, the anti-opium movement gained little traction on the national level.

When the United States acquired the Philippines in 1898, as a result of the Spanish–American War, U.S. officials had to decide on an opium policy for the islands. Spanish law had stipulated that opium would be imported by the government, the right to sell it auctioned off to the highest bidder, and that Filipinos were not allowed recreational use of opium. Any non-Filipino could purchase opium, but the most important consumers were ethnic Chinese. In this way, opium sales enriched the Spanish government. U.S. officials were skeptical of so much government involvement in the opium trade. The only federal laws in the United States about opium set import tax levels; otherwise opium was regulated by state law. So, for the first time, the U.S. federal government had to affirm or create an opium law. U.S. colonial officials simplified the Spanish-period law and echoed U.S. federal law: opium was imported and taxed like any commodity, although at a high tax rate.

The result was predictable: opium use shot up, especially among Filipinos. Although most U.S. colonial officials did not have a strong opinion about opium use, they did not want U.S. rule to be associated with a major increase in recreational narcotics use. Additionally, Methodist missionaries in the Philippines, many with recent experience in China that prompted them to strongly oppose opium, agitated to restrict use. They lobbied Washington and used personal contacts to reach President Theodore Roosevelt. As a result, the 1903 Philippine Opium Commission traveled throughout Asia, studying the opium policies of regional powers. Even though only Japan in its colony of Taiwan prohibited non-medicinal use of opium, that was the policy recommended in the commission’s report, and the measure was adopted. A law was passed in 1905, phasing in opium prohibition by 1908.

President Roosevelt was easily convinced, too, that prohibition in the Philippines alone would have little chance of success, and in 1906, the U.S. Department of State began to plan what became the 1909 Shanghai Opium Commission, an international conference called to study opium policy in Asia. Some of the main tenets of U.S. narcotics policy to the present were established at this 1909 conference: producing nations would be held liable for preventing narcotics from reaching nations that banned them. And, U.S. policy would focus more on interdiction of imported narcotics than treatment of addicts and use prevention. In preparation for the conference, the first U.S. federal law restricting opium passed, the 1909 Opium Smoking Act, which forbade importation of opium prepared for smoking into the United States. The only significant agreements at this conference were a pledge to work for eventual prohibition of non-medical use of opium and support for China’s efforts to eradicate opium.

China and the United States pressed for this approach to narcotics control; other governments in Asia were less enthusiastic, given that opium was in most cases legal, provided vast revenues, and was medically and culturally important. Ironically, the United States had no federal laws against most forms of opium, and it was commonly used by Americans. Anti-opium activists were encouraged, however, by the 1909 Shanghai Commission and immediately began organizing for future international conferences.

Anti-opium activists, such as Hamilton Wright, linked with existing anti-alcohol groups to promote prohibition in both the United States and worldwide. This effort linked with U.S. governmental efforts to promote restriction and resulted in conferences at The Hague in 1911 and 1912, as well as a follow-up in 1914 involving the United States, Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and China, among others. These conferences revealed how much different nations disagreed about the best policy for narcotics. Participants did find some common ground in their concern that too much opium, morphine, and cocaine were produced, making it easy for people to acquire the drugs and become addicted. Although the United States most wanted an agreement that included opium, the other powers were primarily concerned about morphine and cocaine, and the 1912 Hague Conference’s most significant outcome was an agreement that signatory powers would restrict cocaine and morphine use, by law, to “medicinal and legitimate purposes.”1 This was the phrase the United States had promoted at the 1909 Shanghai Commission, but it now applied in a partial way that did not suit U.S. purposes. Ratifications of the 1912 Hague agreement proceeded slowly, and it did not come into effect until after World War I, when ratification was linked to signing of the Paris Peace Treaty.

Ironically, the United States was one of the slow ratifiers, since there was no federal law regulating any of these narcotics in 1912. To remedy this problem, Congressman Francis B. Harrison sponsored legislation that did not directly prohibit narcotics but required those who sold them to register, pay a tax, and record all sales. With some compromises designed to make implementation easier for pharmacists, and exempting many patent medicines, the bill became law in December 1914 as the Harrison Narcotics Act. The United States had its first comprehensive federal anti-narcotics law.2 The prohibitionist forces had won, and many anti-narcotics activists turned their full attention to the fight to prohibit alcohol. Narcotics became even more restricted when Supreme Court interpretations of the law in 1919 (in Webb et al. vs. United States) meant that physicians were forbidden from writing prescriptions for maintenance of opiate addiction.

Unlike alcohol prohibition, which lasted only from 1920 to 1933, narcotics prohibition persisted and has been extended and strengthened many times since 1914. But outlawing non-medicinal distribution of narcotics did not end their use any more than Prohibition ended alcohol consumption. Addiction and smuggling remained pervasive, and the U.S. response, since the early 20th century, has more often focused on interdiction, arrest, eradication, and policing than prevention and treatment.

The 1920s and 1930s saw continued efforts both internationally and domestically to promote the U.S. approach to resolving the drug problem. Internationally, the United States participated enthusiastically if informally (due to not being a member of the League of Nations) in meetings of the Opium Advisory Committee and Permanent Control Board, as well as in meetings at Geneva in 1924, 1925, 1931, and 1936, and, as an observer, at Bangkok in 1931. The U.S. position at these meetings was rarely popular: the United States wanted to adopt very strict controls on world narcotics production, limiting the available supply to a stipulated amount determined in advance as the world’s medical need. Aside from the logistical difficulties in such an approach, other nations wanted to grow their pharmaceutical industry, and many did not share the U.S. sentiment that all non-prescription drug use was harmful. The international trend was in the general direction of regulation with an aim of restriction. The medicalization of narcotics tended also to mean drugs were more refined, stronger, and more addictive. Injecting heroin or cocaine was self-evidently more harmful than smoking opium or chewing coca. Even if the United States promoted a more prohibitionist regime than most other countries, all agreed that some limits were necessary.

Also during the 1920s and 1930s, marijuana became a drug of concern in the United States. Initially, it was consumed primarily in southern border towns, having been brought into the United States by immigrants from Mexico and the West Indies. The restricted availability of alcohol during 1917–1933 and of opium and cocaine after 1914 seems to have led to increased marijuana consumption. The same forces concerned about other drugs also opposed marijuana, and used similar tactics, blaming immigrants (Mexicans rather than Chinese) and citing increased crime associated with marijuana consumption. It was initially more difficult to rouse public opinion against marijuana, not least because consumption was so much less common than with the other drugs, but by the mid-1930s, concern had risen sufficiently that Congress passed the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act. This act technically did not prohibit marijuana, but placed a prohibitively high tax on it, effectively ending legal sales. Given that marijuana, unlike opium and cocaine, was grown mostly in or near the United States, the prohibition of marijuana initially did not prompt the international cooperation and negotiation other drugs encouraged.

Drugs and the Cold War, 1940–1970

World War II upset all the carefully constructed agreements, but also so disrupted supply lines that many people around the world were cut off from access to drugs, despite the fact that many nations encouraged production increases. German pharmaceutical giants like Bayer could neither access their usual raw materials nor ship their products outside areas of German control; other producing countries likewise found export difficult due to war conditions. And the narcotics that were produced legally often went straight to battlefield hospitals to treat wounded soldiers. In the United States, government stockpiles for war purposes plus disrupted supply meant that illicit heroin was in very short supply. People stopped using, sometimes altogether, sometimes turning to more locally produced drugs like marijuana and alcohol.

Advocates of the U.S. approach to narcotics control, of limiting supply to an amount matching predetermined medical needs, saw opportunity at the end of the war to use the disrupted markets to successfully implement their scheme. International opium control measures were transferred to the new United Nations, via the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) and Division of Narcotic Drugs. U.S. officials strongly advocated, successfully, that when Allied powers moved into areas previously held by the Axis powers, whether or not those countries had allowed nonprescription opium use before the war, they would implement a prohibitionist model. Newly independent nations likewise usually adopted narcotics control as advocated by the CND.

Postwar conditions overwhelmed these domestic and international efforts, however. First, the disrupted supply chains of the war years meant that places previously producing little opium, especially the highland areas of Southeast Asia (now known as the Golden Triangle), had stepped up production, as had China. After the war, these countries, and any poor, war-torn country, had incentive to continue growing to meet world demand and help their economy. Second, pent-up demand for narcotics meant flush consumers in the United States, and elsewhere as economies recovered, happily purchased any drugs making it to market. Third, the emergent Cold War complicated efforts. The Soviet Union indicated a desire to participate in narcotics control but also to focus on the variety of factors leading to addiction rather than focusing only on supply. And protagonists in Cold War conflicts were willing to sell opium to finance their efforts, as when the People’s Republic of China announced the sale of 1 million tons seized from Chinese Nationalists fleeing to Taiwan, a legal but disruptive move, or when Nationalist Chinese in exile in Burma seized local opium crops and sold them on the black market to finance their continued resistance.

The international anti-narcotics effort, led in many ways by U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics commissioner Harry Anslinger, focused on extending United Nations oversight to more parts of the world and to the increasingly important synthetic drugs, such as Demerol and Methadone, developed during the lean years of World War II. Synthetic drugs held promise for the U.S. effort at supply control, since the specific needs could be precisely met with factory production. It quickly became apparent that the ability of synthetic drugs to supply most of the world’s medical needs did not mean the end of agricultural drug production. By 1946 the world was already awash with illicit drugs.

During the 1950s, both international and domestic legal efforts to curtail drugs emphasized restrictive laws similar to, but more far reaching, than those of the 1920s and 1930s. At the international level, the 1953 Opium Protocol (ratified in 1963) put in place even more stringent production controls limited to reported amounts meeting medical need only, rejected any “quasi-medical” use,3 and stipulated that only seven nations could legally sell opium to be used by all the rest of the world for manufacture of medically necessary narcotics. Restrictive and punitive though this protocol was, it also reflected the narcotics challenges of the past rather than the future, and an alternative, the 1961 Single Convention, emerged. This treaty importantly would replace the collection of confusing and sometimes contradictory treaties negotiated since 1911. It retained the supply-control emphasis of the past, with mandatory reporting requirements for producing countries and licensing for manufacturers; it also expanded oversight by use of schedules for drugs, with four schedules to classify drugs by their degree of addictiveness and capacity for harm.4 The schedules, which have become contentious and controversial, have the benefit of flexibility. The legal consequences for the drug classification are codified; the specific drugs in that classification can more easily be modified as science learns more or as new drugs are developed. The United States initially opposed the 1961 Single Convention, but other nations found it much more logical and it was ratified in December 1964.

Legal changes in the United States focused on harsh punishments for drug users and dealers. The 1951 Boggs Act and 1956 Narcotics Control Act dramatically increased the punishment for possession and sale of drugs. By 1956, a first offense for possession could net prison terms of two or more years, and in theory, sale of heroin by an adult to a minor could result in the death penalty. State laws echoed the focus on punishment, and the standards of proof were often minimal, with the mere existence of needle tracks in some states sufficient for conviction.5 Ironically, the high prices and increasingly bad quality of heroin in the early 1950s had already begun to erode usage even before these laws fully took effect. Commissioner Anslinger took credit, though, and the combination of a strict supply control policy overseas and harsh punishment regime at home was sold as the answer to the drug problem.

The 1960s challenged the notion that the U.S. approach worked. New types of drugs did not fall neatly under existing control mechanisms. Production overseas skyrocketed. And many young people did not think drugs were all that dangerous.

In the early 1960s, it appeared that U.S. government policy might be ahead of the curve on these issues. President John F. Kennedy led a charge to reexamine some of the basic principles of U.S. drug law. The extent and type of drug use were investigated more systematically, with three key consequences. Prescription drugs with addictive capacity, such as barbiturates and amphetamines, became more closely regulated. Users were treated more gently by the legal system, with lighter sentences and more treatment options. Anti-narcotics efforts were reorganized, leading to enforcement moving from the Department of the Treasury to the Department of Justice, under the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (since 1973, the Drug Enforcement Agency).

Representing a swing back from the harsh laws of the 1950s, these laws still were inadequate to respond to the changing nature of drug use in the United States. Psychedelic drugs, developed for potential therapeutic use in the 1950s, became popular recreational drugs. Marijuana was common. And there was a resurgence in heroin use, perhaps just a demographic blip as baby boomers entered their teens and twenties, the most common drug-using years. Heroin also got cheaper, as supplies from Mexico and Central America joined the drugs from Southeast Asia and the Middle East. For Americans already frightened by the tumultuous 1960s, drugs seemed to make things even worse. Not only did many Americans view drug use as associated with ethnic minorities, especially African Americans, and with increased crime rates, much as they had since the late 19th century, but increasingly they also believed drugs were invading both the military and middle-class (mostly white) neighborhoods.

These two developments seemed to represent a real change in the nature of drug use. Americans were divided about the U.S. war in Vietnam, but for a time, all worried that veterans were returning home addicted to the heroin they had found to be so inexpensive and available in Vietnam. Whether from fear of or concern for returning soldiers, Americans called on the government to address the issues prompted by this “addicted army.”6 And other young Americans also seemed to have ready access to much stronger drugs than had been common in the past. There was evidence that young white affluent Americans, mostly men, were trying heroin in unprecedented numbers, with perhaps as many as four percent taking it at least once by 1970.7 Americans were demanding a strong government response. Methadone treatments, essentially a maintenance program on a drug to satisfy the craving without providing the high, began in the mid-1960s, but this was a controversial approach, and by 1970, still only available in a few cities. Richard Nixon’s election in 1968, prompted in part by people’s fears about crime and chaotic youth culture, suggested that the government would instigate a new anti-drug program.

War on Drugs Declared, 1970–1989

President Richard Nixon’s Special Message to Congress on June 17, 1971, could be read as a declaration of war on drugs. His language was both combative, referencing fighting and battles and the need for victory, and also therapeutic and sociable, emphasizing the human cost, effects on families, and the tragedy of addiction. It was also a response to a perceived crisis, with heroin use and abuse appearing to be at an all-time high, and making inroads into parts of the American public not touched since the 1890s. Crime rates had increased, overdoses and deaths from heroin were also up, and Nixon had campaigned in 1968 with promises to address these problems. The 1971 speech referenced actions already taken, such as passage of the 1970 Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, and called for new actions, including committing massive funds to both the traditional course of supply eradication and to prevention and treatment.8

The phrase “war on drugs” did not appear in this speech, but the mix of treatment emphasis, arbitrary tactics, and harsh punishments in the Nixon approach soon made it clear that the effort was as comprehensive as a war. Sentences for possession alone were lightened, but punishment for dealing remained harsh; conviction could even bring life in prison for some dealers. Methadone received official support, but with it, more oversight and scrutiny, both from the Food and Drug Administration and from law enforcement, to ensure that there was no illicit diversion of methadone. Police gained increased rights to search properties where suspected drug dealing was occurring, including no-knock searches in some cases. The federal government sponsored research into herbicides for eradication that would be more environmentally friendly, but as a way to increase eradication in foreign countries as well as the United States. The United States played a leading role in negotiating both the 1971 Psychotropic Treaty, which placed strict controls on hallucinogenic drugs but gave pharmaceutical companies relatively free reign to develop other psychotropics for medical use, and the 1972 update to the Single Convention, which strengthened the authority of the International Narcotics Control Board (a UN agency) to investigate and regulate, and brought synthetic narcotics under greater scrutiny. Although adding some attention to the demand side of the narcotics problem, the United States retained its now decades-long focus on supply eradication and punishment for users and dealers.

Nixon’s attempt at a wholesale attack on the narcotics problem has been roundly criticized, both because it seemed to have failed and because its harshest consequences fell heavily on ethnic minorities and the poor. Despite his claim in the 1971 message to Congress that drug addiction was no longer a class problem, but a universal problem, the outcome of the war on drugs was treatment and lenient sentences for middle-class users, because of both the types of drugs they tended to use and their access to lawyers and sympathetic doctors. By contrast, African Americans, Latinos, and those in urban poverty-stricken areas more often faced prison sentences and a dearth of treatment options. The 1970s saw a dramatic increase in the number of middle-class youth using marijuana and psychedelics, the former of which law enforcement in particular showed little interest in policing, while heroin remained the cheap drug of choice and under intense scrutiny.

Harmful as these policies were to ordinary Americans, the war on drugs failed even more spectacularly to control the supply of drugs, which traditionally had been the U.S. priority and remained important in Nixon’s strategy. The supply of heroin remained at historically high levels, despite the temporarily successful suppression of production in Turkey. The Golden Triangle area of Southeast Asia increased production to fill the gap. Marijuana, whether grown in the United States or nearby in Mexico and Central America, enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. Cocaine, which had been prohibited in 1914 and was not a major drug of choice, grew in popularity in the late 1970s. U.S. efforts to eradicate crops, particularly in Central America, had serious environmental consequences in those countries from the toxic sprays used to kill the plants, and sometimes had political consequences, when authoritarian rulers gained access to helicopters and other technology used in drug eradication, but which could also be used for security purposes. And the first signs of problems that would later overwhelm anti-drug efforts, most notably the abuse of prescription drugs and the ability of illicit producers to make rather than grow drugs, appeared.

During President Ronald Reagan’s first term in office, his administration continued many existing policies as set out by Nixon and continued by President Jimmy Carter, although definitely with more emphasis on enforcement and less leniency than during the Carter years. Some shifts, at least in tone, began early on, however, and foreshadowed more substantive changes in Reagan’s second term. The most well known of these is First Lady Nancy Reagan’s support of the “Just Say No” campaign, indicating the Reagan administration’s emphasis on personal responsibility. Prompted by Nancy Reagan’s impromptu “just say no” response to a little girl’s question in 1982 about what to do if someone offered her drugs, the campaign actually was part of an education effort that had long existed and was revived during the Nixon years. But as cocaine use, including the feared crack cocaine, appeared to increase dramatically and spread throughout society, and other drugs also were consumed in large amounts, the stakes seemed high. The war on drugs certainly had not been won, and the Reagan administration continued to wage it.

Although the early Nixon war on drugs had attempted to balance treatment and leniency with users against harsh sentences for dealers and draconian eradication efforts in producing nations, the focus shifted toward punishment for all in the 1980s. As in the early 20th century, the federal government lagged behind the states in establishing the most far-reaching anti-drug laws. But the 1984 Federal Sentencing Reform Act established the framework for the “mandatory minimum” sentences at the federal level, which the states had been implementing since the early 1970s. This approach to drug-offense sentencing had begun in New York State under the governorship of Nelson Rockefeller in 1973, and by the time the federal legislation passed, forty-nine states already had mandatory minimum laws for drug offenses.9 These laws set immutable sentences for specific violations, with enhancements for committing the offense near a school or having a firearm. Judges could not reduce the sentences.

The trend was part of the backlash against the permissive attitude about drugs in the 1960s and 1970s, fueled by what appeared to be the ubiquity of cocaine in American society, with celebrities snorting in high-end nightclubs and gangs peddling crack cocaine in inner cities. The association of the new and feared AIDS epidemic with drug use also prompted many to support the strict laws. There was a general attitude that drug use was not sociable and recreational, but dangerous to users and a threat to the broader society. Testimony before Congress for the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act dramatized the effects of crack cocaine with the result that sentences for crack were set the same for 5 grams of crack as for 500 grams of powdered cocaine, with the minimum time in prison five to forty years for these amounts.

Crack cocaine is more potent than powdered, and studies in the 1990s suggested that most of those convicted in federal courts and receiving mandatory minimums for crack were dealers, even if minor ones. But these mandatory minimums received significant criticism for the racial disparity of their application. The vast majority of those sentenced to long prison sentences were African American even though more whites used both crack and powdered cocaine. While these mandatory minimum sentences were controversial almost from the start, they accurately reflect the fear driving U.S. drug policy during the 1980s. The final drug legislation of the 1980s, the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act was most notable for its emphasis on establishing drug-free schools and workplaces. This act required schools to inform students and employees at least once per year of the consequences of illegal use, and to inform them about treatment options.10 And, significantly, language in 1988 changed from using the phrase “alcohol and drugs” to “alcohol and other drugs,” to reinforce the growing concern about the effects of alcohol consumption.

The Reagan administration extended the war on drugs outside U.S. borders, declaring explicitly in 1982 that the United States would fight against drugs in Latin America. With massive U.S. demand for cocaine driving production throughout Central and South America, the first narco-states began to emerge in Bolivia and Panama. Central and South American cocaine and increasingly heroin flooded across the border, leading Reagan in 1986 to declare that drug trafficking was a threat to U.S. national security, allowing the U.S. military to participate in eradicating the illicit trade, and ultimately stating that all other foreign-policy goals for Central and South America were subordinated to a focus on suppressing drugs. The concrete signs of this policy were doubling of the efforts to stop drugs at the border, and stepped up eradication efforts throughout Central and South America. Signs of success were simultaneously signs of failure. In 1981, U.S. officials seized two tons of cocaine coming in through Florida via the Caribbean; in 1989 they seized 100 tons, and it was clear that much of the traffic had been rerouted through Mexico. Marijuana and coca were eradicated in greater amounts each year, especially in Colombia and Mexico, but production simply moved to new regions. In Colombia, it even appeared that the destruction of the marijuana crop encouraged planters to grow coca the subsequent year.11 Heroin production still primarily took place far from the United States, particularly in Burma, where continuing ethnic and political conflict provided space for drug lord Khun Sa to gain a territory to control for his people and heroin production, which jumped in the 1980s from 500 to 2500 tons, almost half the total world’s supply. U.S. eradication efforts elsewhere could not make much dent on this increase, and heroin plummeted in price and soared in purity.

The Cold War had had some influence on U.S. foreign policy related to drugs. Famously during the 1980s, the U.S. struggle to prevent the left-wing Sandinistas from taking power in Nicaragua involved U.S. support for Contras who were involved in cocaine trafficking. Somewhat less famously, the United States shipped arms and provided support to opium-growing rebels fighting against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan after 1979. The United States had facilitated or ignored drug dealing by many clients throughout the Cold War, since illicit drugs could garner large amounts of cash to support U.S. clients. The end of the Cold War did not end the intertwining of drugs and foreign policy.

War on Drugs after the Cold War

The basic strategy in the United States for combatting drug use did not change after the end of the Cold War. Rhetoric and policy both presented the drug problem as susceptible to law-enforcement solutions more than prevention and treatment, and as stemming from products originating outside the United States. These claims became increasingly difficult to sustain, however, in light of the changing nature of the drugs available in the illicit market.

During the 1990s, however, the drug problem looked familiar if frightening. The vast supplies of heroin on the world market meant that a heroin high was among the least expensive available, cheaper than a marijuana joint or even a beer in a bar. With prices so low, purity increased, meaning people snorted more than injected, which helped dissociate the drug from needles and the threat of AIDS. Heroin became the drug of choice for many pop culture stars, and the fashion industry was criticized for promoting “heroin chic,” a look featuring big dark glasses, baggy clothes, dark circles under the eyes, and bright red lipstick. Another component was, though fewer sources mention it, models thin to the point of emaciation, in imitation of addicts who have the depressed appetite associated with heroin addiction. The massive increase in heroin in the United States stemmed from increased production in traditional areas, such as Central Asia and Southeast Asia, but also from sources out of Central and South America, where cocaine historically had been grown.

U.S. foreign policy followed traditional policies to eradicate opium and coca production, too, but with the usual mixed results. Suppression had worked in Bolivia and Panama but only prompted production to move elsewhere. This led to the creation of narco-states in Colombia and Mexico, and the drug cartels in those two countries have proved to have enduring influence despite U.S. efforts to assist those governments in combatting the cartels. The problem is a complex one, but the amount of money the cartels generate through their illicit business dwarfs most other economic activity in these regions.

For a period, opium production from Asia was depressed, more by the actions of other countries than those of the United States. The Taliban’s victory over the Soviet Union in Afghanistan did lead to some suppression of opium production there, and Burma, Thailand, and Pakistan worked successfully to reduce the amount of opium grown and exported. After the start of the U.S. war in Afghanistan in 2001, however, disrupted conditions in Afghanistan, coupled with retaliatory actions by the retreating Taliban against farmers of other crops, led to the resurgence of opium production there. Under the Taliban, the number of hectares under cultivation for opium had averaged just over 60,000. Since 2002, the number has averaged 143,000 hectares (up to 2014), with a relatively steady increase each year.12 U.S. support for crop substitution and other types of economic development has made no dent in opium production. In 2015, Afghanistan supplied more than three-quarters of the world’s opium, although most U.S. heroin came from nearby Central and South America.

The eradication efforts in drug-producing countries continued to fail to meet the goal of significantly hindering foreign-grown cocaine and heroin from reaching the United States. But a different problem threatened the longstanding U.S. approach to combatting drugs: the increasing use of manufactured drugs, whether diverted prescription drugs or illicitly produced ones such as methamphetamine. Methamphetamine can be produced anywhere, using commonly available household products, so even though the majority of meth consumed in the United States historically has come from Mexico, the potential mechanisms for control differed from what U.S. authorities were accustomed to. Meth labs can be concealed in hotel rooms or the trunk of a car. Methamphetamines also appeared to be highly addictive compared to many other drugs. The purity of meth in the 1990s, when most of the meth sold in the United States was produced by Mexican cartels, contributed to the intensity of the high it produced and the consequent difficulty in stopping use. Still, methamphetamine use remained relatively rare. In the late 1990s, it peaked at approximately 4–6 percent of the population having tried it in their lifetime, and by 2013, only two in one thousand people acknowledged having used it in the previous month.13

Prescription-drug abuse was not a new problem in the 1990s. But amphetamines were more commonly in people’s medicine cabinets as the prescription rates of drugs like Adderall for ADHD soared, and the development of newly powerful opioid pain medications made these drugs more desirable. The leakage of drugs from the licit to the illicit market took many forms, from teenagers stealing from parents and grandparents to people selling excess pills to outright theft from homes and pharmacies. Though the problem is complex, increases in prescriptions for highly addictive opioids seems to have been a leading reason for the dramatic rise in addiction among working- and middle-class white Americans, especially in rural areas. Once prescriptions ran out, or became too expensive, addicts turned to cheaper, always-available heroin. Furthering complicating attempts to resolve this problem, street heroin often was laced with powerful synthetics, resulting in more and more serious overdoses. Police, schools, and emergency responders began to carry naloxone, which can reverse the effects of opioids, as part of their regular gear. The immediate effects of the drug could be reversed, but communities struggled to deal with the broader implications. It had become clear, however, that the way the drug problem had been conceived and fought since Nixon declared the war on drugs would not suffice.

A further complication in the war on drugs was growing public advocacy of legalization of at least medical marijuana, and often recreational marijuana too, as well as public rejection of the effects of the mandatory minimum sentencing policies. Rolling back these laws proved difficult, but by spring of 2016, President Barack Obama had pardoned more than 300 people convicted of nonviolent drug offenses. And by the end of 2016, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, the District of Columbia, California, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Maine had legalized marijuana, and many other states had decriminalized it or permitted medical marijuana under certain restrictions. The changing policies about marijuana did not have much effect on laws about other drugs, however. In 2016, the same basic approach to the control of drugs that had prevailed in 1914 still held. Drug users were perceived to come from the margins of society and be morally weak. The drug threat was best solved by suppressing supply, and any methods necessary to do that were acceptable. The war on drugs continued.

Discussion of the Literature

Scholarship about the long war on drugs tends to focus on either foreign policy or domestic policy, and is further divided by type of drug. Works about the foreign-policy aspects of drug policy have focused primarily on the pernicious effects of this policy on U.S. foreign relations. These works emphasize the ways U.S. drugs policy has increased the power of police agencies, beginning even before the creation of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and up through the present day in both the Drug Enforcement Agency and Central Intelligence Agency. Alfred W. McCoy’s The Politics of Heroin, first published in 1972 and in a third, updated edition in 2003, is the classic work taking this approach, and it inspired historians such as William Walker and Jeremy Kuzmarov. These scholars have critiqued the focus on supply reduction and the hypocritical use by U.S. allies of monies generated by the sale of illicit drugs to secretly fund political activities during the Cold War. They also have noted the expansive nature of the anti-narcotics police state. This scholarship typically has focused on efforts against trafficking in heroin or cocaine rather than marijuana or pharmaceuticals, perhaps because they have until recently been the most profitable internationally traded drugs, and production of them required expansive territory either under the trafficker’s control or where governments did not effectively combat drug production.14

Two other strands of scholarship explore aspects of U.S. foreign relations and drugs policy. A more recent trend related to the concern with secret policing and government power explores the environmental impact of both drug production and anti-narcotics efforts. Supply eradication has often focused on killing the poppy, coca, and marijuana plants, and the insecticides used for that have had devastating effects in some rural areas. Crop substitution has been a more benign method of reducing supply, but also has environmental consequences. The recent trend toward pharmaceuticals has its own environmental effects related to the production, particularly for drugs like methamphetamines, which have toxic byproducts. This is an emerging area for scholarship.15

Another group of scholars has explored the international relations behind creating the international drugs-control regime. This scholarship primarily explores how countries have worked together to create the international system for regulation of licit and illicit drugs, initially through the League of Nations and now through the United States. These historians have been less concerned with drugs and their effects than with the ways representatives of different countries have negotiated and compromised, and in the resulting drugs-control regime.16 This scholarship has focused primarily on agreements made in global regulatory bodies, and more work could be done on agreements in regional entities such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or Organization of American States.

In the scholarship on domestic drug policy, an important strand examines the origins of the concern with drug abuse and the development of the particular approach to drug control that exists in the United States. David Courtwright’s Dark Paradise, first published in 1982 and updated and republished in 2001, is the classic study of opiate addiction before 1940 and the development of a punitive approach to drug control. His study, along with David Musto’s The American Disease, first published in 1973 and republished in 1987 and 1999, inspired dispassionate explorations of the nature of addiction and medical understandings of it, as well as of the policies developed to combat drugs.17

Much of the scholarship about domestic drug policy has focused on the disparate effects of punitive policies on ethnic minorities and those living in poverty.18 Some historians also have explored the history of addiction treatment, shedding light on the practices and perceptions informing the creation of drug policy.19 It is important to select works on domestic drug policy with care, since much study of the history of drugs and drug policy in the United States also has been informed by advocacy, usually for decriminalization or legalization of some or all drugs. The current scholarship is influenced by the successful push for legalization of marijuana in some states, the increased attention to abuse of licit drugs, and the prevalence of pharmaceuticals, whether licitly or illicitly produced. Some of these works take the form of powerful oral histories, while others seek to offer solutions to the drug problem while exploring its nature.

Primary Sources

Both the United States government and the United Nations hold important collections for research into the history of U.S. drug policy. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime website contains official reports and other statistical and policy information for the last approximately twenty years.20 Similarly, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration website has official reports for the last few years.21 For older materials, at the United States National Archives, there are materials in many record groups. For a start, see Record Group 170 (Records of the Drug Enforcement Administration, 1915–1993), Record Group 43 (Records of International Conferences, Commissions, and Expositions, 1825–1979), and Record Group 90 (Records of the Public Health Service).

A selection of U.S. Department of State documents have been digitally published in Foreign Relations of the United States, with documents all the way back to the mid-19th century. Although this collection provides only a small subset of the material available in the archives in College Park, Maryland, it is an excellent starting point and is keyword searchable. The volumes dating 1861–1960 can be found at the University of Wisconsin.22 Volumes 1945–1988 (with the latter years not yet complete) can be found on the website of the Office of the Historian, Department of State.23 British documents related to international relations and opium have been published in a six-volume set titled The Opium Trade, 1910–1941, and these provide insight into U.S. policies from a different perspective.24

Private entities and foundations have also been involved with the history of drug policy in the United States. The records of the Bureau of Social Hygiene (1911–1940) at the Rockefeller Foundation Archives in Tarrytown, NY, have some fascinating material on the narcotics projects of the foundation. The papers of Harry S. Anslinger, available at the Pattee Library, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania, document the official most associated with the early history of U.S. domestic drug control.

Further Reading

Campos, Isaac. Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Courtwright, David T.Dark Paradise: A History of Opiate Addiction in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Foster, Anne L. “Prohibiting Opium in the Philippines and United States: Creation of an Interventionist State.” In Colonial Crucible: Empire in the Making of the Modern American State. Edited by Alfred W. McCoy and Francisco Scarano, 95–105. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Frydl, Kathleen J.The Drug Wars in America, 1940–1973. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Hickman, Timothy A. “‘Mania Americana’: Narcotic Addiction and Modernity in the United States, 1870–1920.” Journal of American History 90.4 (2004): 1269–1294.Find this resource:

Kuzmarov, Jeremy. The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Lassiter, Matthew D. “Impossible Criminals: The Suburban Imperatives of America’s War on Drugs.” Journal of American History 102.1 (2015): 126–140.Find this resource:

McCoy, Alfred W.The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2003.Find this resource:

Musto, David F., editor. Drugs in America: A Documentary History. New York: New York University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Schneider, Eric C.Smack: Heroin and the American City. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Walker, William O., III. Drug Control Policy: Essays in Historical and Comparative Perspective. State College: Penn State University Press, 2004.Find this resource:


(1.) Sir Cecil Clementi Smith to Sir Edward Grey, December 19, 1911, no. 212 and enclosure, F.O. 415 [British] Foreign Office Confidential Print, Opium, in The Opium Trade, 1910–1941, vol. 1, part 4 (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1974), 116–119, quote on p. 118. The twelfth resolution extended these provisions to medicinal opium, any preparation more than 1 percent cocaine or more than 2 percent morphine, to heroin (more than 1 percent), to codeine (more than 4 percent) and to any new derivatives or drugs with similar properties to be developed subsequently. This information is on page 119.

(2.) The Harrison Act did not cover sale of marijuana or chloral. Marijuana would be prohibited in 1937 with a similar tax act process. Chloral was already falling out of favor as a recreational and medicinal drug.

(3.) William B. McAllister, Drug Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century: An International History (New York: Routledge, 2000), 181.

(4.) The United States now has five schedules in domestic law, but the principle is the same.

(5.) David Courtwright, Dark Paradise: A History of Opiate Addiction in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 156.

(6.) Jeremy Kuzmarov, The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006).

(7.) Courtwright, Dark Pardise, p. 168.

(8.) The text of the speech can be found at Richard Nixon: “Special Message to the Congress on Drug Abuse Prevention and Control,” June 17, 1971. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.

(9.) David F. Musto, The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 273–274.

(10.) See discussion in Musto, American Disease, 278.

(11.) Alfred W. McCoy, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2003), 443–444.

(12.) Averages calculated from figures provided in the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Afghanistan Opium Survey 2014: Cultivation and Production (November 2014), 12.

(13.) Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Behavioral Health Trends in the United States: Results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, HHS Publication No. SMA 15-4927, NSDUH Series H-50 (2015). Retrieved from

(14.) McCoy, Politics of Heroin; William O. Walker III, ed., Drugs in the Western Hemisphere: An Odyssey of Cultures in Conflict (New York: Rowman and Little, 1996); Jeremy Kuzmarov, The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009).

(15.) See Daniel Weimer, “The Politics of Contamination: Herbicides, Drug Control and the Question of Extraterritoriality in U.S. Environmental Law,” forthcoming in Diplomatic History.

(16.) The classic is William B. McAllister, Drug Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century: An International History (London: Routledge, 2000). See also Anne L. Foster, “Opium, the United States and the Civilizing Mission in Colonial Southeast Asia,” Social History of Alcohol and Drugs 24 (Winter 2010): 6–19.

(17.) David T. Courtwright, Dark Paradise: A History of Opiate Addiction in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001); David F. Musto, The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

(18.) Kathleen J. Frydl, The Drug Wars in America, 1940–1973 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Doris Marie Provine, Unequal Under Law: Race in the War on Drugs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

(19.) Caroline Jean Acker, Creating the American Junkie: Addiction Research in the Classic Era of Narcotic Control (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005); Nancy Campbell, et al., The Narcotic Farm: The Rise and Fall of America’s First Prison for Drug Addicts (New York: Abrams, 2008).

(20.) United Nations, Office on Drugs and Crime.

(21.) United States Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration.

(22.) United States Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States (1861–1960) in Digital Collections of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

(24.) The Opium Trade, 1910–1941, 6 vols. (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1974).