Just Say No!: A Tale of Drug Reform, Mass Incarceration, and Foreign Intervention Through the War on Drugs


A war has been raging on, right under our noses. A war that has hurt many. Millions are in jail or federal prison for one idea. Families have been disrupted under that one idea. Countries have felt the heavy weight of the United States under that same idea. In 1971, President Richard Nixon let loose 40 years of destruction and class separation when he declared this idea. The idea that drug abuse is “public enemy number one”(“Thirty Years of America’s Drug War”). Although fighting drug abuse is a noble endeavor, interdiction and incarceration are not. We must do something. Of course, I am not trying to end a war with this article, but hopefully you might be able to learn a little and get interested in the topic.


How I got interested:

        I first became interested in this topic due to a couple of very popular Netflix shows: Breaking Bad, and Narcos. Breaking Bad involves a former high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with cancer and his involvement in the meth trade. The DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) has a heavy role in the story, as it did in the actual War on Drugs. Narcos follows two American DEA officers and their interactions with the drug lord Pablo Escobar in the late 80s when Colombia was exporting more cocaine than coffee and oil combined. (Narcos), as an extension of the War on Drugs started in the early 70s. Although these shows inspired me to write about drug policy and the drug trade, what truly kicked me into gear with this issue was the movie 13th. The movie primarily focuses on the treatment of blacks through history since the 13th amendment after the Civil War, but has a large segment addressing the War on Drugs and its effect on black communities. The horrors of the war and its impact on the US truly inspired me to dive deeply into this issue. I want to discover the many stories and opinions on the war, and ultimately how to solve the current issues of mass incarceration, minority targeting, and government spending. Here is a video by TheAtlantic giving an outline on the issue of mass incarceration.

TheAtlantic. “Mass Incarceration, Visualized.” YouTube, YouTube, 2 Oct. 2015,


        Even though the War on Drugs has been a major issue since the 70’s, social awareness around drug abuse issues began as far back as the late 1800s. Although we know now that opioids such as heroin and morphine can lead to addiction and many health problems, opium and other drugs were used very commonly in the late 1800s, early 1900s as treatment for minor health issues. (Moghe). In 1898, companies like the Bayer Co produced heroin commercially. By the 20s’, doctors knew the addictive side of opioids and became more cautious in how they were prescribed. In 1924, Heroin became illegal (Moghe). All of this drug reform, and a spike and drug abuse, led to the start of the War on Drugs.


        The War on Drugs truly started with the Nixon presidency, as he pushed for drug reform and brought the drug crisis to the minds of Americans. One of the things Nixon did as president was to create drug control agencies and new measures. Under his presidency, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was created to fight drug possession and trade (“DEA History”). Since then, the agency was used to stifle drug trade and take down drug lords. In 1977, newly elected President Jimmy Carter was “inaugurated on a platform that included marijuana decriminalization” (“A Brief History…”). The Senate Judiciary platform voted in October 1977 to “decriminalize possession of up to one ounce of marijuana for personal use”. However, after a few years, the opinion changed as parents were worried about teenage marijuana use. Sadly, increased crackdown on drugs led to more arrests and targeting of minority groups. John Ehrlichman, a Nixon aide, admitted that: “The Nixon White house…had two enemies: the anti-[Vietnam War] left and black people…We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be against the war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and the blacks with heroin…we could disrupt those communities.” (“A Brief History…”). Racism and prejudice was behind the curtain of the Nixon administration’s anti-drug efforts, leading to increased rates of incarceration and split up families.

Image result for nixon

Glass, Andrew. “Nixon Announces Intention to Resign, Aug. 8, 1974.” POLITICO, POLITICO LLC, 8 Aug. 2017,

        President Ronald Reagan also had massive impact on society through anti-drug effort,  leading to even more minority targeting and foreign intervention. He doubled anti-drug efforts and expanded mandatory minimum laws with his Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. The big controversy during his campaign was crack vs. powder cocaine. Crack cocaine was a new drug on the market, and it was more popular in low income, black communities. White cocaine was associated and more popular in higher income white communities. Because the drug was new and more potent than cocaine, it attracted lots of attention (Noronha). Former Vice-President Joe Biden, then Senator Biden, proposed the 100-1 ratio for crack compared to cocaine. It valued cocaine as 1/100th of the penalty of crack, targeting the low-income communities where crack was mostly used. A form of racism was built in through this law and the crack hysteria, whether intentional or not (Noronha).  Lastly, one of the biggest events during Reagan’s presidency was the Invasion of Panama. Operation Just Cause, as it was known, happened in December of 1989, and resulted in the capture of Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian dictator and the Panamanian Defense Forces. The main focus of the attack was to take him and his drug ring down. It was short and effective, but remains one of the biggest examples of foreign anti-drug interference by the US in its history (Schwaller). Here is a small diagram outlining prison sentences between crack and cocaine.

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“Crack vs Cocaine: Ingredients, Effects, Users & Crime Stats.” American Addiction Centers, American Addiction Centers,

        The war continued through the 90s when Bill Clinton passed his controversial crime bill in 1994. It was called the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. At the time, violent crime affected almost 11 million Americans and 32 million experienced theft or burglaries. It put many in fear and stunted economic life out of many neighborhoods (Yassky). It originally was supposed to be more focused on stopping violent crime and enhancing drug rehabilitation. It originally reduced sentences by making first time offenders exempt form the mandatory minimum laws. It also paid for drug courts, treatment programs, “boot camp” rehab programs, and other forms of incarceration-free rehabilitation. The bill  “allocated more than $3 billion to keep at-risk young people away from gangs and the drug trade.” (Yassky). However, in order for the bill to pass, many Reagan era policies had to stay in place, as well as the addition of new policies such as the 3 Strikes Rule that forced mandatory life sentences for those who had committed violent crimes 3 times. Allocated funding provided for 100,000 new officers, helped build new prisons, and expanded the death penalty, bringing new ways for poor minorities to be oppressed (Lussenhop).

Image result for bill clinton crime bill

Dudley, Steven. “Senate Crime Bill Unscrutinized by the Press.” FAIR, 8 Apr. 2016,

The War Today:

        Today, the War on Drugs is still very much of an issue. Here are some statistics: in 2009, almost 1.7 million people were arrested in the country for nonviolent drug use, and more than half of the 1.7 million were for marijuana possession. The U.S. has the most people in jail in the world, with less than 5% of the global population but a quarter of the world’s inmates. And lastly, racial discrimination in anti-drug policy is still an issue. Although whites and blacks use drugs almost equally, black people are “10 times more likely to be sent to prison for drug offenses”(“Drug War Today”). The US also has had many programs running internationally to fight drug trade and cartels. The Merida Initiative, a project that began in 2008, is a partnership between the US and Mexico to fight criminal groups, create reforms to support human rights, and help democratic institution (Merida Initiative). Plan Colombia is a US funded plan to fight drug trafficking in Colombia that started in 2001. Although it has reduced levels of violence, the techniques of coca field destruction have been controversial and found by the World Health Organization to be most likely carcinogenic, and the results have shown it has been ineffective (Cosoy).

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Navarez, Ailana. “COLOMBIA: Obama Pledges Continuing Plan Colombia After FARC Peace Agreement.” Pulsamerica, 9 Feb. 2016,


        In short, the War On Drugs has had an enormous impact on our country. Immense government spending, law enforcement buffing, racial targeting, and public service announcements: everyone has felt its effects. Many are still in jail and drug use has not shown huge evidence of decreasing. There have been efforts for solving the problem through legalization and international support, but many of them have a long ways to go before being truly effective. Many people would also be hurt if the war was to end, and these groups have lots of lobbying power. If it were to end, law enforcement and prison systems would lose funding, and the tobacco and alcohol industry would lose customers. Pharmaceutical companies would also lose money, since many prefer marijuana to some medicines because of the side effects (Eaves). We still have a fight on our hands.

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Hall, Anthony L. “Is It Time to End the War on Drugs.” The IPINIONS Journal,

What can we do?:

      The US currently spends more than 50 billion dollars a year to stifle drug use and trade, ad constant arrests are still made for drug related incidents. The number of arrests in 2016 for violation of drug law was 1.5 million, and 1.2 million of those were for possession only. Also, out of those 1.5 million, 650,000 arrests were made for marijuana related violations, and 570,000 out of those were for possession only (“Drug War Statistics”). Seeing that it is still an issue, many have put forth solutions to the problem. One way we can lower the amount of incarcerated people is by lowering the penalties for the possession of drugs. For marijuana, a first time offense for possession can result in up to one year in prison and a minimum fine of $1,000, and that increases each time you do it. For cultivation, and sale of marijuana, you can spend up to 5 years for a smaller amount and up to life for a huge amount (“Federal Laws & Penalties”). Because of these strict drug laws, the US has an immense amount of people in jail. Hillary Clinton, speaking on Criminal Justice at Columbia University in 2015, noted: “It’s a stark fact that the United States has less than five percent of the world’s population, yet we have almost 25 percent of the world’s total prison population. The numbers today are much higher than they were 30, 40 years ago despite the fact that crime is at historic lows” (Lee). Here is a graph that shows the world’s map proportional to prison population.

The World's Map Proportional To Prison Population

Kelley, Michael B. “This World Map Shows The Enormity Of America’s Prison Problem.”Business Insider, Business Insider, 24 Jan. 2014,


        Many see Legalization of marijuana as an answer, and I definitely believe so as well. Legalization could reduce arrests and interdiction and create jobs in the marijuana industry. It would also increase federal regulation and reduce the power of the drug cartel. The legalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado has cost the Mexican drug cartels over $2.7 billion dollars in profits (“Should Recreational Marijuana Be Legal?”). Lastly, marijuana could also free up police resources and decrease police funding. The government could then use that money instead to set up treatment centers and bolster educational programs (“Should Recreational Marijuana Be Legal?”). Other drugs like morphine, cocaine, heroin, etc…, although they are extremely harmful, are still putting people in jail for minor possession infractions. As a first step, decreasing penalties for drugs is very beneficial. Of course, to truly change things instead of mitigating the effects, we have to change the way we treat drug use. We have to treat drug use as a health issue, not as much as a crime (“UNODC Recommends Treating Addiction as Health, Not Legal, Issue.”). People come into hospitals each day because of drug overdose and other related issues. Addiction is a mental and health problem, and instead of throwing users in jail we need to put them in treatment programs and centers to help them get clean. The only way we can help them is to set them free of the chains of addiction.

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“The War on Drugs: Online Resources.”,


Millions have been affected, many still will, unless we do something. Educate your friends, your family, and lead social change! A great starting point would be the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization built to support policies and ideas that will help reduce the impact of drugs on people and communities. 


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Works Cited:

“A Brief History of the Drug War.” Drug Policy Alliance,


Cosoy, Natalio. “Has Plan Colombia Really Worked?” BBC News, BBC, 4 Feb. 2016,

“Crack vs Cocaine: Ingredients, Effects, Users & Crime Stats.” American Addiction Centers, American Addiction Centers,

“DEA History.”, United States Drug Enforcement Administration,

“Drug War Statistics.” Drug Policy Alliance, Drug Policy Alliance,

“Drug War Today.” The House I Live In, Charlotte Street Films,

Dudley, Steven. “Senate Crime Bill Unscrutinized by the Press.” FAIR, 8 Apr. 2016,

Eaves, Lucas. “Who Benefits Most from the War on Drugs?”, IVN, 20 Feb. 2013,

Kelley, Michael B. “This World Map Shows The Enormity Of America’s Prison Problem.”Business Insider, Business Insider, 24 Jan. 2014,

“Federal Laws & Penalties.” The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws,


Glass, Andrew. “Nixon Announces Intention to Resign, Aug. 8, 1974.” POLITICO, POLITICO LLC, 8 Aug. 2017,

Hall, Anthony L. “Is It Time to End the War on Drugs.” The IPINIONS Journal,

“Is the War on Drugs Succeeding?” Harvard Law Today, Harvard Law School, 2005,

Lee, Michelle Ye Hee. “Does the United States Really Have 5 Percent of the World’s Population and One Quarter of the World’s Prisoners?” The Washington Post, WP Company, 30 Apr. 2015,

Lussenhop, Jessica. “Clinton Crime Bill: Why Is It so Controversial?” BBC News, BBC, 18 Apr.


“Merida Initiative.” U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State,

Moghe, Sonia. “Opioid History: From ‘Wonder Drug’ to Abuse Epidemic.”, Cable News Network, 14 Oct. 2016, 6:41 AM,             

Narcos. “By 1987, Colombia Exported More Cocaine than Oil and Coffee Combined. #Cokenomics #Narcos” Twitter, Twitter, 17 Sept. 2015,

Navarez, Ailana. “COLOMBIA: Obama Pledges Continuing Plan Colombia After FARC Peace Agreement.” Pulsamerica, 9 Feb. 2016,

Noronha, Maya M. “Vindicating Reagan’s Drug Policy…25 Years Later.” The Daily Signal, 20

Apr. 2011,

Schwaller, Shannon. “Operation Just Cause: the Invasion of Panama, December

1989.”, US Army, 17 Nov. 2008,

“Should Recreational Marijuana Be Legal?”,

TheAtlantic. “Mass Incarceration, Visualized.” YouTube, YouTube, 2 Oct. 2015,

“The War on Drugs: Online Resources.”,


“UNODC Recommends Treating Addiction as Health, Not Legal, Issue.” NIDA, National

Institute on Drug Abuse, 27 Mar. 2014,

Yassky, David. “Unlocking the Truth About the Clinton Crime Bill.” The New York Times, The

New York Times, 9 Apr. 2016,




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