Over 50 years ago, the “war on drugs” began in the United States, aimed at reducing illegal use of narcotics and street drugs. This expanded crack down on drugs perpetuated and expanded discriminatory policing practices and is largely considered a policy failure today.

War On Drugs History

The war on drugs began when President Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) into law in 1970. The CSA made most drugs illegal, sorting them by their potential for abuse and danger into classes, or schedules. Schedule I drugs are considered the most serious and Schedule V the least dangerous.

In 1971, Nixon formally declared a war on drugs and began to increase funding for drug enforcement as well as expand criminal penalties for drug possession. Two years later, Nixon bolstered the war on drugs with the creation of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA. The DEA is a federal police agency with the sole purpose of preventing drug imports into the country and prosecuting those who are caught smuggling, selling, or using drugs.

The war on drugs focuses on using law enforcement as a tool for preventing the distribution and use of drugs. Treatment for drug addiction and harm reduction are far less a priority. As a result, a staggering portion of the population is either incarcerated or on parole for drug violations. And Black and brown communities are overwhelmingly affected by these drug war policies.

Over the years, many have questioned the war on drugs, the motivations of those who put it into practice, and its efficacy. As the fervor for the war on drugs has waned in recent years, many areas in the US have elected to decriminalize certain drugs that are Schedule I substances, like marijuana and psilocybin.

However, while public opinion leans heavily toward the decriminalization of drugs, the war on drugs hasn’t really ended. Millions are currently incarcerated for personal drug possession, and arrests for drug use continue to soar.