On this dayJun 18, 1971

The "War on Drugs” Begins in America


On June 18, 1971, following President Richard Nixon’s speech to Congress, the media in America declared the beginning of the “War on Drugs,” which has shaped crime policy for the last half century. The U.S. prison population went from almost 200,000 people in 1971 to 2.2 million today, and we now have the highest incarceration rate in the world. 

The day prior, President Nixon announced new drug policies that marked the beginning of an era in which the use and/or trafficking of drugs became central to the federal government's positions on social policy and crime. In doing so, President Nixon declared drug abuse to be “public enemy number one,” shifting the national conversation from eliminating the causes of crime, or treating drug use as a public health crisis, to punishing "the criminal." In July 1973, President Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to “combat an all-out global war on the drug menace.” Since its inception, the DEA has quadrupled the number of special agents and tripled its budget to $2.02 billion.

In response to President Nixon’s announcement, on June 18, the U.S. media proclaimed the beginning of the “War on Drugs.” As The Associated Press and other outlets published an article coining the phrase, the sensationalist phrase was picked up by dozens of newspapers around the country. Local news outlets published articles with headlines like “All-out War on Drugs!” and—quoting President Nixon's speech—"Let's Tighten the Noose on Drug Peddlers."

Since President Nixon’s announcement, the U.S. has had a 700% increase in the national prison population and has become the world's most carceral nation. Although the country accounts for only 5% of the world's population, it confines 25% of the world's prisoners. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, nearly 50% of people in federal prisons are currently incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses.

In addition to criminalizing drug abuse, the drug war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color. Though rates of drug use and sales are comparable across racial lines, people of color are far more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and incarcerated for drug law violations when compared to white people. The lifelong penalties and exclusions that follow a drug conviction render huge numbers of primarily poor people of color into an American underclass that is disenfranchised and prevented from accessing social benefits like housing, food, and educational assistance. Discriminatory enforcement of drug policy has undermined its effectiveness and legitimacy while contributing to continuing dysfunction in the administration of criminal justice.


Nixon calls war on drugs

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