War as a behavioral concept has become so successful, so popular in American culture that a person can choose ‘entertainment’ from a menu of current ‘war’ themed television shows: Neighborhood Wars, Customer Wars, and even a December special called “Christmas Wars.” An endless array of ‘reality’ shows and movies feature one or another war, current or historical. Before the 1970s, war movies generally portrayed actual events in American and world history, serving as a type of education on the many failings and successes of humanity.
Wars on Americans actually began with the first colonists, who began a genocide against the Native Americans. Then there were the Black people, finally freed from slavery with the Civil War but thereafter denigrated, attacked, and lynched with impunity. The War on Black Americans escalated with the Civil Rights movement 1954-1968 when Blacks dared to stand up.
Richard Nixon ushered in a new war in 1971, the War on Drugs. In itself a misnomer, the war on drugs was actually a war on Americans who used, sold, or manufactured any non-sanctioned psychoactive substance including marijuana, hashish, opium/heroin, cocaine, LSD, peyote/mescaline, and psilocybin mushrooms, among others.
The term was popularized by the media shortly after a press conference given on June 18, 1971, by President Richard Nixon—the day after publication of a special message from President Nixon to the Congress on Drug Abuse Prevention and Control—during which he declared drug abuse “public enemy number one.” That message to the Congress included text about devoting more federal resources to the “prevention of new addicts, and the rehabilitation of those who are addicted” but that part did not receive the same public attention as the term “war on drugs.”
The target ‘enemy’ in this war was the Baby Boom generation for whom use of marijuana had become a rite of passage, along with use of psychedelics as a spiritual experience.
The motives behind Nixon’s campaign against drugs are disputed. John Ehrlichman, who was Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs under Nixon, was quoted by Dan Baum as saying in 1994:
The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
Nixon’s alleged strategy was successful to the extent that many of the best and brightest of the generation were harmed in this war in various ways: imprisonment alongside actual criminals (often including rape, beatings, psychological abuse), loss of employment, disenfranchisement from voting or holding public office, loss of student loans and other financial aid, and outright physical harm including death at the hands of police.
And yet despite this heavy toll on an entire generation and its successors, the drug war has failed utterly to eradicate drug use or addiction. Every 25 seconds, someone in America is arrested for drug possession. The number of Americans arrested for possession has tripled since 1980, reaching 1.3 million arrests per year in 2015. The harsher penalties led to a 1,216% increase in the state prison population for drug offenses, from 19,000 to 250,000 between 1980 and 2008.
An unexpected result of this ‘war’ on drugs was the rise of a widespread underground marketplace where illegal drugs were readily sold. To the detriment of the consumers, these black market drugs were not tested or labeled for purity, nor were buyers checked for age identification as required for alcohol, allowing sales to young teens. Further, this massively lucrative market paid no taxes.
But the least expected and most destructive result of this war on Americans was the rapid proliferation of inner city gangs which used the underground marketplace to reap enormous profits. The wealth flowing into these gangs fulfilled the American dream, allowing impoverished young entrepreneurs to sport nice clothes, new cars, and—most importantly—arsenals.
In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s presidency saw a significant expansion of the drug war.
In the first term of the presidency, Ronald Reagan signed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, which expanded penalties towards possession of cannabis, established a federal system of mandatory minimum sentences, and established procedures for civil asset forfeiture. From 1980 to 1984, the federal annual budget of the FBI’s drug enforcement units went from 8 million to 95 million. …In 1982, Vice President George H. W. Bush and his aides began pushing for the involvement of the CIA and U.S. military in drug interdiction efforts.
…the number of arrests for all crimes had risen by 28%, the number of arrests for drug offenses rose 126%. The result of increased demand was the development of privatization and the for-profit prison industry. The U.S. Department of Justice, reporting on the effects of state initiatives, has stated that, from 1990 through 2000, “the increasing number of drug offenses accounted for 27% of the total growth among black inmates, 7% of the total growth among Hispanic inmates, and 15% of the growth among white inmates.” In addition to prison or jail, the United States provides for the deportation of many non-citizens convicted of drug offenses.
… during the Presidency of Ronald Reagan … the war on drugs [greatly expanded] a general trend towards the militarization of police. The 1981 Military Cooperation with Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies Act allows the U.S. military to cooperate with domestic and foreign law enforcement agencies. …This allows the U.S. military to give law enforcement agencies access to its military bases and its military equipment.
In the misguided and enormously destructive American war on Americans, the harms have by far outweighed any slim benefit. A 2018 study published in the journal PNAS found that “militarized police units are more often deployed in communities with large shares of African American residents, even after controlling for local crime rates.” The study also found that “militarized policing fails to enhance officer safety or reduce local crime.” The policies of prohibition and police militarization are responsible for the rampant violence inflicted by police on persons ‘suspected’ of criminal activity, most recently resulting in the January 2023 beating death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of five Memphis police officers.
The militarization of police escalated the war on Americans and was met with a more sophisticated response from street gangs and other outlaws. A 2014 ACLU report, War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing, concluded that “American policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized …” The report cites an increase in unnecessarily aggressive raids, “tactics designed for the battlefield,” and equipment such as armored personnel carriers and flashbang grenades—as well as a lack of transparency and oversight. Drug cartels and their street dealers have met the challenge, acquiring semi-automatic weapons and other advanced weaponry.
Lured by the enormous profits involved, Latin Americans tapped into the illegal drug trade by growing fields of marijuana and acres of coca plants. The U.S. response was to send military and CIA operatives to these countries to help form paramilitary forces to eradicate the drug trade. The opposite has occurred, with Mexican and Colombian cartels now said to generate a total of $18 to $39 billion in wholesale drug proceeds per year. Latinos desperate to escape the escalating violence in their home countries settled into places like East Los Angeles and became subjects of white gang violence. Learning from their experience, the young male immigrants formed their own gangs. Ultimately, arrests for criminal activity resulted in deportation, and once deported, many of these men followed the blueprint by building gangs (cartels) in their home countries where they could intimidate local citizens, bribe police and elected officials, and ultimately create a reign of terror with kidnapping, blackmail, and murder that continues to drive terrified residents of those nations toward U.S. borders in an effort to find safety.
Since 2008, the U.S. Congress has supported the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) with approximately $800 million to “fund programs for narcotics interdiction, strengthening law enforcement and justice institutions and violence prevention through work with at-risk youth.” The CARSI offers equipment (vehicles and communication equipment), technical support and guidance to counter drug trade. The program also supports special units that cooperate with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Guatemala and Honduras to investigate drug cartels, share intelligence, and promote regional collaboration.
Overall, the harm resulting from the War on Drugs far outweighs any supposed benefit. It has brought us to a point where aggressive policing results in regular beatings, shootings, and murders of Americans, especially Black males. It has drained the U. S. Treasury an estimated $1 trillion while drug use, abuse, and production have accelerated. Currently, drug offenders form 47% of the federal prison population (2020) and 23.5% of Arkansas’ prison population (2019). It has fostered the immigration problem at our southern border.
Legalization of all drugs is the answer, and long past due. People can legally risk/ruin their lives with tobacco and alcohol, and illicit drugs must be regulated and taxed the same. Eliminating this travesty against Americans and the horrific expense of tax dollars will allow the funding of community clinics where anyone can seek help if they need it. Meanwhile, legalization eliminates the inner city police mindset of ‘war’ and moves us a step closer to ending our ‘war’ on our neighbors.
 John Ehrlichman, to Dan Baum for Harper’s Magazine in 1994, about President Richard Nixon’s war on drugs, declared in 1971.
 Mummolo, Jonathan (2018). “Militarization fails to enhance police safety or reduce crime but may harm police reputation”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 115 (37): 9181–9186.