Drug War 101

Liberty and justice for all

America's War at Home

Free Amy!
Who's in prison?


A Brief History

It is called The Drug War, and it has been America's longest war.

The federal government had no role in the health and drug trades until early this century, when labeling requirements were placed on patent medicines. Prohibition was repeatedly ruled unconstitutional until:

  • 1919 The 18th Amendment banned commerce in alcohol on a national level. The violent and corrupt "Roaring Twenties" ensued.
  • 1933 The people had had enough. The 21st Amendment repealed the Volstead Act, ending Constitutional authority for Prohibition.
  • 1937 Prohibitionists disguised the Marihuana Tax Act as a revenue bill and banned an entire plant species through regulation enforcement. The narcotics bureaucracy had found a gateway drug law.
  • 1961 The UN adopted the Single Convention Treaty on Narcotic Drugs, opening the way for more stringent enforcement. The CIA went into Vietnam and heroin began to flow into America from Asia.
  • 1968 The U.S. signed the Treaty. In the grips of the Vietnam War and the "generation gap," federal policy continued to harden.
  • 1969 The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Marijuana Tax Act was unconstitutional. Drug control authority was eventually written into a "scheduling" hoax that extended prohibition enforcement. Under this system, drugs are not officially 'prohibited'; they're 'illicit'. But people still go to prison for using them.
  • 1970 Congressman George Bush joined the growing majority of office holders who opposed mandatory minimum sentences "because they remove a great deal of the court's discretion."
  • 1972 President Richard Nixon appointed a National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse. The panel, known as the Shafer Commission, called for decriminalizing marijuana and a policy of control based on medical risk, so Nixon denounced its report and declared a"War on Drugs". Nixon's war faltered amid a cloud of curruption when he resigned office during his second term, while facing impeachment charges.
  • 1978 President Jimmy Carter publicly advocated decriminalizing up to an ounce of marihuana in his statement to Congress on drug policy, but behind the scenes moved to steer the Drug War back on course.
  • 1980 Drug warrior Ronald Reagan assumed office and brought the military industrial comples into the battlefield. The CIA went to Central America and cocaine began to flow back to our cities.
  • 1984 Reagan announced: "You ain't seen nothin' yet!" and promptly militarized the Drug War. Zero tolerance became the stepping stone to widespread implementation of urine testing. His 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act went farther, adding property forfeiture law under Nancy's rallying cry: "Just say no."
  • Late 1980s Democrats and Republicans vied to out do each other in criminalizing and punishing drug users. As Vice President and later as President George Bush supported the return of Mandatory Minimum prison sentences. Physical evidence was replaced by sentencing guidelines. No knock search warrants, hearsay evidence, and high-tech surveillance systems extended the realm of thought-crime into conspiracy laws.
  • Early 1990s Baby Boom President Bill "I didn't inhale" Clinton campaigned on MTV, stating "The punishment should fit the crime." Once in office, he reversed gear and pursued yet another round of escalations in the Drug War, including, for the first time ever, the death penalty for growing marihuana in the 1994 Federal Crime Bill.
  • 1995 The 10 millionth marijuana arrest since 1965 occurred in Ohio when Tod McCormick, a medical marijuana patient with a Dutch prescription, was pulled over in an illegal roadside search. A national survey found that 95% of police officers believed the US to be losing the Drug War.
  • 1996 More than 60% of federal prisoners are locked up for drug offenses. While mandatory minimum sentences require that drug offenders serve full term sentences, mandatory release programs put violent felons back out on the streets to reduce prison crowding. Marijuana arrests are at an all time high, and citizens of California and Arizona vote overwhelmingly to legalize medical marijuana. Federal policy continues to lose support when appointed officials threaten to arrest doctors and patients.
  • 1997 Business as usual. The Clinton administration begins the year with an all-out assault on doctors and patients for medical marijuana until a court orders them to desist. Malicious prosecution continues. The rate of incarceration for African American males hits a new record high, as does federal spending on the failed drug war. A new war is beginning to be waged on tobacco users. The National Istitute on Health reports that needle exchanges clearly save lives, and congress instantly forbids it from relaxing the ban on clean needles. Oregon legislators vote to recriminalize cannabis use, and a voters' referendum is launched to block it from taking effect.
  • 1998 When confronted with scientific proof that needle exchange reduces infectuous disease without increasing drug use, Janet Reno and Drug Czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey decide to ignore the results and continue the ban. Clinton launches a multi-billion dollar propaganda campaign that uses federal tax money to purchase advertising time and space for the private sector's leading advocate of prohibition, the PDFA (Partnership for a Drug Free America). Congress takes time from its investigations of Clinton to pass ever more repressive legislation. Numerous new studies vindicate the medical marijuana reform position, and voters in five states pass initiatives at the ballot box to legalize it. Faced with an overwhelming favorable vote, Congress directly intervenes to block the vote count in Washington DC. At the same time, Oregon voters overturn the state legislature's attempt to reinstate criminal penalties for marijuana, and Arizona voters vote to medicalize all controlled substances (illegal drugs). California votes its leading drug warrior, Dan Lungren, out of office by a huge majority. Teenage use of all drugs levels off nationally.
  • 1999 Public revulsion at the hypocrisy of the federal government is at a record high. Yet another drug warrior is elected speaker of the house, and Congress fights in court to suppress the count of the Washington DC popular vote to legalize marijuana for medical use.
  • None of this has had a substantial effect in reducing drug use or making the public more safe - only in reducing respect for human rights. The Drug War is an abject failure, and it is time for America to cut its losses and change political course to solve its problems.

Your Home Is Your Castle:
The Right to Privacy

Privacy has long been considered an implied right of the Constitution, as described in the Fourth Amendment; but what this covers is vague and has been eroded dramatically by the Drug War.

Courts have ruled that chemical analysis of body fluids, and body cavity searches by police are not excessive. Government agents are allowed to pose as people's friends, rifle through their trash, monitor telephone and electrical bills, peer over fences, fly over homes, scan them with infrared sensors, heat detectors and even enhanced satellite surveillance photography to see what Americans are doing in their own backyards.

Is America Addicted to the Drug War?

The Drug War grinds on as a monotonous, dehumanizing routine:

News media play up public fears to sell copy. Politicians sell themselves as being "tough on crime." Every year, they ban more activities, and pass longer prison sentences, more forfeiture laws, and higher enforcement budgets. The next year they repeat this same ritual. Well paid bureaucrats scrutinize the legal system for glimmers of compassion, discretion and freedom to close the "loopholes." Drug warriors write Anti-This Acts and Omnibus That Laws and forbid discussion of reform. Human rights violations and conflicts of interest within the prison and law enforcement industries are accepted as a regrettable aspect of doing war. Another record size property seizure; more mothers in prison; one marijuana arrest every 49 seconds with over 11 million busts served; the biggest law enforcement budgets in history, the most sweeping and intrusive police powers ever.

Our government shows advanced symptoms of being addicted to its own Drug War. Politicians habitually increase their drug law dosage. Constantly looking for a stronger fix, they spend the nation into debt without getting satisfaction. Our leaders refuse to admit the destructive consequences of their behavior. Drug enforcement agents abuse the public trust. The media reinforce the negative behavior while living in morbid denial of their own role, like a co-dependent partner.

Lost in the frenzy is a simple fact. Illicit drug users are people, too. Most casual drug users are peaceful and productive members of society until they become casualties of the Drug War.

The Price Tag

Over the course of his eight years in office, Reagan spent $22.6 billion on his revived Drug War. Another major escalation was pushed through under George Bush, who spent $42.5 billion in a single term. Under Clinton, spending has continued to increase, with $16 billion for one year alone allocated in the 1998 fiscal budget. Those figures show federal spending only, not counting all unfunded mandates passed onto states.

Spending at other levels of government adds up to approximately the same as the federal budget, so in 1998 you can expect to see well over $30 billion spent on the Drug War.

In 1999, the federal Drug War budget alone is expected to rise again to $17 billion. Are we better off by wasting ever more money on the Drug War? Where will it end?

$$$ The average cost of incarcerating a federal inmate is $23,000 per year. (FAMM, Coalition for Federal Sentencing Reform, March, 1997.)

$$$ Almost 60% of federal inmates &emdash; 55,624 people! &emdash; are drug offenders. Half of these are first time, non-violent offenders. (Bureau of Prisons, 1997.)

$$$ To feed, clothe, house and guard these 55,624 prisoners costs taxpayers $3.5 million per day, or $1.27 billion annually.


And There's Lots More!

$$$ Public assistance or welfare for children of inmates who have lost a breadwinner,

$$$ Foster care for children who have lost their parents,

$$$ Unnecessary and inaccurate urine testing of employees, damaging both morale and job productivity,

$$$ Medical costs to treat people for diseases spread by sharing dirty needles due to bans on needle exchange programs,

$$$ Homes, property, cars, and savings forfeited from families of inmates,

$$$ Money, property stolen to support expensive illegal drug habits,

$$$ Money diverted from the open market to the underground market,

$$$ Tax dollars and untaxed incomes lost to the black market economy of drugs,

$$$ Tax dollars lost by giving tax-exempt status to Drug War propagandists such as: PRIDE, PDFA (Partnership for a Drug-Free America), Drug Watch International, DARE, etc.,

$$$ Other criminal justice system costs,

$$$ Hidden law enforcement budgets,

$$$ Paid informants,

$$$ Court costs,

$$$ Attorney fees,

$$$ Personal hardships


Caught in the Quagmire of
Another Vietnam?

The parallels between the Vietnam conflict and the Drug War are many. Some Drug War equipment is even leftover from Vietnam, such as night viewing equipment, the helicopters used for fly-over surveillance in marijuana eradication programs, etc.

Both wars have hidden political agendas and ambiguous military goals. And in both wars, government officials who disagree with the policy remain silent. Will it take 30 years for the equivalent of a Robert MacNamara to step forward and admit to knowing that the Drug War is terribly wrong?

 Vietnam War

Unwinnable war

Innocent civilian casualties

Grassroots opposition

Indistinguishable enemy

"Search and destroy"

Same villages won and lost

Body count "victories"

Dehumanizing the enemy

Fighting "Communism"

$8.57 billion / year avg.

21 years (1954-1975)

$180 billion total outlay

 Drug War

Unwinnable war

Innocent civilian casualties

Grassroots opposition

Indistinguishable enemy

"Search and destroy"

Same streets won and lost

Arrest & seizure "victories"

Dehumanizing the enemy

Fighting "Drugs"

$18.4 b. / 2000 est. (federal only)

27+ years (1972-?)

$??? billion (fed, state and local)


The Human Rights & the Drug War exhibit is designed to be installed at a variety of sites and settings. If you can help arrange a future venue, please let us know, so we can schedule it. Thank You.


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