US Government repression of substance use and people who use substances has a long history – predating the period of alcohol prohibition in the early twentieth century. In the US drug prohibition has had a clear theme in focussing on and oppressing black communities in the USA and white people who associated with black people and their culture.
In June 1971, US President Richard Nixon, in a public address, declared an offensive against drugs and claimed that drug abuse had become “public enemy number one”. ‘In order to fight and defeat this enemy it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive’.
This was widely reported as The War on Drugs. This replaced his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson’s War On Poverty which had been used to improve access to education and the economic problems of people living in poverty in the US – which included most of the African American population. In effect, the War on Drugs addressed a similar demographic and further criminalised and marginalised them
The global influence of US attitudes and policies has acted, through the United Nations, to make more and more oppressive policies in terms of drug production, supply and consumption through the use the subject of international conventions and treaties. The US has led diplomatic moves to ensure national ratification and compliance with these conventions threatening economic and political sanctions on those states that are reluctant or resistant.
All of this has been characterised as a war on drugs. However, it may be better understood as a war on people who use drugs and on production and supply which are now almost entirely in the hands of national and international organised criminal gangs that distort and corrupt local and national economies and undermine government and other state systems. This occurs in almost every economy in the world. Several countries have become or almost become narco- states where all levels of the state are corrupted by drug-related organised crime and the state no longer functions. Each of these states finds itself in a state of almost continual civil war due to violence between drug cartels and between drug cartels, vigilantes, paramilitary forces and the armed forces. The US, of course, remains a major importer of drugs.
The War on Drugs also has a domestic front where national and local government oppress people who use substances and use the ‘war on drugs’ as a cover to marginalise, stigmatise and otherwise oppress individuals and groups. In the US Federal Bureau of Prisons statistics (June 2020) show that 46.0% of prisoners in the US are in prison for drug offences. The next most common cause is ‘weapons, explosives, arson’ with just 19.6%. In the UK, 15.0% of prisoners are in prison for drug-related offences.
It is argued that the war on drug is a war on people – and particular groups of people. It is argued that the war on drugs is a distraction from the real issues that cause problem drug use and other harms and which the state might otherwise address (see poverty). It is often argued that this ‘war’ has been a failure and causes harm. It is argued that this harm exceeds the harms that the laws and system were developed to prevent or that the harms exceed those that would be achieved through decriminalising possession or regulating drug production and supply. On another level it serves as a distraction from other issues that many Governments refuse to recognise or adequately address.
It is also argued that the war on drugs has failed because government oppression of people who use drugs has not been severe enough. This argument is used to increase and intensify aspects ‘anti-drug’ campaigns.
The main impact of the War on Drugs has been to frame drug-related issues and means by which they may be addressed as a question of whether they are pro- or anti-drug. This has corroded much of the discussion of drug-related issues and affected the policy and practical response to these issues. (see pro and anti-drugs).
In Scotland the war on drugs is usually mentioned in the context of the debate around decriminalising drug possession or legalising and regulating drug supply Framing the legitimate debate on these matters as part of the War on Drugs plays into simplistic notions that people or policy is ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ on drugs
The war on drugs stigmatises people who use drugs and people who have a drug problem, their families and communities (see stigma).
Nixon, R M ‘Remarks about an Intensified Program for Drug Abuse Prevention and Control June 17 1971’ The Presidential Papers of Richard Milhous Nixon pp 738 – 749
Nixon, R M ‘Special Message to the Congress Drug Abuse Prevention and Control June 17 1971’ The Presidential Papers of Richard Milhous Nixon pp 739 – 749
Gabriel Sayegh Drugs, “thugs,” and other things we’re taught to fear TEDx Binghamton University