The Global Initiative For Drug Policy Reform

US-led Prohibition

The War on Drugs originated many decades ago in a completely different political, social and economic world.

The outdated criminalising, prohibitionist approach was developed and implemented in a time completely different to the present.

Whilst the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs began the criminalising approach to drug control, it was not until ten years later in June 1971 that US President Richard Nixon formally declared a “war on drugs,” stating that drugs now constituted “public enemy No. 1″ in the US.

The US has been the leading force within the fight against the ‘evils’ of drugs. As one scholar has stated “…the nation’s [US] rise to hegemony and its associated pre-eminent position within the newly formed United Nations in the mid-1940s was vital to the creation and maintenance of the current US-dominated international drug control regime” [1]. This regime is one dominated by a prohibitionist perspective that shifts the blame for domestic US problems to foreign growers and traffickers of illicit substances.

Precursors to the War on Drugs

The first US law to restrict the distribution and personal consumption of certain drugs was the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act in 1914. This piece of legislation established the prohibitionist approach as the dominant theme in federal approaches to narcotic substances. Regarding drug use as an issue for law enforcement, the Harrison Act set the tone for future US drug legislation through “a strange triumph of pseudoscience, racism, and mild hysteria on the part of a few people and of indifference on the part of most others”[2]. From this point onwards in the US, drugs would be tackled from a judicial and criminal perspective as opposed to one of health and medical officials. This model would eventually, sadly, be exported throughout the rest of the world.

It is also important to briefly discuss the racist undertones (and sometimes overtones) of the US approach to drugs at the beginning of the 1900s. Whilst Chinese immigrants received the ‘blame’ for the importing of opium and its smoking habit to the US, African Americans were accused of causing an explosion of cocaine-fuelled crime. As one opinion of the time stated: “under its [cocaine] influence are most of the daring crimes committed [...] Most of the attacks upon white women of the South are the direct result of a cocaine crazed Negro brain” [3]. It was within this context that the drafters of the Harrison Act played up the US fears of “drug-crazed, sex-mad negroes” [4].

This manner of approaching drug abuse continued on for decades (the argument could even be made that it has continued right up until the present), with minority racial groups targeted through xenophobic paranoia. Although stated in the 1920s, the words of anti-narcotics campaigner Richard Hobson could be used to sum up the present viewpoint, “South America sent in cocaine; Europe contributed drugs like heroin and morphine; Asia was the source of crude opium and smoking opium and Africa produced hashish”[5]. Thus racist and illogical reasoning went into the origins of anti-drug legislation. From this point onwards US drug policy has focused predominantly on preventing the movement of illicit drugs into the US, in contrast to focusing on the demand of US consumers. The changing of the international balance of power that was caused by the ending of World War II would enable the US to dominate international drug control thinking, forcing other nations to follow their lead.

One of the major effects of the US movement away from the prohibition of alcohol was the intensification in drug prohibition. Thousands from the Alcohol Bureau had been left without jobs and were swiftly moved into the Narcotics Bureau. Harry J. Anslinger, the head of the Narcotics Bureau was fiercely campaigning to make drugs the new, prioritised ‘menace’ to society. Anslinger, with a background in alcohol control within his former position at the US Treasury Department, was a firm believer that enforcement and a punitive approach to drug addiction were the only successful drug control methods. He redubbed cannabis as ‘marijuana’ in order to underline its criminal links with Mexico and prey upon the racial anxieties of the time. Under Anlsinger, it was stressed that drug users were to be viewed predominantly as criminals and only secondly as addicts.

To read more about the Origin of Prohibition click on the links below:

Nixon and the Beginnings of the War

President Nixon declares drug abuse “a serious national threat” in a special message to Congress in July 1969 and calls for a national anti-drug policy.

Reagan Intensifies

In Reagan’s election campaign he stated that in order to cut crime he would supremely focus on drugs, implementing legislation to intensify law enforcement and increase punishments.

Bush Consolidates

Bush Sr. picked up on the public sentiment and fear relating to drugs, declaring “the logic is simple. The cheapest way to eradicate narcotics is to destroy them at their source […] We need to wipe out crops wherever they are grown and take out labs wherever they exist.”

Plan Colombia

Plan Colombia, was an initiative launched in 1999 towards the end of Bill Clinton’s administration to give US aid to Colombia’s military to eradicate illicit crops and target drugs ‘at source’.

The Mérida Initiative

The Mérida Initiative is a security agreement between the governments of the US, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Central America aimed at combating drug trafficking in the region.


[1] Bewley-Taylor, D., The United States and International Drug Control, 1909-1997, New York, 2001, p.6

[2] Bewley-Taylor, The United P.26

[3] Schatzmann, M.,‘Cocaine and the Drug Problem’, Journal of Psychedelic Drugs, 7(1), 1975, p.9

[4] ‘How did we get here? History has a habit of repeating itself (A Special Report on Illegal Drugs)’, The Economist, 26 July 2001

[5] Hobson quoted in: Bewley-Taylor, The United States, p.26