The Global Initiative For Drug Policy Reform

Bush Consolidates

By the late 1980s US public concern over drug abuse had reached unprecedented levels. The US media was constantly reporting stories about ‘crack babies’ and other horrors connected to addiction. A 1988 CBS News/New York Times poll showed that 48% of the US public felt that drugs were the most important foreign policy challenge and 63% considered drugs should take precedence over their anticommunist efforts [8].

In his presidential campaign, George Bush Sr. picked up on this public sentiment and fear of 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.”[9]

The ending of the Cold War forced the US to re-evaluate its domestic and foreign policy challenges. Moving away from the confrontation of superpowers, new issues began to fill the vacuum of US political focus. No other subject has carried as much importance or effect in this regard than the illicit drugs trade. Thus drugs began to replace communism as the primary threat.

As one scholar has claimed:

whereas from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, no US politician wished to be considered ‘soft’ on Communism, at the end of the 1980s no one wanted to be seen as flexible on the issue of drugs. With congressional cooperation, neoconservative US think-tanks were calling for the creation of a multi-national anti-narcotic force in Latin, thus promoting regional militarization.[10]

The Pentagon was thrust into the front lines of the drug war with the National Defence Authorization Act of 1989. This piece of legislation made the Department of Defence the main agency responsible for monitoring, detecting and intercepting illicit drug trafficking [11]. As the Cold War was coming to an end, US military budgets were increasingly under scrutiny and George Bush Sr. decided to quadruple the funding for military drug interdiction missions, military assets and counterdrug personnel.  President


Bush declared a need for increased military resources in order to deal with the new threat posed by ‘narcogansters’, which he stated “concern us all, already a threat to our national health and spirit…They must be dealt with by our military in the air, on the land, and on the seas”[12].

Bush also created the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and establishing the office of ‘Drug Czar’. William Bennett, the first to be appointed to this position, stated his aim was to make drug abuse ‘socially unacceptable’.

As one Air Force analyst involved in counter-drug missions has stated, the “timing for large-scale military involvement was excellent: the Cold War was drawing to a close, freeing up large amounts of assets, but the dramatic draw-down had not yet begun.”[13] Drug Policy expert Martin Jelsma has summarised that in hindsight the War on Drugs can be understood as “a transition between the Cold War and the War on Terror, in terms of legitimising military operations, bases and interventions abroad”[14].

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[8] Crandall, R. Driven by Drugs: US Policy toward Colombia, London, 2002, p.32

[9] Andreas, P. et al. ‘Dead-End Drug Wars’ Foreign Policy, no.85 (Winter 1991-1992), 108

[10] Tokatlian, J. G. ‘Latin American Reaction to US Policies on Drugs and Terrorism’ in Schoultz, L, Smith, W.C. and Varas, A. (eds.) Security, Democracy and Development in US-Latin Relations, Miami, 1994, p.123

[11] Martin Jelsma, ‘The Development of International Drug Control: Lessons Learned and Strategic Challenges for the Future’, Working Paper Prepared for the First Meeting of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, 24-25 January 2011

[12] Falco, M, ‘Foreign Drugs, Foreign Wars’, Daedalus, 121 (3), Summer 1992, p.165 [6] Corcoran, Major Kimberly J. DOD Involvement in the Counterdrug Effort – Contributions and Limitations, Air Command and Staff College, AU/ACSC/0077/97-03, March 1997.