The Global Initiative For Drug Policy Reform

Reagan Intensifies

 The War on Drugs approach was stepped up under President Ronald Reagan. In his election campaign Reagan stated that in order to cut crime he would supremely focus on drugs, implementing legislation to intensify law enforcement and increase punishments.

The US began to take an increasingly militarised role through direct overseas interventions in the early 1980s. As a consequence, major source and transit countries, especially throughout Latin American and the Caribbean were targeted and by 1990 the Whitehouse had over thirty government entities involved within Latin American countries, including the DEA, US Customs, the CIA and the Bureau for International Narcotic Matters[6].During Reagan’s two terms in office, the US military became increasingly involved in the War on Drugs. For example, provoked by the significant growth of the


US-Andean cocaine trade, Reagan reformed the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which had to that point forbidden military involvement in civilian law enforcement. As a result of this reform Reagan was able to adopt a military led approach to calm growing domestic concern with regards to the flow of illicit drugs from Latin America and the growing crack cocaine epidemic in many inner cities. However the only ‘winner’ from this approach has been the US military, with one scholar claiming that the real effect of militarising drug policy in Latin America has been to give US forces a reason and excuse to maintain military bases throughout the region, guarding their other strategic interests such as oil pipelines[7].

In 1984 Nancy Reagan, wife of the US President, began her “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign. However, reducing an approach to drug abuse to a ‘catchy slogan’ epitomises the Reagan administration’s approach to a complex and multi-casual problem. In October 1986 President Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, appropriating $1.7 billion to fight the War on Drugs. This legislation created mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses and promoted large racial disparities within the US prison system, whilst doing little to reduce the amount of drugs available on the street. These two programmes exemplify the Reagan administration’s approach to drug abuse.

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[7] Bewley-Taylor, The United States, p.186

[8] Tokatlian, J. G., ‘The Only Winner in the “War on Drugs”’, The Guardian, 2 December 2010