Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Thursday, June 17, 2021

The United States' Drug War Turns 50

"Socalj for Borderland Beat"

President Richard Nixon's speech to Congress on June 17, 1971, asking for an extra $155 million for a new program to combat the use of drugs. He labeled drug abuse "a national emergency."(Photo: Harvey Georges/AP)
President Richard Nixon's speech on June 17, 1971, marked the symbolic start of the modern drug war. In the decades that followed Democrats and Republicans embraced ever-tougher laws penalizing people with addiction.

The United States has waged aggressive campaigns against substance use before, most notably during alcohol Prohibition in the 1920s and 1930s. Speaking from the White House, Nixon declared the federal government would now treat drug addiction as "Public Enemy No. 1," suggesting substance use might be vanquished once and for all.

"In order to fight and defeat this enemy," Nixon said, "it is necessary to wage a new all-out offensive."

"We have been involved in the failed War on Drugs for so very long," said retired Maj. Neill Franklin, a veteran with the Baltimore City Police and the Maryland State Police who led drug task forces for years.

He now believes the response to drugs should be handled by doctors and therapists, not cops and prison guards. "It does not belong in our wheelhouse," Franklin said during a press conference this week.

"Over the last 50 years, we've unfortunately seen the 'War on Drugs' be used as an excuse to declare war on people of color, on poor Americans and so many other marginalized groups," said New York Attorney General Letitia James in a statement sent to NPR.

On Tuesday, two House Democrats introduced legislation that would decriminalize all drugs in the U.S., shifting the national response to a public health model. The measure appears to have zero chance of passage. But in much of the country, disillusionment with the drug war has already led to the repeal of some of the most punitive policies, including mandatory lengthy prison sentences for nonviolent drug users.

Mass Incarceration

The U.S. still incarcerates more people than any other nation, with nearly half of the inmates in federal prison held on drug charges. But the nation has seen a significant decline in state and federal inmate populations, down by a quarter from the peak of 1.6 million in 2009 to roughly 1.2 million last year.

There has also been substantial growth in public funding for health care and treatment for people who use drugs, due in large part to the passage of the Affordable Care Act. "The best outcomes come when you treat the substance use disorder [as a medical condition] as opposed to criminalizing that person and putting them in jail or prison," said Dr. Nora Volkow, who has been head of the National Institute of Drug Abuse since 2003.

Wounds left by the drug war go far beyond the roughly 20.3 million people who have a substance use disorder. The campaign — which by some estimates cost more than $1 trillion — also exacerbated racial divisions and infringed on civil liberties in ways that transformed American society.

Decriminalization and Legalization

In recent years, voters and politicians in 17 states — including red-leaning Alaska and Montana — and the District of Columbia have backed the legalization of recreational marijuana, the most popular illicit drug, a trend that once seemed impossible.

Last November, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize small quantities of all drugs, including heroin and methamphetamines. Many critics say the course correction is too modest and too slow. "The war on drugs was an absolute miscalculation of human behavior," said Kassandra Frederique, who heads the Drug Policy Alliance, a national group that advocates for total drug decriminalization.

She said the criminal justice model failed to address the underlying need for jobs, health care, and safe housing that spur addiction. Indeed, much of the drug war's architecture remains intact. Federal spending on drugs — much of it devoted to interdiction — is expected to top $37 billion this year.

Racial Bias in Drug War

In another instance of acute hypocritical overlap in the 1980s, the US Contra War on Nicaragua also entailed a narco aspect, in which the US facilitated the enrichment-by-drug-trafficking of the right-wing mercenaries who were dutifully terrorizing the country in question. One byproduct of the arrangement: a crack cocaine epidemic that devastated black neighborhoods in Los Angeles.

This epidemic, in turn, helped spawn the Anti-Drug Abuse Act during the administration of Ronald Reagan, which established mandatory minimum sentences for crimes involving certain quantities of drugs and wreaked disproportionate misery on poor communities of color.

The law institutionalized a 100-to-1 disparity in prison sentence lengths for possession of crack – a drug associated with Black people – versus powder cocaine, associated with wealthier whites. Indeed, the mass incarceration of poor Black people in for-profit prisons is a fine way of capitalistically “disrupting communities.”

Frederique, with the Drug Policy Alliance, said the Black Lives Matter movement was inspired in part by cases that revealed a dangerous attitude toward drugs among police. In Derek Chauvin's murder trial, the former officer's defense claimed aggressive police tactics were justified because of small amounts of fentanyl in George Floyd's body. Critics described the argument as an attempt to "weaponize" Floyd's substance use disorder and jurors found Chauvin guilty.

Breonna Taylor, meanwhile, was shot and killed by police in her home during a drug raid. She wasn't a suspect in the case. "We need to end the drug war, not just for our loved ones that are struggling with addiction, but we need to remove the excuse that that is why law enforcement gets to invade our space ... or kill us," Frederique said.

Researchers have long concluded the pattern has far-reaching impacts on Black families, making it harder to find employment and housing, while also preventing many people of color with drug records from voting. In a 1994 interview published in Harper's Magazine, Nixon adviser John Ehrlichman suggested racial animus was among the motives shaping the drug war.

"We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the [Vietnam] War or Black," Ehrlichman said. "But by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities."

Despite those concerns, Democrats and Republicans partnered on the drug war decade after decade, approving ever-more-severe laws, creating new state and federal bureaucracies to interdict drugs, and funding new armies of police and federal agents.

"What we need is another D-Day, not another Vietnam, not another limited war fought on the cheap," declared then-Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., in 1989. Biden, who chaired the influential Senate Judiciary Committee, later co-authored the controversial 1994 crime bill that helped fund a vast new complex of state and federal prisons, which remains the largest in the world.

On the campaign trail in 2020, Biden stopped short of repudiating his past drug policy ideas but said he now believes no American should be incarcerated for addiction. He also endorsed the national decriminalization of marijuana. While few policy experts believe the drug war will come to a conclusive end any time soon, the end of bipartisan backing for punitive drug laws is a significant development.

Drug Wars Abroad

Abroad, too, plenty a community has been disrupted over the past half-century of a “war on drugs” that has in actuality largely been a war on poor people. Colombia comes to mind, where the US has flung billions of dollars at right-wing governments thoroughly implicated in the drug trade, who have used their imperial backing to massacre peasants, leftists, social justice activists, and anyone else standing in the way of neoliberal dystopia. 

And in Mexico, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the context of a domestic US-backed drug war that was officially launched in 2006. While accomplishing zero of its ostensible goals – thanks to the continuing US demand for drugs and the criminalization that makes their trafficking so lucrative in the first place – the war has succeeded in rendering Mexican cities some of the most violent places on earth.

"Back in the day, when we would see 5, 10 kilograms of meth, that would make you a hero if you made a seizure-like that," said Matthew Donahue, the head of operations at the Drug Enforcement Administration. "Now it's common for us to see 100-, 200- and 300-kilogram seizures of meth," he added. "It doesn't make a dent in the price." Efforts to disrupt illegal drug supplies suffered yet another major blow last year after Mexican officials repudiated drug war tactics and began blocking most interdiction efforts south of the U.S.-Mexico border. "It's a national health threat, it's a national safety threat," Donahue told NPR.

In terms of combatting “public enemy number one”, the US had been up to its ears in the global drug trade for decades thus far, including – surprise surprise – in southeast Asia. A 1993 New York Times article, for example, specifies that during the Vietnam War and the attendant clandestine slaughter perpetrated by the US in neighboring Laos, the products from a heroin lab in the Laotian north were “being ferried out on the planes of the CIA’s front airline, Air America.”

Opioid Epidemic

Adding to the pressure for change is the fact that despite a half-century of interdiction, America's streets are flooded with more potent and dangerous drugs than ever before — primarily methamphetamines and the synthetic opioid fentanyl.

Last year, drug overdoses hit a devastating new record of 90,000 deaths, according to preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Critics say the effectiveness of the drug war model has been called into question for another reason: the nation's prescription opioid epidemic.

Beginning in the late 1990s, some of the nation's largest drug companies and pharmacy chains invested heavily in the opioid business. State and federal regulators and law enforcement failed to intervene as communities were flooded with legally manufactured painkillers, including Oxycontin.

One of the epicenters of the prescription opioid epidemic was Huntington, a small city in West Virginia along the Ohio River hit hard by the loss of factory and coal jobs. "It was pretty bad. Eighty-one million opioid pills over an eight-year period came into this area," said Courtney Hessler, a reporter with The (Huntington) Herald-Dispatch.

Public health officials say 1 in 10 residents in the area still battle addiction. Hessler herself wound up in foster care after her mother struggled with opioids. In recent months, she has reported on a landmark opioid trial that will test who — if anyone — will be held accountable for drug policies that failed to keep families and communities safe.

"They were utterly failing to take into account diversion," said West Virginia Republican Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who sued the DEA for not curbing opioid production quotas sooner. "It's as close to a criminal act as you can find," Morrisey said.



  1. 50 more years and this will be a ongoing war. Borderland beat staff, saludos cordiales✌

    1. There's no longer a war. Cartels won long ago.

    2. In the 20s, US outsourced opium production to expert Sinaloa producers, both for legal and illegal uses, Lucky Luciano was arrested with his favorite merca yhat also fueled Las Vegas creation.
      Methamphetamine was the favorite food on Nazi soldiers and their dear leader too, while.mexicans was pulque and real Huachicol, (alcohol + water).
      While Nixxon fought his War on Drugs, founded EPA and DEA, his associates like CIA bosses and pushers were moving their drug trafficking to the US from SE Asia to SouthAmerica, Felix Ismael Rodriguez Mendigutia eas in Bolivia fighting Communism by murdering Che Guevara (planted in bolivia by Fidel to prove loyalty) while dealing cocaine with Klaus Barbie, pablo escobar and Carlos Lehder while Mike Levine wrote notes for his book "la Guerra Falsa" (the Big White Lie) as a DEA AGENT.
      Little Dirty Tricky Dickie did not know that CIA drug trafficking helped put him in the Whites' House, or that it would continue behind reagan's back, and up until tiday.
      Private prisons stock prices will suffer along with police and lawyering if US wars on drug are over...

    3. 8:58 One thing to note is that the first round of DEA agents were from the FBN and other law enforcement agencies...but also from the CIA

  2. Will doesn't work. Did not work probation on Alcohol in the 20's. Criminals see a market and sell it. Probation on Drugs a even bigger market, probation on Gambling, Texans go to Louisiana. Now the government defunds police and want to a probation on on guns. Remember Criminals always have guns. Probation on guns in Mexico leaves innocent Mexican defendless.

    1. 2:15 what do you mean, Prohibition?

  3. DEA and other government agencies are unable to do their job. Look at out Southern its open to cartel human and drug smuggling. When the leadership open the border, how is government agencies do their job.

    1. 2:19 que te valga verga güey.
      The Unpresidented Disgrace creator of the walls never built one fucking mile of walls, his offer of 7 billion per mile did not fly...
      He declared the carnage ends now, but he also created a carnage with his COVID 19 denials and prescriptions of drinking Chlorax and eating Ultra-Violent Sabers along with hydroxycholoquine pills...
      --No wonder Sleepy Joe is doing sech an excellent job, the Oringe Motherfacker left the barr real low.

  4. Cartel are very happy with their success, under their president they will continue to grow more powerful. Under the U.S leadership they will become rich with human smuggling and drugs.

  5. Meanwhile — not only are the largest and most long-standing cartels in Mexico now considered the biggest drug suppliers for all of America, and pretty much the rest of of the globe, crime in Mexico has sky rocketed to levels never seen or let alone IMAGINED before..

    Vietnam, The Gulf War. Hash-heroinstan…

    They all remind me of children playing in sandboxes, compared to the ongoing genocide and abuse of a country so beautiful as Mexico..

  6. If we lost the war on drugs, we have also lost the war on poverty, illiteracy, social justice, climate, terrorism, cancer, cyber warfare, border security, you name it…. Maybe you social warriors should defund more than the police, because that’s a winning strategy! [sarcasm]

    1. 7:35 You are way off track.

    2. 7:35 the idea is not winning the wars but making money off them.


  8. @7:35 right on point buddy!

  9. Happy Birfday!🥳

  10. I've BEEN saying THIS for decades.. 😆
    The thing is.. THERE is no such THING as a WAR on DRUGS.. THE 🇺🇸 and 🇲🇽 don't I want to stop the FLOW of drugs because there is too I much MONEY involved.
    If they REALLY wanted to STOP the drugs they would burn all the COKE fields in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia.. They would STOP the CHEMICALS to make METH and pills coming in FROM China..
    Catching the capos makes more capos and more CARTELS and more sicario8 fighting for CONTROL.. Just SAYING!!-


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