For 70 years, politicians in both parties have fought an unwinnable war on drugs. In the latest chapter, the Biden Administration has labeled Mexican cartels the top criminal threat facing the U.S. and proposed devoting even more resources to trying to keep drugs from crossing the border — policies that historically have only made things worse. The Republican candidates for president want to go even further. They fantasize about invading Mexico, destroying the cartels, and shooting suspected smugglers at the border. Both sides see American drug users as innocent victims rather than the source of demand driving a lucrative illegal market.
This bipartisan consensus has two racialized foundations. Politicians have long competed to punish drug traffickers—whom they typically portray as foreigners and racial minorities. Meanwhile government policy historically has defined most white, middle-class illegal drug users (not just addicts) as both criminals and victims, to be arrested and forced into treatment. As a result, drug warriors have poured more than a trillion dollars into law enforcement and involuntary rehabilitation—with little more to show for it than a punitive and racially discriminatory system of mass incarceration.
This history exposes the truth: the drug war isn’t winnable, as the Global Commission on Drug Policy stated in 2011. And simply legalizing marijuana is not enough. Instead only a wholesale rethinking of drug policy—one that abandons criminalization and focuses on true harm reduction, not coercive rehabilitation—can begin to undo the damage of decades of a misguided “war.”
The modern drug war began in the 1950s, with liberals—not conservatives—leading the charge. In California, the epicenter of the early war on narcotics, white suburban grassroots movements prodded liberal politicians like Governor Pat Brown into action. They blamed “pushers,” usually perceived and depicted as people of color, and demanded that elected officials crack down on the drug supply. Legislators in California, Illinois, and New York responded by passing the nation’s first mandatory-minimum sentencing laws in an effort to save teenagers from these traffickers.
In 1951, the initial wave of grassroots activism and state legislation pushed Congress to enact the first federal mandatory-minimum law, which likewise targeted Black and Mexican American “pushers” who allegedly supplied heroin and marijuana to innocent white teenagers. Policymakers included marijuana because of the mythology that youthful experimentation would inevitably lead to heroin addiction. To add further urgency, politicians and the news media routinely depicted a horror story in which these “pushers” hooked white middle-class girls and women on drugs, consigning them to a downward spiral that almost invariably resulted in prostitution.
While the enforcement of these new drug laws initially focused on the ominous “pushers,” police ultimately arrested millions of white teenagers and young adults for marijuana and other drug offenses—albeit with a different goal in mind. For white middle-class youths, a drug arrest almost always led to either dropped charges (often after parents agreed to seek private rehab) or diversion to a treatment program through a process that did not leave any traces on their permanent record.
Law enforcement focused their attention on marijuana because it held the most allure for white middle-class youths. This made it the number-one enemy for white parents, and therefore the illegal drug that politicians in both parties cared the most about. The crackdown on marijuana aimed to save these suburban youths from themselves and from what smoking pot symbolized—an alleged gateway to heroin addiction during the 1950s and 1960s, political radicalism and hippie values during the 1960s and 1970s, and the “amotivational syndrome” of laziness and apathy in the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1970, the obsession with rehabilitating young white marijuana users directly shaped a seminal federal drug law, jointly crafted by congressional Democrats and the Nixon Administration. This legislation reduced the 1950s-era penalty for possession of all illegal drugs from a mandatory-minimum felony to a misdemeanor. Politicians designed this provision to provide prosecutors and judges with more leverage to coerce white marijuana offenders into rehabilitation through conditional probation that would not leave a formal record.
The use of law enforcement to deter and rehabilitate recreational pot smokers reached its peak between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s, when mass disregard for marijuana laws accompanied the rise of the campus antiwar movement and the counterculture. The proportion of white Americans arrested on drug charges reached historically high levels and the percentage of drug arrests in the suburbs quadrupled. White youths accounted for around 89% of juvenile drug arrests during the 1970s, a percentage that would drop precipitously once the racially selective war on crack cocaine began.
Soaring arrest rates prompted a dramatic turnabout from white suburbanites. Instead of clamoring for a crackdown, parents of teens facing criminal charges usually demanded leniency or no punishment at all for what they began redefining as a victimless crime committed by “otherwise law-abiding people.” Many students and young adults joined vibrant political movements for marijuana legalization or decriminalization, led by the ACLU and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). This grassroots pressure convinced politicians in 11 states to decriminalize marijuana possession—but not sale—during the 1970s. Young activists kept demanding full legalization as a right of personal freedom and denounced both the incarceration and forcible rehabilitation of recreational pot smokers.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, however, their crusade ran into a wall because of a new group based in the white suburbs: the National Federation of Parents for Drug-Free Youth. This coalition began sounding the alarm that the growing rates of marijuana smoking by teenagers and even preteens would destroy the futures of middle-class children and represented “the most massive and pervasive drug epidemic in human history.” Pressure from this movement convinced the Carter Administration to reverse its support for marijuana decriminalization and re-escalate the war on drugs—targeting marijuana as well as cocaine.
Later, the National Federation of Parents also worked closely with the Reagan Administration to target nonwhite and foreign drug traffickers to cut off the supply for affluent white suburbs. Instead of militarized law enforcement, however, their own children received the “just say no” message made famous by First Lady Nancy Reagan. The white suburban movement’s focus on marijuana prompted her husband’s administration to shift funding away from urban treatment centers to prioritize the perceived emergency of white teenage and preteen marijuana use. In response, Democrats in Congress charged that President Reagan was losing the war on crack cocaine because of his administration’s obsession with saving white kids from smoking pot.
As this criticism exposed, at every step along the way, politicians in both parties shared similar goals: cracking down on evil suppliers, protecting “innocent” victims, and using law enforcement to force addicts and illegal drug users into rehabilitation. This resulted in extreme racial disparities in drug-war enforcement, with punitive incarceration for “pushers” almost always defined as nonwhite, and diversion into treatment and rehabilitation for white middle-class law-breakers overwhelmingly labeled their “victims.”
There was really only one big difference between liberal drug warriors and conservative ones. While liberal drug warriors propagated the “pusher” myth, they also often wanted to spend more on treatment and rehabilitation in nonwhite communities. Many liberals believed that at least some Black and Mexican American youths were also victims of illegal drug traffickers and therefore should be sent to rehabilitation rather than prison. But this conviction never stopped them from drafting most of the get-tough laws that police, prosecutors, and judges predictably used in discretionary and discriminatory ways to target nonwhite neighborhoods and send their residents to prison, jail, or juvenile detention at far higher rates.
Over the last 15 years, liberal policymakers have become more willing to acknowledge the massive racial disparities in drug war enforcement and to prioritize alternatives to incarceration for “nonviolent” drug offenders, especially those arrested for possession. They want to extend the diversion programs long used for affluent white drug users to everyone. The Biden Administration’s National Drug Control Strategy includes a commitment to “advance racial equity” in drug-related arrests and sentencing while also reducing the clear racial disparities in the diversion of individuals to rehabilitation alternatives.
Yet, this well-intentioned vision will not bring substantial changes to our nation’s vast and discretionary drug control system, and it does not abandon the fundamental and disastrous policy of criminalization of drug use or its corollary of coercive public health. The stark truth is the drug war is a failure and only a wholesale rethinking, one that focuses on harm reduction and renounces criminalization itself, can save us from repeating the mistakes that have defined seven decades of drug policy, cost taxpayers trillions, and done little to reduce drug usage.
Matthew D. Lassiter is the author of The Suburban Crisis: White America and the War on Drugs, available now from Princeton University Press. Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here.
Matthew D. Lassiter / Made by History