Thursday, June 02, 2011

June 17, 2011, 40th Anniversary of President Nixon’s Message to Congress Launching the “War on Drugs”

M E M O R A N D U M:

To: Reporters, Columnists, Editorial Boards, Managing Editors

From: Eric E. Sterling, President, Criminal Justice Policy Foundation

Re: Issues for Stories and Analysis on 40th Anniversary of Pres. Nixon's Message to Congress

The “War on Drugs” is 40 years old this month. What have been its successes and failures? How much has it cost? Did it produce a strategy for victory over what President Nixon called “America’s public enemy number one”?

Do the dangers of drugs warrant a war? Have the fears of drugs been exploited for political purposes? Have warnings about drug use been properly presented to the right target populations?

Since 1971, Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, G.H.W. Bush, Clinton, G.W. Bush and Obama, and the Congress have initiated a variety of strategies, most under the label, the “war on drugs.” They have had White House coordinators. Is our anti-drug effort being managed any better now than when President Nixon decried bureaucratic red-tape and jurisdictional disputes among agencies?

Have Nixon’s goals to reduce the number of deaths from drugs and to expand drug treatment been accomplished? Have Nixon’s goals to make the “traffic in narcotics…no longer profitable” and to “destroy the market for drugs” been achieved? Does this strategy make drugs less or more profitable?

In your community, what has been the legacy of 40 years of the “war on drugs?” Who has benefited from this program and who has been hurt? How much does it cost your community to carry on this fight? Is it money well spent?

Have the burdens of drug addiction or drug enforcement fallen harder on people of color or the poor? In your area, if some areas suffer more than others, what explains those differences?

What is the prognosis for mitigating or solving the problems created by the “war on drugs?”

On June 17, 1971, President Nixon sent a 5300-word message to Congress “to consolidate at the highest level a full-scale attack on the problem of drug abuse in America.” He warned, “If we cannot destroy the drug menace in America, then it will surely in time destroy us.”

He created a Special Action Office on Drug Abuse Prevention (SAODAP) in the White House, authorized for three years with the option of extending its life for an additional two years.

This new coordinating office (we use the short hand, “czar,” for such efforts now) would eliminate “bureaucratic red tape, and jurisdictional disputes among agencies” in order to “mount a wholly coordinated national attack on a national problem.”

While Nixon used language such as “I will ask for additional funds to increase our enforcement efforts to further tighten the noose around the necks of drug peddlers,” he also spoke of drug users as “the people whom society is attempting to reach and help.” He wanted the SAODAP to “extend its efforts into research, prevention, training, education, treatment, rehabilitation…”


Nixon asked for an additional $159 million dollars for his initiatives, plus an unspecified amount to pay 325 additional positions in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (forerunner to the DEA).

Over the past 40 years, with leadership from successive presidents and “drug czars,” and enthusiastic support from Congress, the Federal government has spent, cumulatively, about a half trillion dollars on the “war on drugs.” By FY 1975, federal anti-drug spending had climbed to $680 million. For the past 20 years, Federal spending on drugs has exceeded $15 billion per year including the costs of imprisonment.

The costs are now so high, the “drug czar” seems to conceal almost one-third of the anti-drug spending by excluding it from the formal anti-drug budget. ONDCP says that $14.8 billion was spent in FY 2009 to fight drugs. But another $6.9 billion was actually spent in FY 2009 on fundamental anti-drug activity such as the incarceration of federal drug prisoners.

The FY 2011 formal anti-drug budget request is for $15.5 billion, excluding imprisonment and the other costs which remain concealed in the budget submission.

The cost of imprisoning federal drug prisoners has been over $3 billion annually since FY 2008. On May 19, 2011 the total federal prison population exceeded 215,000. As of April 23, 2011, 50.9% of convicted federal prisoners were drug offenders.

Economic impact

Nixon wanted research and “development of necessary reports, statistics, and social indicators for use by all public and private groups.” Do we have sufficient knowledge of the drug problem?

Do we know what it has cost the economy that tens of millions have criminal records, and earn so little that they are unmarriageable and can’t obtain credit? What has it meant, for example, to American automakers and unions that instead of the 200,000 prisoners in state and federal prisons in 1972, there are about 1.6 million adults in prison now (and another 600,000 in jails)?


In his message, Nixon lamented 1000 narcotics deaths in New York City in 1970. There were an estimated 38,000 drug overdose deaths nationwide in 2007.

Drug use

Nixon did not say how many drug addicts there were. But he said his initiative “must be judged by the number of human beings who are brought out of the hell of addiction, and by the number of human beings who are dissuaded from entering that hell.” He did not say how many non-addicted drug users there were but he said these steps would “strengthen our efforts to root out the cancerous growth of narcotics addiction in America.” The reality that the majority of drug users were not destined to become addicts was not understood or was disregarded.

Notwithstanding these efforts, drug use continued to grow, especially marijuana use, and later cocaine use. In 2009, there were 21.8 million users of illicit drugs.


Nixon asked for $14 million “to make the facilities of the Veterans Administration available to all former servicemen in need of drug rehabilitation.” Are we anywhere near meeting the needs of Veterans with substance abuse disorders today?

International initiatives

A major feature of Nixon’s message stressed the need for international cooperation. He imagined that it was realistic to propose an “end opium production and the growing of poppies” as an international goal. He noted the strong U.S. backing of the “United Nations effort against the world drug problem.”

Has the “balloon effect” has rendered successes, such as the elimination of Turkey as a source of illicit opium and France as a center of heroin production for U.S. consumption, into disasters for emerging producing states? Was the bloodshed in Mexico, and increasingly in Central America, predictable?

Does the international control regime continue to make sense? Are nations in Europe and Latin America slowly abandoning the principles of the U.N. narcotics treaties in favor of harm reduction, recognition of individual liberty, and regulated distribution and use?


State legislatures continue to pass medical marijuana laws. In November 2010, in California, 46.5 percent of the voters supported legalizing marijuana, and polls revealed that 30 percent of “no” voters said they supported legalization, but not in the form of Proposition 19 that was on the ballot.

Public support for this important and expensive public policy is in flux. Many states are recognizing that the costs of punishment and imprisonment are now excessive.

This 40th anniversary is an opportunity for America’s journalistic leaders to examine and comment on a serious public health problem that still suffers from the stigma once associated with leprosy, tuberculosis or AIDS.

Please contact me if you are interested in writing on this. I can also refer you to additional sources. Eric E. Sterling, cell 301-589-6020,

Sphere: Related Content

No comments: