human rights Drug War dove key hands

Drug War 101: The war at home

A brief history of the US Drug War

It is called The Drug War, and it has been America’s longest war. 

The federal government had no role in the health and drug trades until early this century, when labeling requirements were placed on patent medicines.

Return to Human Rights and the Drug War

Prohibition was promoted in the late 19th Century by the Dutch and the British, who also maintained an opium monopoly in China. In the US such laws were repeatedly ruled unconstitutional until:

  • 1911 Federal anti-narcotics laws emerge
  • 1916 California and Texas criminalize marijuana
  • 1919 The 18th Amendment banned commerce in alcohol on a national level. The violent and corrupt “Roaring Twenties” ensued.
  • 1933 The people had had enough. The 21st Amendment repealed the Volstead Act, ending Constitutional authority for Prohibition.
  • 1937 Prohibitionists disguised the Marihuana Tax Act as a revenue bill and banned an entire plant species through regulation enforcement. The narcotics bureaucracy had found a gateway drug law.
  • 1961 The UN adopted the Single Convention Treaty on Narcotic Drugs, opening the way for more stringent enforcement. The CIA went into Vietnam and heroin began to flow into America from Asia.
  • 1968 The U.S. signed the Treaty. In the grips of the Vietnam War and the “generation gap,” federal policy continued to harden.
  • 1969 The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Marijuana Tax Act was unconstitutional. Drug control authority was eventually written into a “scheduling” hoax that extended prohibition enforcement. Under this system, drugs are not officially ‘prohibited’; they’re ‘illicit’. But people still go to prison for using them.
  • 1970 Congressman George Bush joined the growing majority of office holders who opposed mandatory minimum sentences “because they remove a great deal of the court’s discretion.”
  • 1972 President Richard Nixon appointed a National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse. The panel, known as the Shafer Commission, called for decriminalizing marijuana and a policy of control based on medical risk, so Nixon denounced its report and declared a”War on Drugs”. Nixon’s war faltered amid a cloud of curruption when he resigned office during his second term, while facing impeachment charges.
  • 1978 President Jimmy Carter publicly advocated decriminalizing up to an ounce of marihuana in his statement to Congress on drug policy, but behind the scenes moved to steer the Drug War back on course.
  • 1980 Drug warrior Ronald Reagan assumed office and brought the military industrial comples into the battlefield. The CIA went to Central America and cocaine began to flow back to our cities.
  • 1984 Reagan announced: “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” and promptly militarized the Drug War. Zero tolerance became the stepping stone to widespread implementation of urine testing. His 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act went farther, adding property forfeiture law under Nancy’s rallying cry: “Just say no.”
  • Late 1980s Democrats and Republicans vied to out do each other in criminalizing and punishing drug users. As Vice President and later as President George Bush supported the return of Mandatory Minimum prison sentences. Physical evidence was replaced by sentencing guidelines. No knock search warrants, hearsay evidence, and high-tech surveillance systems extended the realm of thought-crime into conspiracy laws.
  • Early 1990s Baby Boom President Bill “I didn’t inhale” Clinton campaigned on MTV, stating “The punishment should fit the crime.” Once in office, he reversed gear and pursued yet another round of escalations in the Drug War, including, for the first time ever, the death penalty for growing marihuana in the 1994 Federal Crime Bill.
  • 1995 The 10 millionth marijuana arrest since 1965 occurred in Ohio when Tod McCormick, a medical marijuana patient with a Dutch prescription, was pulled over in an illegal roadside search. A national survey found that 95% of police officers believed the US to be losing the Drug War.
  • 1996 More than 60% of federal prisoners are locked up for drug offenses. While mandatory minimum sentences require that drug offenders serve full term sentences, mandatory release programs put violent felons back out on the streets to reduce prison crowding. Marijuana arrests are at an all time high, and citizens of California and Arizona vote overwhelmingly to legalize medical marijuana. Federal policy continues to lose support when appointed officials threaten to arrest doctors and patients.
  • 1997 Business as usual. The Clinton administration begins the year with an all-out assault on doctors and patients for medical marijuana until a court orders them to desist. Malicious prosecution continues. The rate of incarceration for African American males hits a new record high, as does federal spending on the failed drug war. A new war is beginning to be waged on tobacco users. The National Istitute on Health reports that needle exchanges clearly save lives, and congress instantly forbids it from relaxing the ban on clean needles. Oregon legislators vote to recriminalize cannabis use, and a voters’ referendum is launched to block it from taking effect.
  • 1998 When confronted with scientific proof that needle exchange reduces infectuous disease without increasing drug use, Janet Reno and Drug Czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey decide to ignore the results and continue the ban. Clinton launches a multi-billion dollar propaganda campaign that uses federal tax money to purchase advertising time and space for the private sector’s leading advocate of prohibition, the PDFA (Partnership for a Drug Free America). Congress takes time from its investigations of Clinton to pass ever more repressive legislation. Numerous new studies vindicate the medical marijuana reform position, and voters in five states pass initiatives at the ballot box to legalize it. Faced with an overwhelming favorable vote, Congress directly intervenes to block the vote count in Washington DC.
  • 1998 Elections: Oregon voters overturn the state legislature’s attempt to reinstate criminal penalties for marijuana, and Arizona voters vote to medicalize all controlled substances (illegal drugs). California votes its leading drug warrior, Dan Lungren, out of office by a huge majority. In a national sweep, AK, WA, OR, NV, CO, ME all pass medical marijuana initiatives.
  • 1999 Teenage use of all drugs levels off nationally. Public support for medical marijuana grows, Drug War viewed as a failure in surveys. Yet another drug warrior is elected speaker of the house, and Congress fights in court to suppress the count of the Washington DC popular vote to legalize marijuana for medical use.
  • 2000 US Supreme Court hands national election to Republican George Bush, Jr. Bush is a laissez faire economist and largely leaves marijuana policy to the states.
  • 2001 US Supreme Court weighs in against medical marijuana collectives and retail sales in USA v OCBC case. No medical marijuana exception to CSA.
  • 2002 Nonetheless, the WAMM collective is raided in Santa Cruz, California, leading the City Council to hand out marijuana to patients who had a doctor’s approval.
  • 2003 California legislature passes Senate Bill 420 (SB420) creating a qualified immunity for patients who sell cannabis to one another. In 2015 the legislature voted to repeal the defense and replace it with licensed medical marijuana sales subject to local bans.
  • 2005 US Supreme Court rules in Ashcroft v Raich that state laws do not protect cannabis patients from federal arrest and prosecution and that the federal Drug War does not prevent states from legalizing cannabis under their own state laws.
  • 2009 President Barack Obama issues the Ogden Memorandum giving federal prosecutors discretion and encouraging them not to prosecute state-legal cannabis operations under federal law. Patient providers in California and Montana open their networks to show how well they work to protect quality and prevent diversion.
  • 2010 Biggest crackdown on marijuana since 1988 as US Attorneys across the country go after dispensaries using the very information that was provided to show compliance with state laws. More federal marijuana arrests in the state of Montana alone than had occurred during the entire Bush administration.
  • 2011 International drug gangs plant millions of plants in national forests and public lands in response to difficulties in bringing cannabis across borders.
  • 2012 Voters in Colorado and Washington legalize adult possession and licensed sales of cannabis, Colorado allows home grows. Obama Administration does not publicly attack the measures
  • 2013 Obama Administration issues the Cole Memo formalizing that the US Dept. of Justice is not to go after state compliant medical marijuana. Exactly what that means is described in eight points and left to regional federal prosecutors’ discretion to interpret strict compliance, so busts continue at a much reduced rate.
  • 2014 Obama signs Farm Bill allowing farming of industrial hemp on US soil for the first time in 60 years. Attorney General advises prosecutors to not seek excessive penalties in drug cases.
  • 2016 Democratic platform endorses medical marijuana and path to legal adult access. Republican platform calls to roll back medical marijuana. Candidate Clinton repeatedly says that she will work with states but needs to be convinced of how to reform federally. Trump mentions marijuana one time at a rally in Nevada.
  • 2017 Trump appoints prohibitionist Jeff Sessions as Attorney General. Sessions efforts to ramp up the war on marijuana fail to gather momentum as public acceptance continues to grow. Two “secret” task forces set up, one in DOJ and one at the White House, to coordinate an anti-marijuana public relations and legal effort and begin gathering intelligence and ‘reefer madness’ in private.
  • 2019 Democrats take control of the House of Representatives and pass numerous cannabis reforms including descheduling, states’ rights to allow medical marijuana, states’s rights to allow adult use, decriminalization, banking reform, easier ability to do research, etc. When Senate Dems offer companion bills, GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocks them from being heard in committees or voted on.
  • None of this has had a substantial effect in reducing drug use or making the public more safe – only in reducing respect for human rights. The Drug War is an abject failure, and it is time for America to cut its losses and change political course to solve its problems.

Return to Human Rights and the Drug War


Author, cannabis expert witness, journalist, artist