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Drug War History and
Issues In a Nutshell

The Issues:

The War On Drugs represents complex controversies that are difficult to fully define in a few sentences, but some of the key points are:

• Civil Rights: Does a person have the right to use a recreational substance? Does a person have a right to access whatever medication they and their doctor agree upon for treatment of any condition? Should a person be imprisoned for using a recreational substance, even if they are responsible in that use?

• Criminal Issues: Do recreational substances cause crimes (other than use?) Is drug war related crime a consequence of the drug laws as opposed to the drugs themselves? Does prohibition result in increased profits for drug dealers, drug lords, and terrorists?

• Effectiveness Of Prohibition: Do prohibition laws work? Is the manufacture, trade, and use of recreational substances halted? Is prohibition cost effective?

• Funding for Treatment: Is treatment more cost effective than prohibition in curbing recreational substance abuse? Are adequate funds available for treatment by those in need?

• Education: Is recreational substance related education being addressed in an effective way? Is the "abstinence only" approach productive in reducing drug abuse?

• Law Enforcement: Have drug enforcement tactics resulted in police abuses? Has corruption in police departments increased as a result of the drug war? Have innocent citizens been harmed or killed by police in pursuit of the drug war?

• Taxes and Spending: Are tax dollars being spent most effectively with current government policies? If regulated like alcohol, instead of prohibited, would the sale of recreational substances generate tax revenues that could be used for treatment and education?


At the federal level, the first (and most effective) law targeted toward recreational substances (and other drugs) was the Food and Drugs Act of 1906 (which began as a grass roots movement in the 1870's). This act did not create prohibitions - what it did do was ensure that products met standards of purity, and were honestly labeled. (Up until that time "patent medicines" aka "snake oil" were widely sold - many of these products contained addictive narcotics, resulting in many unintentional addictions).

At the turn of the 20th century there was an increasingly prohibitionist attitude in the country. Between 1905 and 1917 Many states were banning alcohol and other drugs.

The first national legislation came in 1914 with the Harrison Narcotics Control Act. "Intended" as a law to regulate the sale of certain narcotics (opium, heroin, cocaine). While claims were made that this law was not to be prohibitionary, the taxes relating to the sale of the regulated substances were ultimately raised to a level that made them prohibitionary in nature. The seeds for the modern drug war were sewn.

In 1917 the congress approved the 18th amendment to the constitution, which the necessary states ratified, becoming law in 1920. This brought a nationwide prohibition of alcohol. Initially alcohol consumption dropped, but in a few short years organized crime gangs filled the demand for alcohol. Violence and crime flourished, funded by the ill-gotten gains of the illegal alcohol black market. Alcohol use steadily rose to exceed pre-prohibition levels.

The crime and other social problems associated with prohibition were clear for all to see, and in 1933 the 21st amendment to the constitution was ratified, repealing the 18th amendment and ending national alcohol prohibition. The laws relating to other drugs however, remained in place.

In 1937, another tax act was introduced, this one targeting Marijuana (which up to this time was legal, and in fact a commonly used drug in the U.S. Pharmacopeia).

In 1965 (under President Johnson) the Drug Abuse Control Amendments were passed, creating the Bureau of Drug Abuse Control. (it's interesting to note that from 1965 forward, the national homicide rate began a sharp increase, as did drug use among 12-17 year olds).

In 1969, shortly after his inauguration, President Nixon declared a war on drugs and crime.

In 1970 the modern "War On Drugs" is born as the "Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act". Title II (the "Controlled Substances Act" or "CSA") established 5 "schedules" of substances, with schedule "one" prohibiting substances even from medical use (Marijuana was placed in schedule one, despite the recommendations of the task force that marijuana not be criminalized). The CSA affects an absolute prohibition on many substances, and provides for federal law enforcement to act even on an intrastate level.

In 1973 Nixon reorganizes the various federal drug law enforcement agencies into the Drug Enforcement Agency, or DEA.

In 1986 Nancy Reagan begins the "Just Say No" campaign. While there is an initial drop in drug use, drug use again rises rapidly within a few years.

In 1988 the Office Of National Drug Control Policy (office of the "Drug Czar) is formed. The first Drug Czar is William Bennett (who ironically is a smoker, drinker, and compulsive gambler).

In 1994 and 1997, the RAND Corporation releases reports showing that drug treatment and education is 7 times more cost effective than criminal interdiction.

In 1996 California voters passed Prop. 215, which legalized medical marijuana. Since then the voters in 7 more states have passed laws making medical marijuana legal, and a total of 27 states have some form of medical marijuana access law.

The Case Against Drug Prohibition and the War On Drugs:


The main point of those in the anti-prohibition movement is that prohibition does not work; prohibition does not stop the making, selling, buying and using of recreational drugs.

A second point of the anti-prohibitionists is that America's current drug law prohibitions only result in creating a black market, where all moneys from recreational substance distribution go to drug dealers, drug lords, gangs and organized crime.

Anti-prohibitionists also claim that the black market caused by prohibition actually makes children, young teens especially, at greater risk for drug use.

Drug Law Reformers:

A common point of drug law reformers is that individuals should have the right to use whatever medication they wish; at the very least in concert with their doctor.

A further concept is that responsible recreational use of certain substances can be an important part of a healthy lifestyle. They point out that alcohol is among the most dangerous of recreational drugs, yet is well tolerated as a legal and regulated drug.

Treatment/Education/Harm Reductionists:

The treatment and education camp's view is that problems of drug use and abuse should be addressed though harm reduction and treatment and not though criminality, in much the same way that alcohol problems are dealt with. In favor of their view are studies, like the RAND study, that indicate that treatment is 7 times more effective than criminal incarceration.

harm reductionists also claim that criminalized drug black markets are actually more dangerous to society since purity standards vary widely, and because people with substance problems are afraid to come forward due to the fear of criminal sanctions.

Drug Regulationists:

The drug regulation groups like to show that needless tax dollars are lost to the illegal drug black market, and if recreational drugs were regulated like alcohol, the resultant tax revenues could be used to fund effective treatment programs.

The Case For Drug Prohibition/Drug War:

The prohibitionist's main contention is that drug use for recreational purposes is bad and not to be tolerated. They feel that criminal interdiction, especially on the supply side, is the only means of lowering recreational substance use. They feel that any relaxation of current drug laws will result in untenable growth of drug use in society.

Prohibitionists typically point to "protecting children" as the basis for their argument.

Prohibitionists consider the "abstinence only" and "zero tolerance" concepts to be the only valid approach to drug issues.

Another argument of prohibitionists is that the curtailment of civil rights, the increasing of police powers, and vastly expanding the expenditure of public funds on criminal interdiction is justified to continue the escalation of the war on drugs.

Current Status:

At the federal level the Controlled Substances Act, and it's various amendments, is the law of the land. It stipulated severe criminal penalties for making, selling, and using the substances it controls, such as marijuana, ecstasy, peyote, heroin and cocaine.

The act is enforced by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Though 8 states have made medical marijuana completely legal, the DEA claims supremacy, and has enforced the federal laws in these states, going so far as to arrest and imprison bedridden terminally ill patients for using doctor prescribed marijuana.

An estimated 40 billion is spent each year by federal and state drug control programs like the DEA. An additional 20 to 30 billion is spent on incarceration costs (prisons and jails). The national drug trade is estimated to be 60 to 70 Billion a year, none of which is taxed (an estimated loss of 30 to 40 billion in income and direct taxes).

In terms of civil liberties, the Supreme Court has generally ruled in favor of increasing police powers and decreasing citizen privacy when drug war issues are tried.

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