The History of America's Failed War on Drugs

marijuana dry herb in a jar with a black background

Drug prohibition in America has a pained and punitive history that has largely failed over the years. Over half of all states now have cannabis access laws and more are set to follow suit. Despite the resurgence of cannabis in the American mainstream, the United States still classifies marijuana as a Schedule I illegal substance among the likes of heroin and bath salts.

Prohibition has been used over the years to restrict the sale, production, and consumption of controlled substances to reduce drug abuse. Through criminalization, the U.S. has been hemorrhaging billions of dollars to completely eliminate the drug supply. Many policymakers are considering loosening national marijuana laws and focusing more on education and treatment.

America is on the road to legalization, but there's no clear indication how soon that will come. The history of America's war on drugs started in the 20th century, but there was a considerable push to reduce drug abuse long before.

Table of Contents


purple flower

Drugs gained increased notoriety and use starting in the early 1800s. In 1805, morphine was isolated from poppy seeds. Today, morphine and its derivatives are some of the most widely used treatments for severe pain. The advent of hypodermic syringes in 1851 paved the way for treating wounded soldiers during the Civil War. Thus, started a chain of veteran-related addictions to morphine.

Starting in the 1880s, cocaine consumption grew in favor among Americans eventually reaching pharmacy store shelves. Both heroin and cocaine-based drugs were available to treat coughs, bronchitis, and insomnia. Doctors would prescribe heroin to children and irritable babies. It wasn't until the end of the 19th century that drug abuse became a recognized epidemic.

Even before drug abuse became an insurmountable problem, local laws started tackling drug use through prohibition in the late 1800s. The landmark 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act required doctors to accurately label medicines, but more importantly, gave increased power to the government to engage in a violent history of the war on drugs.

In 1909, the Smoking Opium Exclusion Act banned the possession, use, and importation of opium for recreational purposes, but still permitted the medicinal use of opium. This was the first act to limit the non-medicinal use of a substance.

Leafbuyer Blog Flower Deals Banner


The Harrison Narcotics Act was passed in 1914 and became the catalyst for subsequent drug policy that, arguably, caused more damage than prevented it. The act came shortly after the U.S. attended the Hague convention in 1912 to solve the worldwide opium epidemic. Led by Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, the Narcotics Tax Act required producers and importers to register with the Department of Treasury and pay a special tax.

Vague wording in the act declared that addiction was not a disease making it difficult for doctors to prescribe drugs. Clinics, doctors, and drug users were aggressively punished. Thousands of physicians were fined and jailed. In 1919, Webb et al. v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that the maintenance of addicts as a treatment form was prohibited. Finally, in 1919, the U.S. passed the 18th Amendment prohibiting the sale and drinking of alcohol.


In 1930, the Department of Treasury created the Federal Bureau of Narcotics manned by Harry J. Anslinger as its first commissioner. He would go on the lead the agency until 1962 enacting severe penalties for drug usage.


cone joint and bud

In 1933, the 18th amendment was repealed and replaced by the 21st Amendment. During the 1930s, Harry J. Anslinger successfully lobbied for support from newspapers for harsher drug penalties. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared support for the Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act, an act that would create uniform laws to control the sale and use of drugs.

Aslinger testified to Congress claiming that "the major criminal in the United States is the drug addict; that of all offenses committed against the laws of this country, the narcotic addict is the most frequent offender." In 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act was passed. The act required that marijuana growers and pharmacists buy tax stamps for every transaction. Right after the passage of the act, all states made marijuana illegal.


After the Marihuana Tax Act, drug penalties escalated. In 1951, The Boggs Act established mandatory minimum sentences for drug violations. The act, led by Senator Hale Boggs, was the first of its kind equating the effects of marijuana with other drugs like heroin. First-time offenders got a minimum of two years and maximum of five years of jail time and a $2,000 fine. Second and third offenses received increasingly harsher sentences.

President Eisenhower signed the Narcotics Control Act in 1956 increasing drug penalties and prohibited suspending sentences, probation, or parole for multiple-time offenders. First-time drug sentences were increased to two-to-ten-year terms and a $20,000 fine. Under the act, a jury could recommend the death penalty for drug dealers who sold heroin to minors.


The 1960s were ground-zero for the counterculture movement that glamorized drug use, especially hallucinogens like LSD. In 1963, the Presidential Commission on Narcotic and Drug Abuse submitted a report urging the removal of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a push for more narcotic research, and relaxed drug penalties. Congress accepted these recommendations and created the Bureau of Drug Abuse Control.

In 1966, the Narcotic Addict Rehabilitation Act was passed to rehabilitate drug-addicted convicted felons through treatment. The progress was stalled by a lack of funding for the increasing drug abuse epidemic. In 1968, President Johnson combined the Bureau of Narcotics and the Bureau of Drug Abuse Control into the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD).


researcher holding up bud and oil

What many people know as the history of the "War on Drugs" officially started in the 1970s under President Nixon. Nixon's Operation Intercept in 1969 closed most of the border during harvest season to limit the marijuana supply. In 1971, President Nixon declared that "America's public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse." "In order to defeat the enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive," he proclaimed.

A year before, Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 into law. The legislation classified drugs into five schedules. Marijuana would be temporarily listed as a Schedule I substance until the Schafer commission assessed its status. Nixon ignored the commission's classification and kept marijuana under the most dangerous schedule.

Nixon showed a willingness to approach drug abuse differently in 1971 when he funded the experimental methadone maintenance program saying that "as long as there is demand, there will be those willing to take risks of meeting the demand." He would later go on to instill mandatory drug testing for Vietnam soldiers.

In 1973, Nixon toughened his stance on drugs by creating the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to consolidate the BNND and the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement. The Drug Enforcement Agency started off with almost 1,500 special agents and over $74 million in funding. By 1975, the funding more than doubled. In 1974, however, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) was formed to research cannabis.


During the 1970s, eleven states decriminalized marijuana possession in opposition to national laws. At the same time, the drug war abroad intensified. In November 1975, drug traffickers claimed the lives of 40 people in the Medellin Massacre after police seized 600 kilograms of cocaine.

In the United States, Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter ran on a campaign that supported marijuana decriminalization. He would go on the win the election and presidency. He is famous for saying that the "penalties against possession of the drug should not be more damaging than the drug itself." In 1977, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of weed.

In 1978, NIDA began a compassionate-use program for select consumers administered after a physician's recommendation. The same year saw New Mexico declaring marijuana as an effective medicinal substance for cancer patients. By 1979, the Medellin cartel had purchased an island in the Bahamas to ramp up operations in the United States.


The Medellin cartel's rise in power stemmed the United States and Colombia to ratify a bilateral extradition treaty in 1981. Cocaine kingpin, Pablo Escobar, gains trade route access through Panama with the help of General Manuel Noriega prompting Vice-President George Bush to form the South Florida Drug Task Force, one of the costliest drug operations to date, in 1982.

At the same time, Pablo Escobar was running for a seat in the Colombian Congress gaining favor among the community he financially helped out. After he was elected, he was quickly kicked out by the minister of justice.

In 1981, Ronald Reagan's presidency ramped up the war on drugs on all fronts. Drug Enforcement program funding increased from $437 million during the Carter administration to $1.4 billion during Reagan's first term. His stance on drugs led to an increase of jail time for nonviolent drug offenses from 50,000 in 1980 to 400,000 in 1997.

Reagan's wife, Nancy Reagan, started the "Just Say No" campaign in 1984 to prevent youth drug use. The year before, police chief Daryl Gates started the DARE drug education program. In 1984, Reagan signed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, which was written up by Joe Biden and Strom Thurmond. The act expands penalties and civil asset forfeiture, which allows the government to take away property before the guilty verdict is given.


Marijuana Wax Dabs Concentrate
Photo by: Canna Obscura/Shutterstock
In 1985, the U.S. extradited Colombian drug traffickers for the first time. The Reagan administration established the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986 which enacted minimum sentences for certain drug charges. The act allocated $1.7 billion to continue the war on drugs. The act would also create the "three strikes law," which increased punishment for multiple-time offenders.

Controversy arose regarding the discrepancy in minimum sentences between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Possession of five grams of crack resulted in a five-year sentence while it took possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine to receive the same sentence. The discrepancy led to an increase in arrests of African-Americans.

In 1987, Carlos Lehder, a drug lord, was captured, convicted, and sentenced to life. However, threats to the justices lead them to annul the extradition treaty with the United States. In 1988, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, sponsored by Joe Biden, aimed for a "drug-free America" and established the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).

In 1989, Senator John Kerry and a congressional subcommittee found that Reagan's efforts in the Nicaraguan civil war increased tension in the war on drugs. At the end of 1989, the United States invaded Panama and sent Gen. Manuel Noriega to the U.S. to await a conviction.


President Bush increased the funding for the war on drugs with an additional $1.2 billion and a 50% increase in military spending. Meanwhile, in Colombia, their assembly voted to ban extradition and lost Pablo Escobar when transferring him to another prison in 1991. In 1992, the Mexican President limits the number of DEA agents allowed in the country, prohibits their use of weapons, and restricts where they can live.

In 1993, President Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) increasing trade between U.S. and Mexico making it harder to track drugs. During the same year, Escobar is found and killed as he tries to flee. Joe Biden's 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill allowed for the death penalty of drug lords.


By 1995, the war on drugs had claimed many lives, but also affected racial minorities the most. In 1995, the U.S. Sentencing Commission reported that there was a significant disparity for prison sentencing between crack and cocaine. The commission advised Congress to reduce the discrepancy, but Congress ignored the recommendation for the first time ever. California made history in 1996 when it legalized medical marijuana paving the way for other states to follow suit.


Wax Live Resin Concentrate
Photo by: Roxana Gonzales/Shutterstock
In August 2000, President Bill Clinton gave Colombia $1.3 billion under the Plan Colombia to reduce their cocaine production by spraying coca crops with toxic herbicides. The funding paid for combat helicopters and training for aerial spraying. In 2003, the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act is established to target ecstasy and methamphetamine. The act targeted producers of raves and established penalties for "drug-involved premises." In 2004, the DEA declared that it was working to limit heroin production in Afghanistan.


In 2006, authorities discovered the longest cross-border tunnel in U.S history running from Tijuana into the United States. During the George W. Bush administration, anti-drug campaigns increased drug testing and made enforcement increasingly more severe going as far as using paramilitary-style SWAT raids on nonviolent drug offenders.

In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the disparity in prison sentences between crack and powder cocaine violations. President Obama also ended the ban on federal funding for syringe access programs and protected states rights with medical marijuana laws.


Under Trump's regime, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions eliminated the Obama-approved marijuana protections of states rights making it possible for federal law enforcement to step in whenever they wanted. Luckily, his dismissal took the spotlight off of marijuana and led to a promising future for marijuana reform.

Waiting for the End of the War on Drugs

man smoking

At the moment, the federal government is respecting a state's right to create marijuana programs. Some policymakers are going as far as drafting up comprehensive cannabis reform that legalizes cannabis and expunges non-violent drug convictions. In a world where tobacco and alcohol cause more deaths than marijuana, perceptions are slowly changing.

The war on drugs history is marked by violence, increased prison population, a racial disparity, and a waste of billions of tax dollars. More and more states are adopting medical marijuana programs and recreational marijuana programs that give access to those who need it most. Future reforms are set to end the brutal history of the war on drugs and make amends for past mistakes.

If you live a legal state, head to the Leafbuyer deals page for the best marijuana deals!