The Reagan-Era Drug War Legacy 6/11/04

Drug War Chronicle, recent top items


recent blog posts "In the Trenches" activist feed


Former President Ronald Reagan died Saturday at the age of 93, and since then discussion of his political legacy has filled the airwaves and countless newspaper and magazine column inches. Perhaps out of deference to the former national leader, much of the discussion has been laudatory, at times even hagiographic, and many Americans certainly feel that way about the two-term former president. Reagan made his mark – for better, worse, or both, his two terms left the nation and the world changed places. To change things, however, also means to incur one's share of controversy; on great issues such as economic policy, the end of the Cold War, and "culture war" issues such as abortion or homosexuality – or drugs – the Reagan legacy is and will continue to be a matter of discussion and debate for long after the ceremony and honors of an in-state funeral have concluded.

When it comes to Reagan's legacy in drug policy – the drug war, of which he played a major though not lone role in escalating to an unprecedented level – even staunch Reagan enthusiasts are less likely to brag about it than other issues he impacted. Though polling has found that 3/4 of Americans support the drug war, polls also show that 3/4 of Americans consider the drug war to be a failure, and a number of high-level Reagan administration officials have broken fundamentally with the drug war ideology his administration vigorously espoused – votes of confidence in neither case by any means. While some drug war advocates point to decreases in casual drug use rates during the 1980s as measured by government surveys, others point to much more hard-hitting and more accurately measured phenomena such as increased drug trade violence, constant addiction rates, an explosion of HIV transmission through injection drug use, and the rapid growth, seemingly from nowhere, of crack cocaine into a widespread habit having deleterious effects on the nation's inner cities.

Among drug reformers, no matter their position on the ideological spectrum, there is little debate about it: Reagan's drug policy legacy is a disaster. For all the people contacted by DRCNet for this article – which included both critics and admirers of the Reagan presidency overall – the question was not whether Reagan's drug policies were bad, but how bad and how much of the blame he shares with others. To drug reformers, the Reagan-era represented a traumatic disappointment, a time when the nation hurtled down a path of massive suffering, waste and injustice.

Of course, Reagan didn't create the war on drugs by himself. That the rampant escalation of the drug war in the 1980s was a bipartisan affair is unquestionable. It was Democrats in Congress, for instance, who took the lead on mandatory minimum sentencing in the middle of the decade. And, as we shall see below, Democrats and Republicans were in the grips of a race to the bottom to see who could be "toughest" on crime and drugs.

Nor can Reagan cannot be held directly responsible for its deepening since then, under Democratic and Republican presidents alike, and at least some of the seeds of the drug war, such as an incarceration rate still spiraling far beyond any previous time in history. As a graph on the web site of The Sentencing Project illustrates (, America's incarceration binge began during the Nixon presidency and continued unbroken under both his successor, Gerald Ford, and Reagan's immediate predecessor, Jimmy Carter, a Democrat. Even as social tolerance and progressive criminal justice ideals seemed to be taking root in the public consciousness, and as marijuana decriminalization appeared to be on the way with bipartisan support, the prisons continued to grow.

But Reagan lit the fire, and in the years since he took office tens of millions of people have been arrested under the drug laws, millions have been sent to prison, and hundreds of billions of dollars have been incinerated in a program that epitomizes big, intrusive government in one of its most violent forms. And while Reagan did made the occasional gesture, such as allowing the tiny federal medical marijuana program to function, or said the occasional word suggesting a lighter touch might work, those good deeds pale in comparison with an enduring legacy of police and prisons, searches and seizures, and a population ever more surveilled in the name of its own well-being. It was during the presidency of Ronald Reagan that narcotics law enforcement morphed into drug war overdrive with a series of ever more draconian drug laws and an attitude of repressive "zero tolerance" emanating from the White House. Here are some of the lowlights of Reagan-era drug policy:

  • Erosion of the Posse Comitatus Act, the 1868 law that forbids federal troops from engaging in domestic law enforcement activities. It was the erosion of Posse Comitatus that led to the killing of US citizen Esequiel Hernandez by US Marines outside Redford, Texas, and the use of military equipment and personnel against the Branch Davidians in Waco in 1993 (under the pretext that they were cooking meth).
  • Zero-tolerance "Just Say No" as a public policy approach to drug use. "Not long ago in Oakland, California, I was asked by a group of children what to do if they were offered drugs," explained Nancy Reagan in 1986. "And I answered, 'Just Say No.' Soon after that those children in Oakland formed a Just Say No Club and now there are over 10,000 such clubs all over the country."
  • Passage of the 1986 crime bill, notable for the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences for the first time since 1970. This act also created the federal Sentencing Commission and the current system of federal sentencing guidelines, which did away with parole in the federal system, ensuring that prisoners would serve at least 85% of their sentences. And it included asset forfeiture.
  • Passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, which established a federal death penalty for "drug kingpins." Reagan signed that bill in his wife's honor.
The home page of the Cato Institute (, a libertarian think tank in Washington, DC, features a glowing homage to Reagan, but the former president wins no drug policy kudos from Cato's Timothy Lynch. "When it comes to the drug war, there's just not much good that can be said about Reagan's policy," Lynch conceded. "It was bad, no doubt about it."

Still, unlike his successor, Reagan did not bother to do away with the federal government's limited medical marijuana access program, Lynch pointed out. "The program was modest and people had to jump through a lot of hoops, but there was at least an administration that recognized that sick people may need these things."

And, he added, the 1980s drug war was a bipartisan game. "Remember, Congress back then was controlled by Democrats, who not only did not need to have their arms twisted, but in many cases were trying to get to Reagan's right on these issues," Lynch recalled. "After basketball player Len Bias died of cocaine, it was House Speaker Tip O'Neill (D-MA) who was hearing from his constituents about it – Bias had been drafted by the Celtics – and he came back after that saying 'we're going to get the Republicans on drugs.' O'Neill tasked the Democrats and their staffers to come up with harsh measures, and they did."

"That's true, they all get credit," said Eric Sterling, who as counsel to the House Judiciary Committee was present at the creation of much of Reagan-era drug policy legislation. "But Reagan certainly deserves much of the blame. Presidents are responsible for their appointments, and he appointed White House drug advisors who were small minded, who believed and said preposterous things," Sterling told DRCNet. "His drug advisor Carleton Turner was quoted in Time saying using marijuana leads to homosexuality. When Reagan came in, the people he put in charge of the National Institutes on Drug Abuse (NIDA) began purging libraries of materials that contained facts about drugs that were no longer politically acceptable. His top advisor for law enforcement matters and later his attorney general was Ed Meese, who as a California prosecutor had experienced the 1960s at Berkeley. Meese saw marijuana as a great social evil."

"It wasn't just the Republicans," agreed Arnold Trebach (, a pioneer in American drug reform and founder of the Drug Policy Foundation in 1988. "But Reagan just swept the country along with him. It was that the country was in a state of hysteria, Democrats and Republicans alike. He tapped into this hysteria and drove it to incredible heights. Everybody jumped on the bandwagon. We forget the extent to which everyone was into this. There was a phrase both parties used, 'no one to the right of me on the drug issue,'" Trebach recalled.

"I admire Reagan for ending the Cold War, but in the drug policy arena, he was just horrible," said Trebach, whose book "The Great American Drug War" was written as Reagan-era drug laws began to bite. "If you want a taste of the hysteria and the fear, read my book. You had kids turning in their mothers for smoking pot and people like Joyce Nalepka saying that was the right thing to do. You had Reagan pushing to get rid of Posse Comitatus so he could use the armed forces in the drug war. He was for freedom, but like so many people, not when it came to drugs. The Reagan era spawned all sorts of nasty innovations, and while not all of them came from the White House, they were all part of that same intrusive spirit. We are still suffering from that to this day," he told DRCNet.

"I was going around the country at the time and I had just gone on marijuana raids with the DEA in California, and when I got back to Washington, I decided that instead of writing more books, I would create a drug reform organization," Trebach explained. "The formation of the Drug Policy Foundation and the birth of the modern drug reform movement was a direct result of the horrors of the Reagan drug war."

"Drug policy was one of the few areas where Reagan strayed from his conservative philosophy by expanding the power of the government and undermining the Constitution," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance (, the lineal descendant of Trebach's Drug Policy Foundation. "The cost to taxpayers and civil liberties has been tremendous. It is sadly ironic," he told DRCNet. "This is a man who warned that government can't solve all problems and that government can do more harm than good, and there is no better example of that than his own war on drugs, with its increased overdoses, broken families, effect on the Constitution, and all the rest."

But Reagan wasn't alone in the drug war debacle of the 1980s, Piper hastened to add. "Reagan was a cheerleader for harsher drug penalties, but at same time both parties were rushing to be the first to advocate tougher penalties. Sen. Joe Biden and Rep. Charlie Rangel and other Democrats leading the charge deserve much of the blame," he said. "At least, those Democrats have come around a little. Rangel has realized that what he did caused more harm than good and is working for change, and even Biden is at least coming around a bit on mandatory minimums. But I don't know that Reagan ever looked back and realized he was wrong."

But in an interview conducted in 1986 and reported by The Economist in 1996, Reagan showed at least some sensitivity to issues of privacy and liberty in the drug war. "I have great concerns," Reagan said, when asked about mandatory drug testing for federal employees. Except for groups such as air traffic controllers and federal agents who carry guns, "I would rather see a voluntary program." Should drug users go to jail? asked the interviewer. "No," he replied. "I think we should offer help for them." And while he said he personally favored executing drug dealers, he thought such a law would "divide our ranks" and "would be counterproductive."

The Economist published those comments in an article making the point that Reagan appeared downright moderate compared to President Bill Clinton and his Republican challenger Sen. Bob Dole as they struggled to out-drug war each other in the 1996 presidential campaign. Clinton was bragging about adding more drug crimes to the death penalty list and urging that teens be forced to take drug tests before they could get a drivers' license. "The Clinton Administration has taken the Republican drug war to soaring new heights of Draconian ineffectiveness," the Economist noted dourly.

"People remember Reagan's charming smile and personality, but they forget the mean-spiritedness of many of his policies," said Keith Stroup, director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (, who has been monitoring presidential drug policies since the days of Richard Nixon. "For those of us in drug policy reform, it is hard to feel anything but disappointment in a man who seemed so congenial but unaware of uncaring about the fact that he was filling the jails with nonviolent drug offenders," he told DRCNet. "I don't want to dance on anyone's grave, but Ronald Reagan was certainly no friend of marijuana smokers."

Nancy Reagan's "Just
Say No" Campaign
Stroup also pointed a finger at Nancy Reagan and her "Just Say No" slogan. "Nancy Reagan's 'Just Say No' did the work of dumbing down the debate on drugs in this country. Instead of recognizing drug use as a complex problem and people as complex beings, she gave us the idea that we could fix everything if we just said no. If that were the case, we wouldn't have a drug problem in this country," Stroup said. "They were only interested in using the criminal justice system. There was no attempt to treat drug use as a medical problem. Anyone who used illicit drugs had a character flaw and needed to be jailed. Alcohol, on the other hand, was no problem whatsoever."

"You can't talk about this without talking about Nancy Reagan," agreed Sterling. "She was extremely influential in policy, especially drug policy in the White House. She had been condemned for bringing an imperial style to the White House after the homespun Carters, and her advisors said she had to find a public service issue to improve her profile. She got drugs, and her 'Just Say No' program came to symbolize an approach toward drug abuse prevention that focused primarily on young people who never used drugs, while it completely ignored talking realistically to young people who were using drugs."

Sterling also pointed to another area where Nancy Reagan's role was pivotal. "She became the honorary chair of the national federation of parents for drug-free youth and led an enormous effort to organize Republican women in the context of the anti-drug effort," he said. "This has continued to the present day. What ostensibly are volunteer parent organizations are in fact recipients of lots of grant money from a variety of federal agencies. This was a way to counter the growing and genuine critiques of Reagan economic and social policies. Urban communities were being destroyed by those policies, but the drug-free groups organized in the context of fighting drugs, not poverty or injustice."

And just as Arnold Trebach gave Reagan-era drug war horrors the credit for inspiring him to found the Drug Policy Foundation, Sterling gives Nancy Reagan perverse credit for impelling new approaches to drug abuse. "Harm reduction became civil society's response to the head-in-the-sand 'Just Say No' approach," he said.

Although the impetus for marijuana reform under Reagan's predecessor, Jimmy Carter, had faded before Reagan took office, the Reagan administration absolutely froze any progress toward reform, Stroup said. "In 1979, Nebraska was the last state to decriminalize marijuana, but after that the message went out that marijuana smokers were no longer to be treated as decent people. That held for Republicans and Democrats alike," Stroup recalled.

"During the 1970s, we had Democrats like Harold Hughes of Iowa and Philip Hart of Michigan, as well as Republicans like Jacob Javits of New York, who would sponsor decriminalization bills every year in Congress. Up until 1981 or 1982, it was possible to have an honest debate over marijuana policy, but after the arrival of the Reaganites it was no longer acceptable for mainstream politicians to argue for decrim instead of filling our jails with pot smokers. The last decrim bill was introduced in 1982 or 1983, and I'm sorry to say that streak remains unbroken to this day."

"Drug use is a profoundly social phenomenon," Sterling pointed out. "Lawmakers tend to forget that and think that drug use is a consequence of inadequate law enforcement or not enough tough laws, but people make decisions about drugs in the same utterly unpredictable way in which hair style changes, or facial hair, or clothing styles. And there is a certain zeitgeist, or spirit of the times. Most of what we think of as the "1960s" really took place in the 1970s – the climax of the civil rights struggle, the bloodletting in Vietnam, the student protests leading to the killing of students at Kent State and Jackson State, protests in Washington where tens of thousands of demonstrators were illegally arrested. There was a level of social conflict that was really intense. Then after Nixon came Jimmy Carter, a calming figure. Carter wanted marijuana decriminalization, the country was smoking pot, and it fit into an attitude of mellowness after the conflict and violence," Sterling explained.

"Then came Reagan. He rejected the mellow, homespun approach for grand style. I remember his inauguration; Washington was suffering from limousine gridlock. Reagan came in with a transforming national message: We're Number One, we're the greatest, the most powerful, the strongest. There is a drug that fits that zeitgeist. It's cocaine. It was the cocaine '80s, although not for long because of the price to be paid. But if you were on Wall Street or an athlete, it was the drug that made you smarter, faster, better. And the Reagan drug policy had set the stage for the cocaine boom."

"Having been a lifelong Goldwater Republican, I welcomed Reagan's election," said Dale Gieringer, director of California NORML. "By the end of his regime, I was appalled by the mounting wreckage caused by his blithe, hypocritical abandonment of free-market, limited-government principles in waging the war on drugs. Personally, I don't hold Ronald Reagan 100% responsible for the complete disaster; Democrats cheered him along and rivaled him in proposing tough anti-drug measures. Reagan was a product of his generation, ignorant of marijuana, and responding to a powerful tide of genuine, popular, anti-drug sentiment that swept the nation during the coke-addled '80s."

It was not only Reagan's drug policies, but his willingness to abandon them in the pursuit of "higher purposes" with some very shady characters that disturbed Sanho Tree, drug policy analyst for the Institute of for Policy Studies ( "Reagan preached 'Just Say No' and sought tougher criminal penalties while his administration worked hand in hand with some of the most notorious drug traffickers in the world," Tree pointed out. "Ollie North and his gang knowingly worked with drug smugglers in order to send the profits to a mercenary army called the Contras working for the CIA to overthrow the elected leftist government of Nicaragua. The Contras practiced some of the most horrific forms of terror and mutilation ever known in this hemisphere. Their human rights record was so blood curdling that Congress forbade military assistance to them – hence the turn to covert drug funding for the Contras."

And if by the mid-1980s American elites had said good-bye to cocaine, there was room down-market. By the mid-1980s, the beginning of Reagan's second term, as cocaine flooded the streets of American cities, crack cocaine appeared and, along with it, crack hysteria. It was different when the cocaine users were poor and black instead of wealthy and white.

But the Reagan administration's turning of a blind eye to other armed irregulars was to have even more long-lasting consequences, said Tree. "In Afghanistan, Reagan sought to give the Soviets their own taste of Vietnam, so the CIA funded and trained the fundamentalist mujahadeen, including Osama bin Laden. These forces quickly turned to opium poppy cultivation to supplement their CIA funding and now Afghanistan produces three-quarters of the world's heroin," the analyst said. According to numerous reports, profits from that trade are helping to finance Al Qaeda and the Taliban (not to mention warlords within the US-backed Afghan government of Hamid Karzai). "Reagan called these armies 'freedom fighters' and the 'moral equivalent of our founding fathers. The founding fathers grew hemp for peaceful purposes -- they didn't traffic in cocaine and heroin in order to wage war! In fact, one could argue that Reagan's foreign policy gave birth to the original 'narco-terrorists,' the Contras and the mujahadeen."

Eric Sterling summed up the Reagan era. "When Reagan came into office, marijuana was cheap and plentiful, cocaine was scarce and expensive, and AIDS was unknown. When Reagan left office, pot was expensive and hard to find, cocaine was cheap and plentiful, and AIDS had become a full-blown epidemic he refused to address."

At least a few Reagan administration officials have publicly taken drug reform stances since the Reagan-era ended. George Shultz, Reagan's Secretary of State, has questioned prohibition and spoken at reform gatherings, including two events for police leaders and public officials organized by former San Jose and Kansas City police chief Joseph McNamara at Stanford's Hoover Institution. And Reagan aide Lyn Nofziger has discussed his own medical use of marijuana and championed that issue in conservative publications such as National Review. Perhaps more of the participants in the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush drug war will rethink that area of policy and perhaps it will make a difference.

-- END --
Link to Drug War Facts
Please make a generous donation to support Drug War Chronicle in 2007!          

PERMISSION to reprint or redistribute any or all of the contents of Drug War Chronicle (formerly The Week Online with DRCNet is hereby granted. We ask that any use of these materials include proper credit and, where appropriate, a link to one or more of our web sites. If your publication customarily pays for publication, DRCNet requests checks payable to the organization. If your publication does not pay for materials, you are free to use the materials gratis. In all cases, we request notification for our records, including physical copies where material has appeared in print. Contact: the Drug Reform Coordination Network, P.O. Box 18402, Washington, DC 20036, (202) 293-8340 (voice), (202) 293-8344 (fax), e-mail [email protected]. Thank you.

Articles of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of the DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.

Issue #341, 6/11/04 The Reagan-Era Drug War Legacy | Medical Marijuana Activists Protest at More Than 100 Congressional Offices in National Day of Action | Despite Ohio State University's Best Efforts, Ohio Hempfest Goes On As Scheduled | Canadian Marijuana Reformers "Fill the Hill" to Make Cannabis an Issue in Upcoming Election Season | Newsbrief: "Three Strikes" Challenge Makes California Ballot | Newsbrief: Pennsylvania Troopers Find Dope Most Often on White Motorists but Search More Blacks and Hispanics, Study Finds | Newsbrief: Swiss Doctors Want Prescription Cocaine, But Government Wary With Cannabis Decriminalization Vote Looming | Newsbrief: Another Pain Doctor on Trial | Newsbrief: Legalize and Tax Cannabis, Says Canadian Institute | Links: Rockefeller Reform Fizzles Again | The Reformer's Calendar

This issue -- main page
This issue -- single-file printer version
Drug War Chronicle -- main page
Chronicle archives
Out from the Shadows HEA Drug Provision Drug War Chronicle Perry Fund DRCNet en Español Speakeasy Blogs About Us Home
Why Legalization? NJ Racial Profiling Archive Subscribe Donate DRCNet em Português Latest News Drug Library Search
special friends links: SSDP - Flex Your Rights - IAL - Drug War Facts the Drug Reform Coordination Network (DRCNet)
1623 Connecticut Ave., NW, 3rd Floor, Washington DC 20009 Phone (202) 293-8340 Fax (202) 293-8344 [email protected]