A few days ago, New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow commemorated the “40th anniversary of one of the biggest, most expensive, most destructive social policy experiments in American history: The war on drugs.” The Times column wasn’t exactly delivering anniversary best wishes. Instead, Blow charged the 40-year old drug war with being “an unmitigated disaster, an abomination of justice and a self-perpetuating, trillion-dollar economy of wasted human capital, ruined lives and decimated communities.” Unhappy anniversary.
But is the drug war really turning forty this week? Charles Blow sets the date by Richard Nixon’s June 17, 1971 declaration: “America’s public enemy No. 1 in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive. I have asked the Congress to provide the legislative authority and the funds to fuel this kind of offensive. This will be a worldwide offensive dealing with the problems of supply, as well as Americans who may be stationed abroad, wherever they are in the world.”
Who says this marks the “start” of the drug war? The “40th anniversary” idea seems to have begun with a widely circulated Huffington Post column from Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann, which used the same Nixon speech as the symbolic/real starting point of the drug war. Interestingly enough, Charles Blow’s NYT op-ed colleague, Nicholas Kristof, celebrated the 40th anniversary of the drug war two years ago. His June 13, 2009 column began: “This year marks the 40th anniversary of President Nixon’s start of the war on drugs, and it now appears that drugs have won.” It is worth pointing out that 2011 features a rival drug war anniversary commemoration—the 50th anniversary of the global drug war, using the enactment of the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (1961) as the starting point.
If you’re undecided, here is a menu of American drug war anniversary options for 2011: