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:
40th—One could certainly argue that modern federal drug control policy does, in fact, begin with the Nixon administration. And 1971 was as close to the heart of those policy developments as any moment in time.
50th—The United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs works pretty well as an anniversary moment, in the sense that it provided the start of a framework of international drug control agreements that continues to this day. It introduced important regulatory concepts, like scheduling, that underlie most modern drug control regimes.
60th—Passage of the federal Boggs Act. Who cares? Well, this legislation, coming in response to perceptions of a postwar drug crisis, imposed mandatory minimum sentences for federal drug law violators and inspired a host of state-level imitations. As much as any single piece of legislation, it marked the start of an idea that long, mandatory prison sentences could be the cure for the nation’s drug problem.
97th—The Harrison Act. In three years we’ll be treated to a lot of commentary on the drug war’s centennial. And rightfully so—the Harrison Act serves as an outstanding anniversary marker for the United States’ federal war on drugs.
100th—Why wait for the Harrison Act centennial, when you could mark the 100th anniversary of the Hague Opium Conference in 1911, which produced the Hague Convention for the international control of narcotics? Of course, if you went by the Shanghai Opium Commission (1909) then you’d have missed the centennial. If you went by the actual enactment of the Convention, you’d have to wait a few more years.
136th—Pushing back still further, we might commemorate the San Francisco city ordinance of 1875, which targeted opium dens and the practice of smoking opium. This may be the nation’s first “drug law” in a certain sense of the term.
There’s nothing wrong with marking anniversaries. Ethan Nadelmann is right. Whether 40th or 50th, they provide occasion for reflection and action. But there’s obviously no real “Day 1” for the war on drugs. Indeed, there’s a danger in really believing that there was a “start” just forty years ago; it risks obscuring just how deeply entrenched “drug wars” are in American history. And no reform movement ever succeeded by underestimating its object.
Joe Spillane is Professor of History at the University of Florida. He has authored Cocaine: From Medical Marvel to Modern Menace in the United States (Johns Hopkins Press, 2000) and co-edited Federal Drug Control: The Evolution of Policy and Practice (Haworth Press, 2004). More recently, he authored Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform (Johns Hopkins Press, 2014). His current drug-related research agenda includes: the history and development of drug abuse liability assessment; reflections on the nature of drug epidemics; and examinations of drug war “harms” in historical context.