The War on Drugs at 50

Editor’s Note: This post by Social History of Alcohol and Drugs Editors Nancy Campbell, David Herzberg, and Lucas Richert kicks off Points’s commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the declaration of the War on Drugs.

In a White House press conference on June 17, 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs. His message was stark: “America’s public enemy number one, in the United States, is drug abuse.” He announced that it was “necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive” on this enemy, and his campaign would be “worldwide” in size and scope. Fifty years later, the United States and, indeed, many other countries are reckoning with the fallout.

President Richard Nixon’s June 17, 1971, press conference announcing a “a new all-out offensive” against drugs and “drug abuse.” Source: Richard Nixon Foundation YouTube channel.

At the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs (SHAD), we are all too aware of the long term ramifications of President Nixon’s pronouncement, but we also recognize that the “War on Drugs” did not strictly begin in June 1971 and was rooted in prohibitionist impulses that built up over the decades; still, one can’t deny the power of branding—and in formalizing the “War” agenda at the highest level.

We are also committed to understanding the War on Drugs in locales and populations beyond the United States. And we are committed to understanding how harm reduction was minimized at the expense of more punitive measures, leading the War on Drugs to also become a War on People who Use Drugs.

Thanks to the University of Chicago Press, we are happy to share below a free selection of six SHAD articles that help explain the War on Drugs on the home front and outside American borders. These articles, which will be freely available and open access until the end of August 2021, present, we think, a valuable and broader perspective on the War on Drugs, which we hope will be of use to you. Interested readers can see the abstracts below and click through to read the articles.

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Points Interview: Stephen Snelders

Stephen Snelders Points Interview card

Today we’re excited to feature a Points Interview with Dr. Stephen Snelders, the author of Drug Smuggler Nation: Narcotics and the Netherlands, 1920–1995 (Manchester University Press, 2021). Snelders is a Research Fellow at University of Utrecht, and is a member of the Intoxicating Spaces project. He has written books on seventeenth-century Dutch piracy, leprosy in the Dutch colony of Suriname and LSD therapy in the Netherlands. The interview was conducted by Contributing Editor Peder Clark.

Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

The recreational use of illegal drugs is quite common and a more or less accepted leisure activity in the city where I (and my bartenders before and after the lockdown) live. Just as common is media coverage of violence executed by “organized crime,” trials against “drug lords,” new record drug seizures in Dutch port towns, police raids on underground drug laboratories, and the “subversion” of the democratic state by organized drug gangs. Fifty years ago, all of these phenomena seemed to exist to a much smaller degree. The whole concept of “organized crime” was then unknown to the Dutch judiciary and police force. Furthermore, a hundred years ago, there were no laws against illicit drugs in the Netherlands. Since then, the Netherlands has become a key hub of the international drug trade.

My book basically asks the question, how did we get ourselves in this situation, and, especially, why did Dutch drug smuggling become so big and important? The book researches histories of smugglers and smuggling networks: drug users, criminal entrepreneurs, idealists from the hippie and XTC (ecstasy or MDMA) drug undergrounds, brokers from pharmaceutical companies, sailors, and others. They could all thrive in a social and cultural climate of what I call “criminal anarchy:” embedded and rooted in Dutch society, connected to a legal “upperworld.” Crucially, they were NOT organized in large hierarchical crime syndicates that would have been relatively easy targets for police activities, but rather the groups and networks were often transitory, vertically organized, and only seldom competing with each other. In short, the book shows why cutting off one head of the hydra of drug smuggling only led to the growth of new heads in new places.

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Living the War on Drugs in Colombia During the 1980s

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Stefano Tijerina, a lecturer in management and Chris Kobrack Research Fellow in Canandian Business History at the University’s of Maine’s Business School.

I was born in Bogotá in December 1969, and raised in a bicultural world, moving back and forth between Colombia and Texas.  My Colombian mother and my American dad introduced me, unintentionally, to a certain complexity that generated in me a unique way of looking at the world. I do not remember much from my first seven years, just some constructed ideas from old photos. There are plenty of foggy memories that are not tied to a story that has a beginning or an end. Surprisingly, one of my first vivid memories from early childhood is a man being forcefully dragged out of his home by two men, as two other men with face covers restrained his wife and daughter. It was a six or seven second scene, before my mom drove away as the traffic light changed, in a busy neighborhood street, in the northern part of Bogotá.  

Ten years later, after one of the many deadly detonations of bombs in Bogotá ordered by Pablo Escobar, I connected the two incidents.  It was then that I realized that I was in the middle of the American War on Drugs.  I was a teenager at that point, fighting for my freedom and independence, and arguing against my family-imposed lockdown. The current COVID-19 situation brought back that feeling of confinement; I could not go out at night and my mobilization was limited to going to school and back home because the danger and threat were invisible, but the consequences were real. 

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