What Is the War on Drugs?

Law enforcement officers are cracking down on both drug users and dealers.
President Nixon was the first to use the phrase, "war on drugs."
Much of the world's heroin comes from Afghanistan.
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  • Written By: N. Swensson
  • Edited By: M. Scarbrough
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  • Last Modified Date: 14 April 2014
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The war on drugs refers to the efforts of the United States government to eliminate drug use by creating stringent drug laws while also providing aid to countries where illegal drugs are produced. The term was originally used by US President Richard Nixon, who began an anti-drug campaign in the early 1970s in response to reports of increased drug use and related violence in the country. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the government's efforts were primarily focused on eradicating a major supplier of cocaine in Columbia — the Medellin cartel. Beginning in the late 1980s, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has expanded its efforts in other countries including Mexico and most recently Afghanistan, where a large quantity of the world's heroin is produced. Although it has sparked a variety of anti-drug education programs, the war on drugs has been criticized as ineffective.


The DEA's activities in Columbia, Panama, and other neighboring countries has focused on capturing and prosecuting leaders of the Medellin cartel, which is responsible for the majority of cocaine production and transport in the region. The DEA has also attempted to gain support for its efforts by signing treaties and providing military assistance for political leaders of these countries who agreed to help. While these campaigns have led to the capture and prosecution of some prominent cartel leaders, they have not completely stopped drugs from entering the United States. Over time, some of the cocaine production has moved to Mexico and the drug is increasingly transported across that border into the US.

The war on drugs has given rise to a number of well known anti-drug campaigns in the United States. One of the most well-known campaigns was started in the 1980s by First Lady Nancy Reagan, called "Just Say No." It focused on school children and encouraged them to say "no" to anyone who offered them drugs. Later that same decade, President George H.W. Bush appointed the country's first drug czar, who was tasked with creating programs to portray drug use as unpopular and socially unacceptable.

Over the years, the war on drugs has expanded its focus to more countries and different types of drugs. Financial funding for the various initiatives has increased. Despite this growth, some criticize the United States for failing to efficiently decrease drug abuse given the amount of funding directed towards doing just that. Drug abuse of prescription drugs, for example, has increased. On the other hand, several US governmental bodies, like the US Department of Health and Human Services and the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, have reported a reduction in the number of people over the age of 12 that abuse illicit drugs since the 1970s. They report that over 20 million Americans are estimated to abuse drugs.


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