“What you do is your history. What you set in motion is your legacy.” - Leonard Sweet
Nixon would not be happy about his legacy.
On June 17, 1971, 37th President of the United States Richard Nixon published a Special Message to the Congress on Drug Abuse Prevention and Control. He voiced a deep concern that current measures to stem drug abuse were insufficient and recognized the need for faster, targeted action coupled with an international response. He acknowledged that drugs like heroin were a “foreign import,” meaning that in order to “wage an effective war against heroin addiction,” a global effort was required. He got his global effort, and his war against heroin addiction turned into a war on drugs. But war cannot be waged without an enemy, and that enemy must be able to think and act. The war on drugs—the war on heroin addiction—is and always has been a war on people.
Perhaps Nixon should have known this, having achieved the rank of commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve. It is possible that he consciously chose to take part in a long history of false ‘wars’ against unthinking enemies, a history that includes wars against diseases such as cholera and AIDS. Regardless, the war on drugs we know today no longer resembles the war Nixon began against heroin.
The most obvious difference is the terminology. His was a war against heroin addiction: although this war is just as metaphorical as the one on drugs, his aim was to prevent addiction, which he cited as a leading cause of death. He emphasized a “new approach to rehabilitation” that included coordination between Federal, State, and local rehabilitation efforts, as well as $105 million in funds “solely for the treatment and rehabilitation of drug-addicted individuals.” His plan included asking Congress for $10 million to go to education, stricter “punishments” for the sellers of drugs compared to more lenient “sanctions” for the users, and reforming the VA to open its doors to all veterans in need of rehabilitation, including those who had been dishonorably discharged. The Nixon administration even repealed federal mandatory minimum sentences for the possession of marijuana.
All wars require an acting enemy, meaning that the war on drugs is more aptly called a war on drug users, makers, and sellers, and Nixon’s war against heroin addiction is really a war against those addicted to heroin. However, his intent was to prevent people from becoming addicted in the first place and to rehabilitate, rather than punish, those who were already addicted to a dangerous, potentially deadly drug. The war on drugs became harsh and punitive under President Ronald Reagan, who brought back the federal mandatory minimum sentences that Nixon had repealed. Reagan focused not on helping drug users beat their dependency, but on criminalizing drug use. The Reagan administration’s concentration on drugs that were more commonly used in Black communities and lack of emphasis on drugs common in White communities was long-lasting, and in the 21st century the war on drugs has been nicknamed the “new Jim Crow” because it results in a disproportionate number of Black individuals being incarcerated. Although modern administrations like that of President Barack Obama have shied away from the “war on drugs” terminology, their strategies draw on those that started decades earlier with Reagan.
The war is, on paper, metaphorical. In reality, it is anything but: military force has been used, people have been injured and killed, and prisoners have been taken. Whether the enemy is drug sellers or drug makers, they can be characterized as any traditional enemy would be, capable of force, sabotage, and armed opposition. The enemy is both internal, which suggests that it is a civil war, and external, which suggests the opposite. Perhaps it is both at once. Regardless, we are at war, so we ought to follow this idea to its natural conclusion. This means applying the rules of international humanitarian law (IHL), which regulates why and how a war can be waged.
IHL requires that the cause of war must be just, meaning there must be a “clear and certain danger” to an innocent group, as well as the last resort of the aggressor, who must have already exhausted all peaceful options. Nixon’s war against addiction voiced that there was a clear and certain danger; he emphasized the premature death that many addicts face. The war on drugs moved away from that original focus with Reagan and has not returned, meaning that the cause is no longer just. However, Nixon’s war was not just either, because it was not the last resort.
Once at war, a country’s actions must be proportionate, discriminate, and prevent unnecessary suffering. This means that the reaction must match the initial action, targets must be limited to combatants, the methods of war must be humane, and prisoners of war must be treated humanely. If we label sellers of drugs the enemy and the sale of drugs within American borders an act of war, then the jailing of drug users is neither proportionate nor discriminate. Furthermore, the overpolicing of specific communities and disproportionate incarceration of people of color violates the principles of discrimination and humanity. The conditions of American prisons and treatment of prisoners that has earned the war on drugs the title of the “new Jim Crow” further illustrates this lack of humanity. These violations are true even if the enemy is changed from drug sellers to the makers of drugs abroad, because there is a large, disproportionate, inhumane impact on non-combatants regardless.
When Nixon first declared his unjust war against addiction, he could not have foreseen that it would turn into an inhumane war on drugs that harshly punishes the people that Nixon was attempting to help, nor that the war would last over fifty years. The war on drugs, while most think of it as a mostly metaphorical war, has had a very real impact that violates IHL. The proper course of action now is to formally end the war on drugs, repeal mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses, mandate user-focused rehabilitation rather than jail time for drug users, and further regulate the opiate industry and the prescription of certain addictive drugs. By treating drug users as human beings who have an illness—often caused by external circumstances such as poverty or injury—and need compassion, we can reduce the harmful impact of drugs on individuals, families, and communities, and shrink the customer base that funds the making and selling of drugs, the true target of the war on drugs. Most importantly, this would help rather than harm the people who need it. It is past time to let Nixon’s legacy die by ending the war on drugs.
Madeleine Roth has a Bachelor of Arts in International Studies from American University in Washington, D.C. with a focus on foreign policy and national security.