America’s war on drugs began in earnest with the presidential tenure of Richard Nixon, who was the first president to openly discuss America’s alleged problem with drugs (Hurley, 1989). Prior to President Nixon’s place in American history, presidents avoided addressing the availability and use of drugs in American culture (Hurley, 1989). Former presidents had also avoided mentioning drugs as part of their campaign platforms and, once elected, administrative policies (Hurley, 1989). It has been suggested that the spectacular failure of Prohibition earlier during the twentieth century made politicians loathe to touch the drug problem again; it was clearly a divisively polarizing issue (Hurley, 1989) and the time in American history, especially for the following presidents, was not right.
Although it is true that there were some policies that existed to combat the drug problem prior to Nixon, the purported drug problem was not part of a national agenda or public discussion. Nixon’s policies represented a significant departure from those of previous presidents. At a press conference that is commonly cited as the formal beginning of the U.S. war on drugs, President Nixon declared dramatically that drugs were “public enemy number one in the United States" (Frontline, n.p.). President Nixon effectively provoked hysteria about the widespread availability and the damaging effects of drugs, framing his policy in the context of a war against the nefarious enemy of illicit substances (McNeece, 2003). Parents, in particular, supported initiatives to combat what was quickly coming to be viewed as a threatening social scourge of epidemic proportions. President Nixon portrayed drugs as dangerous and the causes of deviance (McNeece, 2003), and even created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the first federal level agency that was devoted exclusively to stemming the flow of drugs within and beyond U.S. borders. By successfully inciting hysteria, the president effectively spearheaded the war on drugs that continues today.
A sociological analysis of drugs in the United States reveals that panic about the negative effects of drugs was provoked primarily through the medium of propagandistic language (McNeece, 2003). Throughout the history of the war on drugs, opinions and perceptions have been portrayed as scientific or sociological fact, and the universally negative perception of drugs has become deeply rooted in this society (McNeece, 2003). Quite simply, our national conversation about drugs has been reduced to the overly facile notion that drugs are bad. The war on drugs has occurred, in no small part, through semantic strategies promoted not by scientific experts, but by politicians. As McNeece (2003) explained, “It is difficult, if not impossible, to remove the political elements from the evaluation of any social policy, and therefore, assessing the impact of the war on drugs is problematic…." (p. 193). He concluded, “The problem with most of the indicators used in the evaluation of the war on drugs is that there is little agreement on how to interpret them" (McNeece, 2003, p. 193). In other words, the fuzziness and intentional ambiguity of the language used to talk about drugs has created profound confusion amongst all stakeholder groups who are concerned with the drug issue.
The lack of agreement and clarity, not just about language but about essential facts, causes many problems, not only in terms of public perception but also with respect to the strategies that are used in the war on drugs, and even who that war is really intended to be against. Since its inception, the U.S. war on drugs has affected racial minorities disproportionately, and some critics contend that the federal government has a latent social agenda that is wider that just attacking drugs (McNeece, 2003). These critics charge that the federal government uses drug policies as a façade for addressing other motives that would be far more controversial (McNeece, 2003). Specifically, it has been proposed that U.S. drug policies and the strategies in the war on drugs are really an effort to control minorities, and, by extension, protect and strengthen the dominant class and the power that they do not want to share (McNeece, 2003). Although this idea has spurred intense debate and cannot be substantiated, perhaps, with empirical facts, the concern does indeed seem to be legitimate from a sociological perspective, and as such, is deserving of more research attention.
It is possible that drugs may be old as the human race itself. An examination of the historical record confirms that various tribal groups around the world have used substances to induce certain types of altered states (Baraka, 2005). Many, if not all, of these substances were derived from plants, and as such, were entirely natural, even if the states that they occasioned in the user were not (Baraka, 2005). These historical facts are important not only because they confirm how long drugs have been a part of human society and culture, but because they reveal that drugs were often reserved for the privileged and higher-ranked members of certain cultures (Baraka, 2005). As Baraka (2005) explained, Nigerian tribal groups reserved the use of the kola nut for elders who had attained a particular status in society; its use was not for the common man. This is an interesting departure from our own conceptualization of the drug problem, which we often attribute to being particularly prevalent among the lower classes and less respected members of society (Hurley, 1989). Also, a review of historical facts teaches us that drugs were often part of ceremonial celebrations, taken within the context of community, and overseen by a respected healer or other elder (Baraka, 2005). While the state they induced were not natural, there was nothing about drug use during traditional times that was considered socially deviant or threatening to the very fabric of a community (Baraka, 2005). Somehow, then, North American culture has taken all of the traditional uses and perceptions of drugs and turned them inside out.