War on Drugs and Mass Incarceration

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Drug War

Drug war, popularly referred to as “The War on Drugs”, refers to a campaign by the United States government to ban illegal use and trafficking of drugs with the help of military intervention (NPR).

Mass Incarceration

Incarceration is defined by an online dictionary as the state of putting someone in prison (“Incarceration”). We can conclusively define Mass Incarceration as confining of a large number of people in prison. Mass incarceration can occur over a long period of time or within a short time.

History and Consequences of the War on Drugs


Drug market turned more unregulated at the wake of the 20th century. A doctor’s prescription was not necessary for distribution and sale of some medicines with cocaine and heroin products. Awareness on which drugs contained these powerful derivatives and which did not was not well publicized. Patients taking the medicines were not informed as well. Before looking at the history and consequences of the war on drugs, it is important to first of all explore the factors that fueled distribution and use of drugs.

In the year 1886, The Supreme Court passed a ruling that restricted state governments from regulating interstate trade. The federal government, however, had power over interstate trade but was more concerned with counterfeiting and criminalities against different states. In 1906, The Pure Food and Drug Act was passed and revised in 1912 to address an issue, wrong drug labels, which was on the rise. The war on Drugs officially begun in 1914 with the passing of the Harrison Tax Act of 1914 which restricted sale of heroin and later cocaine.

In 1930, The Federal Bureau of Narcotics was formed and by 1937, the efforts of FBI to reduced Depression-era criminals had been realized. Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was approved and used to tax Marijuana which at that time was not considered a dangerous drug. The following year, Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act of 1938 was implemented and resulted in a widespread national health regulation.

Before election of General Dwight D. Eisenhower as president in 1952, The Boggs act of 1951 had implemented compulsory prison sentences for ownership of drugs: marijuana, cocaine, and opiates. Following the Boggs act, Eisenhower administration demarcated the factors of the war on drugs. He became the first sitting president to call for war on Drugs.

A borderline Interception was made to block the import of marijuana which at the time was considered a Mexican drug. Since the main source was Mexico, Nixon’s administration heeded a nativist’s advice to close the border. The birth of Operation Intercept ensured that traffic along U.S. – Mexican border were well searched.

After passing the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, the central government became more active with implementation and prevention of abuse of drugs. In a speech in 1971, Nixon referred to drugs as “public enemy number one” and reiterated the importance of treating drug addicts (Vulliamy). He asked a celebrity, Elvis Presley, to help him pass a message that abuse of drugs was illegal. Presley, however, later became a victim of drug abuse.

Legislators before 1970 considered drug abuse a social disease that could be cured. However, after 1970, most legislators considered it a criminal issue that could only be solved with a tough criminal justice system. In order to approach the drug abuse issue as a criminal matter, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was added to the central law implementation system in 1973. The DEA acted as the foot soldiers for the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act passed in 1970.

“Just Say No” was a slogan developed by Nancy Reagan’s activism on drug issue in 1982. This awareness was fueled by the fact that drug use among children was becoming an emerging national issue that could not be solved by a criminal justice system (Shen).

The difference between legal and illegal drugs was soon reduced to a medical show where some narcotics were considered legal when prescribed. Sometimes, however, a state legalizes a drug for medical use while the federal government upholds the illegality of the drug. For example, California has passed the use of medical marijuana however more than half a million users and distributors have been arrested by the federal government (Romero).

The call to end war in drugs was made by Gil Kerlikowske, a policy coordinator for the Obama’s administration. Although war on drugs has consumed more than one trillion dollars, U.S still misses the will to amend the unsuccessful war on drugs.

     Consequences of War on Drugs

War on drugs has a lot of consequences on drug users, drug pushers, their families and the economy. Among some of the most common consequences are:

          Low Property Values and Diminished Quality of Life.

Drug affected areas have lost property values since most of the residents are trying to sell their properties in order to move to safer locations. These properties are deprecated in order to attract buyers as most people are not willing to move to drug affected areas. Life has also lost value because of drugs. It is no longer rare to find jobless people in the affected communities. The quality of life has also been reduced by drug related shooting incidences, robberies and burglaries.

        Strained Community-Police Relations

Since the police officers have been placed on the frontline war on drugs, their relationship with residents of drug affected communities has been strained. Drug users have turned into violence when confronted by the police. As an example, a drug suspect in Georgia shot police officers who were serving a warranty for drug search in Crawford County, Georgia. In a fire exchange, that begun with the suspect the two police officers sustained injuries while the suspect died (Trawick). It is possible to reestablish this relationship as long as police officers are removed from the drug war’s frontline. But at the moment, residents of drug affected areas and the police are on a cat and mouse game.

        Increased Police Militarization

The drug war has resulted in militarization of police. Most American cops have transformed their armament and approach to crime to match the violent drug society. The police officers being equipped like soldiers is one of the reasons community-police relations have been strained. Although the constitution does not allow, there are known cases of police officers dehumanizing drug trafficking suspects. Drug raids by SWAT have turned violent with family members of suspected drug loads receiving surprised raids as early as 5am. Family members who, during these raids, experience

        Damage to the Economy 

It is estimated that the U.S has spent a total of one trillion dollars since the launch of drug war. More than 51 billion dollars is spent annually on this war (Drug Policy). This amount is obtained from both the federal and the state tax treasuries. This amount is a strain to economy. The money could be used well in treatment, prevention and awareness programs rather than in hunting for drug trafficking suspects.

        Disrespect for the Rule of Law and  Government

According to Einstein, “Nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced.” U.S laws on drugs are evidently hard to enforce because after so many years fighting against drugs, the war has not ended yet. As an example, more than 100 million citizens of U.S.A have acknowledged using marijuana (NORML). Therefore, even if criminal law on drugs was to be enforced, it would be hard to lock away such a huge number of people.

Why War on Drugs was Started

War on drugs was launched with hopes of solving a drug issue that was fast going out of hand. Although it started as early as the eighteenth century, President Nixon placed more emphasis on the war by fighting both the source and demand sides. War on drugs began mainly because of criminal problems associated with sale and use of drugs.

How War on Drugs Led to Mass Incarceration Rate in the World


War on drugs has increased imprisonments by 500 percent with the most affected groups being the poor and minorities (Booker).

As seen earlier in this paper, the war on drugs transformed during President Richard Nixon’s administration in 1970 from a social issue that could be solved medically to a criminal issue that needed a justice system to solve. Since then, stricter drug regulation policies have resulted in up to 500 percent increase in incarceration rates. Although it is hard to prove the relationship between increased incarceration and war on drugs, it is evident that many people have been sentenced due to drug-related crimes.

It is estimated that the population of prisons rose from 40,900 in 1980 to 488, 400 at the end of 2014 (Carson). Following the expansion of drug policy in 1980 by Reagan’s administration, the rate of incarceration has seen an annual increase as seen in the statistical graph, by criminal justice statistics online, below.

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War on Drugs Statistics

From the statistics, it is possible to conclude that State prison take the highest number of drug prisoners, followed by jails and lastly federal prisons as seen in the graph comparing incarcerations between 1980 and 2014.

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Number of Prisoners jailed for Drug Related Consequences

How War on Drugs Led to Militarization of Police

In an effort to cut down the use of drugs among United States citizens, the Department of Defense has delivered more than four billion dollars of military equipment, meant for military fights in war torn areas, to police (Johnson). Use of militarized SWAT team on drug raids has increased violence and police brutality.

Police lately have access to armored vehicles, grenades, launchers and other tactical weapons popularly associated with military troops. All these efforts have however not solved drug related problems. Since police officers have been given additional authority and surplus military weapons, police violence has increased.

[Further Reading: Police Brutality and Killings]

An example of accidents caused by militarization of police is the 2014 case where a police officer dropped a grenade during a drug raid burning a baby (McLaughlin). Even after such a raid, nothing was found in the raid and no one was arrested. This is an example of war on drugs turning to a horrific situation because of militarization.

Many incidences of unlawfully shot suspects have been documented. Military raids, additionally, causes psychological problems on family members who witness their own relatives or pets shot by the police. Sadly, militarization of police has not solved drug problems but has widened the gap between police and communities.


Drug war has been going on since 1970s when drug use evolved from being seen as a psychological problem to being seen as a criminal issue that needed to be addressed through prison sentencing.  Over the years, nothing has really improved much other than the ever widening gap between the police and the people.

Criminalization of drug sellers and users has led to mass incarcerations. From the statistics presented in this paper, it was evident that more and more end up in prisons yearly. Both the federal and state governments also spend a lot of money on building prisons, buying military equipment and to conduct anti-drug campaigns.



Booker, C. “How the war on drugs affected incarceration rates”. 10 Jul 2016. Web. 12 Feb 2017.

Drug Policy. “Wasted Tax Dollars” 04 Feb 2015. Web. 12 Feb 2017.

Einstein, A. “Albert Einstein Quotes” n.d. Web. 12 Feb 2017.

Head, T. “History of the War on Drugs”. 15 Feb. 2015. Web. 12 Feb 2017.

Johnson, H. “The Failed ‘War on Drugs’ Is Militarizing Law Enforcement, Fueling Police Violence”. 24 Oct. 2014. Web. 12 Feb 2017.

McLaughlin, E. C. “No indictments for Georgia SWAT team that burned baby with stun grenade”. 07 Oct. 2014. Web. 12 Feb 2017.

NORML. N.d. Web. 12 Feb 2017.

NPR STAFF. “Legalize All Drugs? The ‘Risks Are Tremendous’ Without Defining the Problem”. 27 Mar 2016. Web. 12 Feb 2017.

“Incarceration” Def. 1. Merriam-Webster Online. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 12 Feb 2017.

Romero, D. “Despite Liberal Pot Laws, California Has Seen Nearly a Half-Million Weed Arrests”. 19 Aug 2016. Web. 12 Feb 2017.

Shen, A. “The Disastrous Legacy of Nancy Reagan’s ‘Just Say No’ Campaign”. 06 Mar 2016. Web. 12 Feb 2017.

Trawick, A. “2 Ga. officers shot while serving warrant; suspect dead”. USA Today Network, 12 Dec 2016. Web. 12 Feb 2017.

Vulliamy, E. “Nixon’s ‘war on drugs’ began 40 years ago, and the battle is still raging”. 24 Jul 2011. Web. 12 Feb 2017.

3 responses to “War on Drugs and Mass Incarceration”

  1. MeshTutors says:

    […] Related Reading: War on Drugs and Mass Incarceration […]

  2. who will ransom the captive?

  3. Wilhemina Gordis says:

    Which Democrat will end this wasteful war on drugs?

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