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Timeline of U.S. political attitudes toward the war on drugs

December 21, 2011

On Dec. 19th, Nathaniel Flannery, known to many simply as @LatAmLens, tweeted “A historical timeline of U.S. political attitudes on the #drugwar” from 1971-Present, covering the Nixon Administration through the Obama Administration:

I thought this historical summary was pretty interesting. Just a few thoughts…

First, I’m not sure why there were no official statements from the Clinton era. Was drug policy really that far off the popular radar for eight years? I’m not being rhetorical here; I honestly have no idea.

Second, there didn’t seem to be a significant trend along party lines. In other words:

• Nixon (R): “It isn’t working.”

• Carter (D): “We can’t do this alone. Other countries are responsible, too.”

• Reagan (R): “Even casual users (in the US) are part of the (violent) problem.”

• Bush 41 (R): “The US has to take responsibility for demand.”

• Bush 43 (R): “The US has to take responsibility for fighting the war on drugs.”

• Obama (D): “US demand drives the drug trade” (2010); “US demand promotes the crisis” (2011).

The external emphasis (“Hey world, stop producing illicit drugs!”) gradually shifted to an internal emphasis (“Hey US, demand is part of the problem!”) over time, regardless of the party in power in the White House. The change in political attitude is probably a result of increased evidence of a policy failure, rather than partisan politics.

I think we’re on the right track now, but we aren’t exactly inundated with viable policy proposals. It’s one thing for politicians in the US to admit that US demand is part of the problem; it’s something else entirely to come up with a rock solid plan to solve the problem. While I certainly don’t agree with all of the Cato Institute’s policy recommendations, truer words have rarely been spoken than when Ted Carpenter explained: “The ‘war on drugs’ is more of a metaphor than a reality in the US. In Mexico, the war is real.”

While Nixon first pointed out that it wasn’t working back in 1971, here we are in 2011, still saying that is isn’t working. Something has got to give. Soon.

For more information on current US anti-narco initiatives, I’d recommend following the State Department Bureau of International Narcotics & Law Enforcement (@INLbureau), the Office of National Drug Control Policy (@ONDCP), and Rafael Lemaitre (@

RafaelONDCP), the ONDCP’s
Communications Director.

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