This June marked the 40th anniversary of Nixon declaring drugs to be America’s “public enemy #1.” Since then, the United States has spent over a trillion dollars in an attempt to stymie illegal drug use in the United States, spending 51 billion at the state and federal level in 2009 alone. More than half a million people are currently incarcerated because of drug convictions, and a majority of all those incarcerated report some sort of substance abuse problem. Although African Americans comprise 13 percent of drug users in the U.S., they represent 59 percent of those convicted for a drug related crime. Despite the enormous resources invested in decreasing illegal drug use in the United States, the “drug war” is regarded by most major scholars, as well as a recent survey of the American people, to be a failure.
Although the Obama Administration officially eschews the term “war on drugs,” and has made great strides in reducing the crack/cocaine sentencing disparity, there is some question as to whether substantive change has been or will be made during his term in office. I intend to place the Obama Administration’s actions within a larger context of the relationship between United States drug policy and the Presidency. What level of influence does the President have in shaping United States drug policy? How does Presidential rhetoric regarding the issue compare to actual policy changes undergone during the administration?
By examining the institutional history of the drug war, and how presidential actions have intersected with this history, we will be able to better understand successful strategies for change. It is only through this change that United States drug policies can become more sensible and just.
[i] “40 years of Failure,” Drug Policy Alliance, http://www.drugpolicy.org/facts/new-solutions-drug-policy/forty-years-failure