Nixon, Racism and a hatred of youth: How the WAR ON DRUGS began

June 05, 2017 The Noffs Team Comments

For many people, including myself, when first confronted by the idea that the 'War on Drugs' has its origins in racism - it's a little bit difficult to believe and also sounds hokey if not outright conspiracy theory.

But when we look closely at where and how the terminology was born, this hokey idea gains some credibility.

“The war on drugs” is a catchphrase first popularised in the United States by Richard Nixon in the 1970s.

This is how it happens:

Nixon calls upon Stephen Hess (still alive) to create the White House Conference on Youth.

The Conference is asked to compile the ideas and opinions of young Americans on domestic and international affairs [1]. The topics of focus included the Vietnam War and the national draft, the economy, education, the environment, poverty, and drugs.

Despite the Conference calling for drug users to be given access to therapy rather than incarcerated, Nixon viewed drug use as a criminal activity “attacking the very fibre of the nation” [2].

Ignoring the links between drug use and social inequality, Nixon framed the government’s criminalisation of drug use as a “war on crime”; considering drugs and drug use were the “crimes” in this context, it became a ‘war on drugs’.

The United States’ war on drugs goes beyond local law enforcement, and includes global military intervention either directly by US forces or indirectly through funding and aid provided to foreign military services.

The current annual cost is more than US$51 billion (yes, billion) [3] in the US alone, and Australia has triumphantly joined in to the tune of about AUD$4.7 billion (yes, billion!)

Drug law enforcement dominates our criminal justice system ‒ and it has to stop. To understand why, let’s first take a look at how we got to into this situation in the first place.


Richard Nixon established The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1973 as a means to enforce federal drug laws through a single agency. Concerned with the rise of recreational drug use, Congress readily okayed the decision.

During this time Nixon also created mandatory sentencing and “no-knock” warrants in his bid to wage war on drugs. He even managed to list cannabis as a schedule one (class A) drug for a short time, and ignored recommendations to decriminalise the possession and distribution of cannabis for personal use [4].

Nixon’s war on drugs campaigned not just for prohibition, but also a reduction in the illegal drug trade through criminalisation and military intervention.

In Nixon’s first speech about the war on drugs (wherein he coined the term) he declared that drug abuse was “public enemy number one”[5].

The rising fear at this time meant that the US was able to successfully export their “war” policy, and now many countries throughout the world (including Australia) have taken on the phrase and its associated methods for dealing with drug dependency.

There have been some recent changes to drug policy terminology in the States, but no real changes to the policy itself: in 2009 the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) stated that there were no plans to significantly alter drug enforcement policy, but that the long-used term “war on drugs” was no longer to be used as it is “counter-productive”[6].

Contrary to the war on drugs policy and reasonings, argues that the prohibition of drugs does not revolve around the risks of drug taking, but around who a particular drug is associated with:

“The first anti-opium laws in the 1870s were directed at Chinese immigrants. The first anti-cocaine laws, in the South in the early 1900s, were directed at black men. The first anti-marijuana laws, in the Midwest and the Southwest in the 1910s and 20s, were directed at Mexican migrants and Mexican Americans. Today, Latino and especially black communities are still subject to wildly disproportionate drug enforcement and sentencing practices” [7].


One of the roles of government in a secular, democratic nation is to ensure that the ideology of one section of society is not imposed onto all.

The war on drugs, since its very inception, has been about ideology.

Not only are there plenty of examples outside of the world of drug regulation where government policy is inconsistent, but even within existing drug regulations there are inconsistencies.

A perfect example of this is the risk posed to the community by prescription drug dependency.

According to, a new (and hidden) population dependent on prescribed medication is emerging in Australia. Psychoactive prescription drugs are commonly misused, as are other types of medication like growth hormones and steroids. This type of dependency, though largely hidden from society, is causing twice as many deaths in Australia as illicit drug use:

The hidden truth about overdose

The hidden truth about overdose

The cost of this hidden dependency

The cost of this hidden dependency[8]

Along with alcohol, cigarettes and junk food, prescription drugs pose health risks to the community, and yet they’re dealt with in a completely different regulatory framework than illicit drugs.

What could possibly cause such irrational behaviour? Such inconsistency?

Whenever I see this type of irrational behaviour it’s a function of ideology ‒ of dogma.

We can’t continue being dogmatic about drugs. We have to be pragmatic.

We can’t continue to be ideological about drugs. We have to be logical.

War in itself is a horrific notion and a word I can't stand in any slogan.

Here endeth my sermon.

Matt Noffs


[1,2] Dufton, E. 'The War on Drugs: How President Nixon Tied Addiction to Crime'. The Atlantic. 26 March 2012. (Retrieved from here
[3] Lopez, G. 'The war on drugs, explained'. Vox. 8 May 2016. (Retrieved from here
[4,5] 'A Brief History of the Drug War'. (Retrieved from here
[6] Fields, G. 'White House Czar Calls for End to 'War on Drugs'. The Wall Street Journal. 14 May 2009. (Retrieved from here)
[7] 'A Brief History of the Drug War'. (Retrieved from here)
[8] Hagan, K. 'Prescription drugs alarm'. The Age. 25 September 2013. (Retrieved from here)





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