Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

War on drugs

Jairo Andres Lerma Payan (C) of New York City and founder of New York Afro Latinos Immigration Service, holds a sign during a rally June 17, 2013 at the Lafayette Park in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

It's Time to End the War on Drugs Once and For All

Nixon's War on Drugs turned out to be a war on people. President Biden should end it once and for all.

Ellen Glover

 by OtherWords

Fifty years ago this month, on June 17, 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a "full scale attack" on drug use. It was the beginning of the War on Drugs.

After generations of broken lives, broken families, and broken dreams, we must end it now.

Nixon—and many presidents since—promised the War on Drugs would save lives. Trillions of dollars later, incarceration and preventable overdose deaths have skyrocketed and continue to rise.

After generations of broken lives, broken families, and broken dreams, we must end it now.

Nixon's War on Drugs turned out to be a war on people. Once he saw there was no political benefit in drug treatment, he declared "an all-out war on the drug menace" with a federal Drug Enforcement Agency and stiffer penalties. This helped Nixon target his political enemies.

As White House advisor John Erlichman explained, "By getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news."

"Did we know we were lying about the drugs?" Erlichman asked. "Of course we did."

Nixon's "tough on crime" stance did not save his presidency, but his War on Drugs—and its disproportionate impacts on America's poorest communities—continued. Leaders from Ronald Reagan to BIll Clinton and Joe Biden, when he was still a tough-on-crime senator from Delaware, have spent billions on this failed policy, knowing all it buys them is short-term political gain.

The DEA's budget is $3.1 billion today, with many billions more spent on incarceration and military drug enforcement. Yet 2020 was the worst year in history for overdose deaths.

President Biden now tells us he wants to break from the failed policies of the past to improve the lives of regular people. He calls for green jobs and infrastructure, and expanded access to health care. Will he also, finally, call for an end to the War on Drugs, and invest in public health measures to save lives?

There is hope. In February, Biden's Office on National Drug Control Policy announced top priorities including "enhancing evidence-based harm reduction efforts" and "confronting racial equity issues related to drug policy."

This is a historic break from the "punish first" drug policies that have caused so much heartbreak. It came after People's Action, a national grassroots network, led more than 200 drug and health-focused groups to call for an end to the War on Drugs in favor of evidence-based solutions rooted in racial and economic justice and compassion.

But words are not enough. President Biden needs to follow through on his campaign promises to decriminalize drug use and offer treatment to drug users. He should throw his full weight behind the Mainstreaming Addiction Treatment (MAT) Act, so health care providers can prescribe treatments for addiction.

But President Biden's approach to drug policy thus far has been one step forward, two steps back. He says he supports the best solutions, but retreats when he fears a political cost—like when he extended the blanket scheduling of fentanyl, which increases overdose deaths and imposes harsh penalties on users.

Does Biden have the courage it will take to truly end the War on Drugs?

Local communities aren't waiting for an answer.

Vermont just became the first state to decriminalize small amounts of buprenorphine, a prescription drug that eases addiction. New York State just said it will no longer punish those who carry clean syringes. And in Portsmouth, Ohio, community members defeated their police department's bid to buy a $256,000 armored tank, so that money can go towards saving lives.

But we need leadership from the top. President Biden, it's time, once and for all, to end the War on Drugs and invest in the best public health strategies that will save lives. It's up to you.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.
Ellen Glover

Ellen Glover

Ellen Glover is the Campaign Director for Drug Policy, Harm Reduction, and Criminal Justice for People’s Action, a national network of grassroots groups with more than a million members.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

Please select a donation method:

AOC Slams Conservative Dems Who Would Rather Skip Town Than Vote to Extend Eviction Ban

"We cannot in good faith blame the Republican Party when House Democrats have the majority."

Jake Johnson ·


'A Devastating Failure': Eviction Ban Expires as House Goes on Vacation and Biden Refuses to Act

"We’re now in an eviction emergency," said Rep. Cori Bush. "Eleven million are now at risk of losing their homes at any moment. The House needs to reconvene and put an end to this crisis."

Jake Johnson ·


With Election Days Away, Bernie Sanders Headlines Get-Out-the-Vote Rally for Nina Turner

In his keynote speech, Sanders said corporate interests are pulling out all the stops to defeat Turner because "they know that when she is elected, she is going to stand up and take them on in the fight for justice."

Jake Johnson ·


Bush, Pressley, and Omar Sleep Outside Capitol to Demand Extension of Eviction Moratorium

Rep. Cori Bush, who was formerly unhoused, slammed her Democratic colleagues who "chose to go on vacation early today rather than staying to vote to keep people in their homes."

Jake Johnson ·


As Progressives Call for End to Blockade, Biden Announces More Sanctions Against Cuba

The move comes after Democratic leadership in the House blocked an amendment to roll back limits on how much money people in the United States can send to family on the island nation.

Jessica Corbett ·