At a press conference on June 17, 1971, President Richard Nixon declared “drug abuse” to be “public enemy number one” in the United States. “In order to fight and defeat this enemy,” he said, “it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.” The following day, he asked Congress for $155 million to build a federal program for the “rehabilitation, research, education, enforcement and international control of drug traffic.”
In the 50 years since, public opinion on drug use has changed slowly but drastically. At the moment, 17 states have legalized adult-use marijuana, many with promises of reparations to the communities most harmed by its criminalization. Advocates have gained ground in the decriminalization of psilocybin. Oregon has decriminalized small-scale possession of all drugs.
On June 9, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a new poll indicating that a large majority of Americans support this change in direction.
The survey, which polled 800 registered US voters between May 17 and May 20, showed that 83 percent of respondents believe the drug war to be a massive failure. Respondents of varied political stripes overwhelmingly shared this view—85 percent of independents, 83 percent of Democrats, and 82 percent of Republicans responded that Nixon’s plan had not benefited Americans. Eighty-two percent of all respondents wanted the federal government to reform US drug laws.
“A different reality—one where we treat people who use drugs with dignity and respect, and one where drugs are no longer an excuse for law enforcement to surveil, harass, assault and even kill Black, Latinx and Indigenous people—is 100 percent possible, and these results clearly prove that,” Kassandra Frederique, the executive director of the DPA, told Filter. “Fifty years later, it is no secret the devastation the drug war has caused to our communities, and yet drug possession still remains the most arrested offense in the United States. And so, it should come as no surprise that Americans are ready for a drastically different approach, one where drugs are no longer used as an excuse to hold us down.”
When Nixon began the “War on Drugs,” US political culture shifted toward rampant aggressive policing, mass incarceration and prohibitionist rhetoric. This only intensified in the early 1980s, as Nancy Reagan launched her “Just Say No” campaign, triggering the zero-tolerance policies that would come to dominate the next two decades. In particular, policymakers enforced racist and baseless prosecution of crack cocaine users, primarily Black people.
The number of people in jail on nonviolent drug-related charges skyrocketed during the Reagan administration—from 50,000 in 1980 to more than 400,000 by 1997. Today, according to the NAACP, Black people comprise 5 percent of the country’s illicit drug users, but 33 percent of people incarcerated on drug charges.
To this day, the US remains an outlier among wealthy nations in terms of drug-policy enforcement. Of the 1.5 million drug arrests made in 2019, nearly 87 percent were for simple possession.
Voters across the political spectrum oppose this, according to the DPA and ACLU poll. Sixty-six percent of respondents also favored dropping criminal penalties for all drug possession and reinvesting the money saved in treatment and addiction services.
“We deserve to live in a world where the health and safety of our communities is paramount,” Frederique said. “And that means eliminating all the ways in which we are criminalized and building an alternative response to get the support and help we need.”
Update, June 9, 2021: This article was updated to include the DPA’s comment, which was received after publication.
Photograph by DPA
DPA previously provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.