In spite of its new found criminality it entered a parade of increased incarcerations to keep a desperate population under control throughout the depression years, doubling the incarceration rate between 1920 and 1940 to .2% of the population, still relatively low. That percentage stayed fairly stable until the 1980's when new federal laws were introduced to heighten criminal penalties by Ronald Reagan putting the War part of the equation in full gear.
While the official kickoff was when Richard Nixon, who was concerned about returning Viet Nam vets addicted to heroin, passed new laws in 1970 that actually moved towards decriminalization. They ended the 2-10 year federal minimums for possession of marijuana, started prevention and drug treatment programs. This softening of attitudes towards drug use was expanded in the next administration when First Lady Betty Ford announced her addiction to alcohol and started the Betty Ford Center. A number of high profile admissions to treatment were publicized over the next few years.
These events and the more liberal attitudes of the younger generation towards drugs from the 60s-80s led to treatment being the preferred response to addiction, which was now seen as a health problem. The number of treatment centers grew rapidly in the 80's after inclusion of treatment in federal insurance plans. That practice was instituted in most private healthcare plans as well. Costs swelled.
It all came to an end when Ronald Reagan's shifted drug policy to incarceration rather than treatment. He ended federal insurance of drug and alcohol treatment, private industry quickly followed suit, deleting the benefit from their healthcare policies. Reagan's Drug Czar Carlton Turner, seemed to channel Harry Anslinger saying marijuana's influence was causing "the present young-adult generation's involvement in anti-military, anti-nuclear power, anti-big business, anti-authority demonstrations." What awful ideas to be allowed to possess.
M andatory prison sentencing laws were passed including a law that mandated sentencing for crack cocaine (seen as a black drug) be 100 times longer than its equivalent in powder cocaine, seen as a white drug. All the while Reagan's wife Nancy stood at his side touting her new prevention program "Just say no!"
Judges were forced to hand out mandatory prison sentences instead of sending addicts to treatment. Hundreds of treatment centers closed around the country over the next ten years. The results were predictable. By 1990 incarcerations had doubled to .4% of the population, by 2008 it had doubled again to .8% of the population, the vast majority of it drug related arrests. No detectable impact on the availability of drugs has been reflected in this war. But the war continues, the question is still why.
John Kelley is an author and commentator on public policy who is writing a series of articles on "The Rise of Anarchism as a response to Globalization."