War on Drugs–Britannica Notes (Eva)


  • Richard Nixon declared drug abuse to be “public enemy number one” in June 1971; this was the beginning of the war on drugs
  • Nixon increased funding for drug-control agencies and drug-treatment efforts
  • In 1973 the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was created 
  • The rates of incarceration for nonviolent drug offenses greatly increased when Reagan became president
    • Rates went from 50,000 in 1980 to 400,000 in 1997
  • Just Say No campaign, founded by Nancy Reagan, was a privately funded effort to educate schoolchildren on the negative effects of drug use
  • In 1986, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act which allocated $1.7 billion to the War on Drugs and established mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses
    • There was a massive gap between the minimum sentence for powder cocaine and crack cocaine
    • 80% of crack users were black, which lead to unequal incarceration rates for black nonviolent drug offenders and also established the War on Drugs as a racist institution
  • In the early 21st century, there was increased public awareness surrounding the racial disparity in the War on Drugs which lead to a series of reforms including the legalization of recreational marijuana in a number of states
  • The Fair Sentencing Act, passed in 2010, reduced the discrepancy of crack-to-powder cocaine possession thresholds for minimum sentences from 100-1 to 18-1

Crack Epidemic

  • Crack cocaine was popularized in the 1980s because of its low cost and immediate euphoric effect
  • The crack epidemic was particularly devastating to inner-city black communities, which experienced significantly higher rates of addiction, drug-related crime, and death

Crack Cocaine

  • Crack cocaine is produced by converting powder cocaine into a smokeable form that is sold in smaller portions but distributed to more people
  • Unlike powder cocaine, crack cocaine is cheap and easy to produce and therefore cheaper to buy, which made it a very accessible drug
  • Crack cocaine is known for its instantaneous high which leaves users wanting more and lead to a spike in cocaine addictions
    • Between 1982 and 1985, the number of cocaine users increased by 1.6 million
  • Between 1984 and 1987, emergency room visits due to cocaine incidents such as overdoses, unexpected reactions, suicide attempts, and detoxification increased fourfold

Arrival in America

  • Powder cocaine was a major cash crop for South American countries, especially Colombia
  • Before the 1960s, the demand for the drug was very low because it was not well known
  • As demand increased, Colombian trafficking organizations like the Medellín cartel set up a system that was used to distribute cocaine from South America to the United States
  • Crack cocaine was first used in Miami, where Caribbean immigrants taught adolescents how to convert powder cocaine into crack
  • Teens introduced the business of producing crack into other major cities like New York City, Detroit, and Los Angeles

Crack in African American Communities

  • Crack cocaine was introduced into socially eroded communities during Reagan’s presidency 
  • It was easy to produce and sell crack and the rewards outweighed the risks
    • Small-time drug dealers who sold every day earned an average of $2,000 a month
  • The high demand for crack lead to a rivalry between drug dealers, and, consequently, crack became linked with violence
  • The introduction of crack into inner-city communities lead to a spike in crime from 1981-1985

Governmental Efforts to Address the Epidemic

  • The Reagan administration began to prioritize the “War on Drugs” which aimed to end the crack epidemic
  • There were significantly harsher punishments for possessions of crack cocaine than for powder cocaine
    • For example, there was a minimum sentence of five years for five grams of crack cocaine in comparison to a minimum sentence of five years for five HUNDRED grams of powder cocaine
  • The War on Drugs led to a massive increase in court caseloads and prison population
  • By 1989, one in every four African American males between the ages of 20 and 29 was either incarcerated or on probation
    • By 1995, it was nearly one in three


The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “War on Drugs.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 23 July 2020, http://www.britannica.com/topic/war-on-drugs.

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