criminal justice Ellen Glover

It’s Long Past Time to End the 50-Year ‘War on Drugs’

Nixon’s War on Drugs turned out to be a war on people. President Biden should end it once and for all.
[Office of Public Affairs / CC BY 2.0]

By Ellen Glover / 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.

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.

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 op-ed was distributed by 


  1. I can’t tell if this op-ed is intentionally schizophrenic.
    Biden helped waged the drug war starting with his close relationship to Nixon. Biden admittedly was young back then. In the years since he has reliably supported mass incarceration of black, brown and every kind of people – ostensibly to save lives and get tough on crime . He famously celebrated destroying “bad” people’s lives in prison – which boosted corporate profits with incarcerated “slave” labor. I suppose Biden is old enough to know better now.

  2. From the letter by groups advocating for drug policy reform referenced in this article : “Science matters, and due process is not a mere inconvenience to sweep aside. Overcoming an individuals presumption of innocence is not intended to be convenient for government.” This statement essentially encapsulates and addresses everything that is wrong with the U.S. criminal justice system – institutionalized racism, draconian drug policies that dramatically exacerbate addiction and incarceration rates, a prison industrial complex that facilitates legal slavery; basically, an iron fist for control of those who are deemed expendable by the ruling elite.

  3. The US governemnent is known to use various euphemisms to cover up its crimes against Humanity, whether it be within the US or outside of it.
    With Iraq, it claimed to want to install “democracy” in that country. It sent the troops there and turned it into a wasteland.
    The war on drugs did not stop any drugs from being delivered to America’s children, killing them, ruining their families lives, etc.
    Currently, they are using a death shot to depopulate while claiming they are “saving lives”.
    This country is NOT under God but, rather, it is under the behind of the devil. God help us.

  4. Great read. I couldn’t agree more. it’s long past the time for Criminal Justice reform
    Abolish draconian sentencing that affects “ALL”

  5. Law enforcement officers have been openly debating the use of stack formations (as seen in the image above) for almost a decade. Those who were once proud to refer to themselves as “peace officers,” have now become self-proclaimed “operators.”

    The term “operator” when used in connection with armed confrontation, is generally recognized as military in origin. It references American military members under the Special Operations Command or SOCOM: Green Berets, Navy Seals, Delta Force, Army Rangers, and PSYOPs, etc.

    IT SHOULD NOT APPLY TO DOMESTIC POLICE OFFICERS! But this is how they see themselves.

    Any American willing to acknowledge the facts, can recognize that the “thin blue line” has morphed into a full-scale domestic terror operation intentionally designed to suppress overt organization of political dissent within the American population. And to add insult to injury, this operation is being conducted out in the open by anonymous men in black Kevlar outfits, armed to the teeth with automatic weapons, and sans any functional body cams… even to this day.

    In case you haven’t seen one yet, since the 1990’s the Department of Defense has been handing out million dollar MRAPs (and other weapons of war) to local and county police, often for as little as a buck apiece. Either the locals in Portsmouth have never heard of the Defense Logistics Agency and their 1033 Program… or somebody was angling for a sizable kickback from Lenco.

  6. I fully support your perspective, but if you expect Joke Biden to have an epiphany of benevolence, it will NEVER happen! He fired staff that had admitted to using cannabis while at the same time his VP admitted to past cannabis use.
    I would posit that from the inception of Nixon’s political act to criminalize non violent drug use, that ALL those convicted since, are de facto political prisoners and should be released and ALL records expunged.

  7. “War on Drugs” equates to throw all non white people in jail regardless if innocent or guilty. This will not change under the Biden/Harris regime – I mean, just look at Harris’ record for crying out loud!

  8. He does not have the will. He drags his draconian mass incarceration background with him, without countering it. MORE is essentially decrim, not legalization, and even that, he’s not there. Abandoning Schedule I still leaves Sch 2 under DEA control — the most predictable next move to keep law enforcement in charge. He has too much invested in a lifetime of arrangements for true reform.

  9. It was never a war on drugs, it is a war on people….for profit. I think anybody with any knowledge of the Deep State knows the CIA has a long and storied history of running drugs to America’s inner cities to finance their off the book clandestine activities. Drugs fill our for profit prison system with millions victims while at the same time being a prime method for The Machine to keep those of the lower classes subjugated and docile. The truth laid bare, as with so much about our society is ugly and disturbing.

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