Justice  /  Argument

America's War on Drugs Was Always Bipartisan—And Unwinnable

There was really only one big difference between liberal drug warriors and conservative ones.

The modern drug war began in the 1950s, with liberals—not conservatives—leading the charge. In California, the epicenter of the early war on narcotics, white suburban grassroots movements prodded liberal politicians like Governor Pat Brown into action. They blamed “pushers,” usually perceived and depicted as people of color, and demanded that elected officials crack down on the drug supply. Legislators in California, Illinois, and New York responded by passing the nation’s first mandatory-minimum sentencing laws in an effort to save teenagers from these traffickers.

In 1951, the initial wave of grassroots activism and state legislation pushed Congress to enact the first federal mandatory-minimum law, which likewise targeted Black and Mexican American “pushers” who allegedly supplied heroin and marijuana to innocent white teenagers. Policymakers included marijuana because of the mythology that youthful experimentation would inevitably lead to heroin addiction. To add further urgency, politicians and the news media routinely depicted a horror story in which these “pushers” hooked white middle-class girls and women on drugs, consigning them to a downward spiral that almost invariably resulted in prostitution.

While the enforcement of these new drug laws initially focused on the ominous “pushers,” police ultimately arrested millions of white teenagers and young adults for marijuana and other drug offenses—albeit with a different goal in mind. For white middle-class youths, a drug arrest almost always led to either dropped charges (often after parents agreed to seek private rehab) or diversion to a treatment program through a process that did not leave any traces on their permanent record.

Law enforcement focused their attention on marijuana because it held the most allure for white middle-class youths. This made it the number-one enemy for white parents, and therefore the illegal drug that politicians in both parties cared the most about. The crackdown on marijuana aimed to save these suburban youths from themselves and from what smoking pot symbolized—an alleged gateway to heroin addiction during the 1950s and 1960s, political radicalism and hippie values during the 1960s and 1970s, and the “amotivational syndrome” of laziness and apathy in the 1970s and 1980s.