The Triple Helix @ UChicago

Winter 2017

"War on Drugs: Lessons from History" by Rose Cytryn


In June of 1971, President Nixon became the first political figure to declare a national “war on drugs.” The United States had seen an increase in drug use during the sixties with the emergence of the massive counter culture and flower power. Increasingly so, citizens, especially parents, feared their children would be pulled into the world of hard drugs, a world about which few were properly educated. Drugs often symbolized misunderstood youth culture, rebellion, and a generation that fought against the government. Nixon declared a war on drugs to demonstrate the government’s stance against all kinds of drugs and show that the abuse of hard drugs would be taken seriously. People desired to feel safe so their governments worked to control the behavior of young citizens and assert its authority by tightening restrictions and expand federal drug agencies.

Many parents believed that criminalizing drugs would dissuade their children from abusing them. Parents saw young adults across the country dangerously affected by drugs and harshly spoke out against drug culture. They saw minors charged with drug possession forced into counseling or probation. The understood that, minors charged with these offenses would often become repeat offenders and suffer consequences such as detention in a new home or a juvenile detention center. This concern and fear was widespread throughout the country, and the government attempted to keep drugs hidden, especially from teens and young adults, in layers of restrictive laws and jail time for simply possession or nonviolent offenses.

The government played on the fear and worry people had regarding drugs, a marked characteristic of the sixties and seventies. Drugs were seen not only as dangerous but criminal, a notion only made stronger by the media and Hollywood movies that portrayed addict as monsters and criminals. One example is the 1983 film Scarface, which showed a Cuban refugee turned drug lord as a violent gangster. Even young adults were portrayed in an unflattering light. Hair, released in 1979, not only promoted drug use, but also portrayed young adults who were frequent users as lawbreaking rebels. The influence of Hollywood furthered the group mentality that drug offenders should have been looked down upon and belonged in prison. Awareness and education decreased and were replaced by increasingly harsh drug policies and the treatment of drug related problems as a criminal offense. In 1989, 64% of Americans[1] believed drugs to be the nation’s ‘number one problem’. Citizens were scared and so were government officials. They saw incarceration as the means by which to best deal with this issue. This mindset led to incredible numbers of nonviolent criminals in the prison system, with little chance of recuperation.

Prior to 2001, Portugal was facing similar issues. Drugs were increasingly rampant and the government had no foreseeable means by which to stop this occurrence. However, in 2001 the Portuguese government completely decriminalized all drugs and made possession and use of drugs not a criminal offense, but a health issue. Following the Carnation Revolution of 1974, the Portuguese were thrown back into the world after forty years under a censored dictatorship. This period in time saw many citizens overcompensating for what they felt to be lost time. With Portuguese soldiers returning home from previous colonies, hard drugs were brought back to Portugal and spread rapidly through the country.

Similar to the United States following the sixties, the fear and lack of education regarding drugs and drug use grew in Portugal. People, as well as the government, were afraid of the potential backlash the great use of hard drugs could have on the population. The Portuguese government took a hard stance against drugs and, as a result, ended up with the greatest number of drug related AIDS deaths in the European Union as well as over 1% of their population addicted to heroin[2].

It became clear that vilifying hard drugs in such a manner was not an effective method to tackle the situation. The criminal penalties that faced drug users and abusers did little to change their habits. During and even after incarceration, abusers’ bodies may still depend on drugs. Drugs target the hypothalamus and its production of the neurohormone, dopamine. As their bodies begin to rely on the dopamine produced while on drugs, the body adjusts to this change and produces less dopamine naturally or reduces the sensory abilities of nerves to dopamine. This means that frequent abusers become more reliant on drugs to keep their dopamine levels up.

The incarceration of frequent abusers and addicts only increased the number of drug related offenses in prison. Noticing this trend and observing the ineffectiveness of adopting a criminal attitude towards drug problems, the Portuguese government decriminalized all drugs in 2001. Now, drug offenders caught with less than a 10-day supply[3] of any drug will be forced to appear before a group of legal and medical experts. The logic behind this advancement was based in the knowledge that drug addiction is a medical, not criminal, issue. As a result of this initiative, drug use and drug related deaths have decreased[2]. Additionally, drug related HIV infections have decreased as well as the number of drug related incarcerations.

The fear of drugs and their detrimental effect on society should not be fought with the ideology that incarceration cures addiction, but with a pragmatic attitude and treatment of this problem as a health issue. The reality is that the societal power harnessed by citizens created the foundation upon which both of these systems were built. If it were not for the influence of the people, whether it was fear or support, neither approach to this issue would have been as large or influential.        


[1] "A Brief History of the Drug War." Drug Policy Alliance. N.p., n.d. Web. 2017.

[2] Zeeshanaleem. "14 Years After Decriminalizing All Drugs, Here's What Portugal Looks Like." Mic. Mic Network Inc., 04 Oct. 2016. Web. 2017.

[3] Oakford, Samuel. "Portugal's Example: What Happened After It Decriminalized All Drugs, From Weed to Heroin." VICE News. N.p., 19 Apr. 2016. Web. 2017.

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