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American Crime Case #66: The “War on Drugs,” 1970 to Today

Bob Avakian has written that one of three things that has “to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better: People have to fully confront the actual history of this country and its role in the world up to today, and the terrible consequences of this.” (See “3 Things that have to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better.”)

In that light, and in that spirit, “American Crime” is a regular feature of Each installment focuses on one of the 100 worst crimes committed by the U.S. rulers—out of countless bloody crimes they have carried out against people around the world, from the founding of the U.S. to the present day.

See all the articles in this series.


The “War on Drugs” was first called for in 1971 by then President Nixon, launched in earnest by President Ronald Reagan in 1982, and stepped up or continued by every U.S. president since. This “war” has been justified in the name of combating “rising crime,” protecting people from “drug lords” and “drug gangs,” and/or ending the “scourge” of drugs and drug addiction.

In 1982, Reagan officially launched this “war,” and made it a central focus of his administration (1981-89). Police, DEA, and other law enforcement budgets soared. Between 1981-91, for example, the DEA budget soared from $86 million to $1,026 million, while the FBI’s rose from $38 million to $181 million. Meanwhile, budgets for drug treatment, education and prevention were drastically reduced.



During the 1980s and 1990s, the “War on Drugs” was one justification for the tremendous expansion of military tactical units (SWAT) and the militarization of local police forces. Police frequently terrorized whole neighborhoods, kicking down doors and aiming assault rifles and other artillery at residents in mostly Black and poor neighborhoods. Above, Washington DC raid by U.S. Marshals, 1989. (AP photo)

The media whipped up hysteria over the spread of a new drug, crack cocaine, and targeted Black communities where the drug was being used for vilification and attack. Racist code words and derogatory stereotypes like “crack whores,” “welfare cheats,” and “gangbangers” began to populate the mainstream media landscape.

BAsics cover 600

BAsics from the talks and writings of Bob Avakian   

People say: “You mean to tell me that these youth running around selling drugs and killing each other, and caught up in all kinds of other stuff, can be a backbone of this revolutionary state power in the future?” Yes—but not as they are now, and not without struggle. They weren’t always selling drugs and killing each other, and the rest of it—and they don’t have to be into all that in the future. Ask yourself: how does it happen that you go from beautiful children to supposedly “irredeemable monsters” in a few years? It’s because of the system, and what it does to people—not because of “unchanging and unchangeable human nature.”

—Bob Avakian, BAsics 3:17

In 1986, Congress passed the draconian Anti-Drug Abuse Act, changing the penal system’s focus from rehabilitation to punishment. Under the bill, penalties for the cheaper crack cocaine were 100 times harsher than for powdered cocaine, ensuring people of color and the poor were locked up much more frequently and for much longer than white people.

This war was not about bringing down crime; it was about ramping up social control.

During the 1990s, the Bill Clinton administration, with the active support of Hillary Clinton, escalated the system’s overall war against the oppressed with the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act and other measures. They continued and stepped up the “War on Drugs”, including by “dismantling welfare as we know it.” This forced millions, especially Black people and Latinos, into desperate poverty, and youth in particular were effectively driven into the drug trade as their only means of survival. Then the system targeted these youth for incarceration, branding them “super predators.”

The “War on Drugs” continued with no substantial changes under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

This so-called “War on Drugs,” (together with other racist and draconian measures) has exacted a horrific toll on the masses of people, devastating the lives of millions, especially Black and Latino people.

The “war on drugs” has been a major driver in the more than quadrupling of incarceration -- from 474,000 in 1980 to 2.3 million today. While the majority of inmates in Federal and State prisons at any given time in recent decades are not incarcerated for drug offenses, drug offenses (mostly petty, nonviolent drug possession) have accounted for almost a third of total admissions each year. Black people have been the main victims of this “war,” and the effects have been “devastating.” According to The Brookings Institute, “[B]lacks are 3 to 4 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes, even though they are no more likely than whites to use or sell drugs. Worse still, blacks are roughly nine times more likely to be admitted into state prison for a drug offense.” (See sources at end.) Today over 745,000 Black men are imprisoned, and the U.S. has the highest overall incarceration rate in the world.

By the 1990s, marijuana possession accounted for close to 80% of drug related arrests. Study after study shows the rate of drug use among white and Black people are almost identical (both less than 7.5%), yet in 2013 an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report showed that Black people were almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person.

Today one in every 100 Black women is in prison. Black people comprise some 13 percent of the U.S. population, yet Black youth make up 26 percent of juvenile arrests, 44 percent of youth detained, 46 percent of youth sent to criminal court, and 58 percent of youth admitted to state prisons. Today more Black men are under the control and supervision of the criminal justice system (either locked up, on parole or under some form of post-incarceration control) than were enslaved in 1850.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the “War on Drugs” was one justification for the tremendous expansion of military tactical units (SWAT) and the militarization of local police forces. Police frequently terrorized whole neighborhoods, kicking down doors and aiming assault rifles and other artillery at residents in mostly Black and poor neighborhoods. In April 1988, the LAPD carried out “Operation Hammer,” with 1,000 cops invading South Central Los Angeles and arresting over 1,450 people in one weekend.

Millions have been stripped of their basic legal rights, including due to the “War on Drugs.” Author Michelle Alexander sums up:

Full-blown trials of guilt or innocence rarely occur; many people never even meet with an attorney; witnesses are routinely paid and coerced by the government; police regularly stop and search people for no reason whatsoever; penalties for many crimes are so severe that innocent people plead guilty, accepting plea bargains to avoid harsh mandatory sentences; and children, even as young as fourteen, are sent to adult prisons. Rules of law and procedure, such as “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt” or “probable cause” or “reasonable suspicion,” can easily be found in court cases and law-school textbooks but are much harder to find in real life.  (“The New Jim Crow,” Chapter 2).

As factories have left the ghettos and barrios, this system hasn’t responded by providing better education and new opportunities for these youth. Instead, drugs have been allowed to flood the inner city, including with the active involvement of the CIA during the 1980s. Many inner-city youth have been funneled into the drug trade—making them more vulnerable to constant harassment, arrest, imprisonment and social isolation. Imprisonment rates have exploded to the point that shuttling between the hard hustle of the streets and the harder times in prison has become a dominant mode of life in many oppressed inner-city communities—a lifetime of lockdowns.



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Because of all this, the “code of the streets” became more deeply rooted: rules of survival borne of the shark-like competition in the illegal economy. This mentality sets terms for inner-city youth more broadly, with the resulting horrific “Black-on-Black” violence and violence between Black and Latino youth. Politicians and mainstream media talking heads deplore this carnage, but then usually use it as an opening for further demonization of Black youth in particular—right down to inventing a category of “feral super-predators”—and a justification for further police terror and repression (covering up the system’s responsibility for this nightmare).

All this had led to the situation where today Black people are facing a slow genocide. The so-called “War on Drugs” has played a central role in this monstrous and historic crime.


President Richard Nixon: First officially called for a “War on Drugs” in 1971 as part of trying to suppress the massive social and political upheaval at that time. He explained his thinking to his top aide H.R. Haldeman: “… you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the Blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”

President Ronald Reagan: He and his wife Nancy Reagan led the first huge surge in this, and pioneered the widespread use of racist code words like “welfare queen” and “predators” to fan resentment and anger towards poor Black people. Nancy Reagan launched her “just say NO” campaign as part of this war, including her 1989 made-for-TV photo-op with an LAPD-SWAT team battering down a door in South Central LA in a raid that arrested 14 people but netted one gram of crack.

President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton: Greatly stepped up the overall war on the masses of which the “War on Drugs” was one part, escalating police brutality, murder, and mass incarceration—nearly doubling the prison population. This included the 1994 Crime Bill signed by Clinton. It expanded the death penalty, encouraged states to lengthen prison sentences, including with lifetime mandatory sentences (three strike laws), eliminated federal funding for inmate education, and allocated $9.7 billion for building more prisons. They championed the “one-strike-you’re-out” policy that evicted public housing tenants if they or even their guests were accused of any drug-related offense or other criminal activity on or off the premises. The huge growth of homelessness today, where areas like Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles remind one of shantytowns in South Africa, can be directly traced to these Clinton-era policies.

The CIA: played an active role in the “crack epidemic” during the 1980s in particular, helping flood inner cities with cocaine. The CIA’s actions were linked to Reagan’s wars in Central America, which also destroyed millions of lives there, and whose impacts continue to be felt today. This murderous connection was documented by the late journalist Gary Webb in his book The Dark Alliance.

The U.S. Supreme Court: Over these decades, the Supreme Court upheld many laws that propelled forward this war against the people, such as mandatory minimum sentencing laws, and laws that were formally “color-blind,” but were actually aimed at Black and other people of color. Cruel mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders were consistently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. For example, in 1982, they upheld 40 years of imprisonment for someone convicted of possession and attempt to sell 9 ounces of marijuana.

The Department of Justice, the FBI, police and sheriffs departments across the country (the entire system of law enforcement); and the political establishment (the Congress, the Democrats and  Republicans, etc.) all supported and were complicit in this “War on Drugs.” 

THE ALIBIS:  Richard Nixon first called drug abuse “a serious national threat,” and later “public enemy No. 1.”  The “War on Drugs” has been justified by the need to remove drug dealers and kingpins in order to bring down rising drug use and violent crime, especially in the Black and Latino neighborhoods. In particular it was claimed that it was needed to stop the crack epidemic that was ravaging these communities. 


Starting with Nixon, this “War on Drugs” marked one key front in a strategic decision by the ruling class to wage a counter-insurgency campaign against the masses of Black people, particularly inner-city youth, and later Latinos.

Nixon secretly spelled this out to his top aides. One, John Ehrlichman, said in a 1994 interview: “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people…. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but 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? Of course we did.”

So from the start, the “War on Drugs” and other racist, repressive measures, have been aimed at preventing the kind of mass upheaval and rebellion that erupted so powerfully during the 1960s. As conditions have gotten even more desperate for the masses of Black and Brown people in the decades since due to the workings of global capitalism imperialism, the rulers of this system—both Democrats and Republicans—have continued and intensified Nixon’s basic approach, sharing his fear of the latent revolutionary potential in those this system has cast off, and for which it has no future. 



Top Government Official Admitted: The ‘War on Drugs’ IS a War on the People,”  Revolution, April 11, 2016

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, The New Press, 2010

The Oppression of Black People, The Crimes of This System, and the Revolution We Need,” Revolution, October 5, 2008

Antonio Moore, “The Black Male Incarceration Problem Is Real and It’s Catastrophic,” The Huffington Post, April 9, 2015

War on Drugs,” Wikipedia

The Exponential Growth Of American Incarceration, In Three Graphs,” ThinkProgress, May 29, 2014

Jonathan Rothwell, “Drug offenders in American prisons: The critical distinction between stock and flow,” Brookings, November 25, 2015

How the CIA Created the Crack Epidemic,” Revolutionary Worker, September 15, 1996

The CIA’s Role in the Crack Epidemic,” Revolutionary Worker, December 15, 1996

The CIA/Crack Connection: Interview with Gary Webb,” Revolutionary Worker, October 27, 2014

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