Criminal Justice

Should we end the war on drugs?

With roots in President Nixon's 1970s era drug policies, "the war on drugs" has faced new questions over whether increasing prison sentences is the best way to stop illegal drug use, distribution and trade

Rise of the Issue

Initially coined by president Nixon, who declared drug abuse “public enemy number one”, the War on Drugs has significantly shaped United States drug policies since the 1980s. President Reagan expanded on the approach by introducing mandatory minimum sentences. These new rules were accused of being inherently racist, most notably because of the massive gap between the amounts of crack cocaine and powder cocaine – 5 grams of crack cocaine versus 500 grams of powder cocaine – that led to the same minimum sentence of five years. Since 80% of crack users were Black, it disproportionately affected those communities.

These discrepancies have been reduced, and an increasing number of people are in favor of legalization of certain types of drugs. Nearly 70 percent of Americans support legalizing recreational cannabis use. At the same time, the increase of overdoses related to fentanyl has caused some to wonder whether a tougher approach to drug traffickers is necessary to protect public safety.

Issue Timeline


President Nixon Declares the War on Drugs

Nixon deemed drug abuse “public enemy number one” and increased federal funding for drug control agencies as well as drug treatment programs.


The Drug Enforcement Administration Was Created

In an attempt to streamline federal efforts to combat drug abuse, the Office for Drug Abuse Law Enforcement, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, and the Office of Narcotics Intelligence were merged.


President Reagan Expands War on Drugs

His focus on criminal punishment over treatment led to a 700% in incarcerations for nonviolent drug offenses between 1980 and 1997.


Congress Passes Anti-Drug Abuse Act

The bill allocated $1.7 billion to the War on Drugs and established mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses.


Obama Signs Fair Sentencing Act into Law

The bill reduced the discrepancy between sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine convictions.


Trump Signs First Step Act into Law

The legislation further reduced sentences for crack cocaine and expanded prisoners’ options of petitioning for reduced sentencing.

Micro Issues



Opponents believe that drug consumption and possession are a crime and think users and distributors should be punished for it, whereas supporters cite examples of drug use going down after legalization.



While supporters argue that the war on drugs has not been effective, opponents believe drug abuse would be much worse without the war on drugs.



The two sides differ on whether treatment is a better solution to address the problem of drug abuse than punishment.



Supporters say the war on drugs disproportionately affects minorities because of law enforcement’s bias towards them, while opponents argue that the fact that Blacks and Latinos are most targeted is the result of a reality law enforcement faces on the field, not racial bias.

Pro Arguments


The war on drugs disproportionately affects minorities.

The majority of illegal drug users and dealers across the country are white, yet 75 percent of all people imprisoned for drug offenses are Black or Latino - in part because drugs that are mainly associated with communities of colors are punished at a higher rate.


The war on drugs causes people to lose their right to vote.

Drug offenses often lead to felony disenfranchisement, meaning those who are convicted lose their right to take part in fair, free elections.


It has a negative effect on children and families - particularly those of color.

Black men especially have been disproportionately arrested for minor crimes - causing them to lose custody of their children, who then grow up in the care of extended family members or strangers.


Incarceration without treatment does not lead to less drug use.

Studies have shown that when people with a drug abuse disorder are incarcerated and do not receive treatment, their drug use typically increases after release - leading to more overdoses.


The war on drugs favors punishment over treatment.

Instead of treating addiction as a public health issue that should be addressed with proper care, those struggling with drug abuse disorders are criminalized and locked away.

Con Arguments


People who illegally distribute dangerous drugs should be punished.

Some believe that knowingly providing someone with substances that could be detrimental to their health and could even result in death, is morally wrong and should be punished.


Deaths from dangerous drugs such as fentanyl are on the rise.

Of the 107.000 overdoses in 2021, 66 percent were from synthetic opioids such as fentanyl; limiting access to these types of drugs would help decrease its use.


Dangerous drugs could be stopped at the border.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the majority of fentanyl comes in from China and Mexico. Strict enforcement could drastically decrease the amount of fentanyl in the United States.


Legalizing certain types of drugs will not put an end to the illegal drug economy.

The complexity and profitability of many illicit drug distribution networks means they will not stop selling overnight.


Legalization of certain types of drugs could push illegal distributors into more dangerous drugs.

Legalizing the sale and possession of marijuana could decrease the profitability of illegal sellers in the long run, encouraging them to go into other drugs such as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines.