The War on Drugs

Seminar Paper, 2003

23 Pages, Grade: very good



I. Introduction

II. The Reagan Administration
II.1. Launching the War on Drugs: Though Words
II.2. …but weak actions?
II.3. Other ideas?
II. 4. From Reagan to Bush – the late years and the first policy shifts 7

III. The Bush Administration
III.1. Demand side
III.2. Militarization
III.3. Unilateral, Bilateral or Multilateral?

IV. The Clinton Administration
IV.1. Situation in the early 90ies
IV.2. The continuing story – no change?

V. Conclusion

VI. Literature

I. Introduction

In this term paper, I want to discuss the “War on Drugs” in the 1980ies and early 90ies and compare the US approach of each period. Declared by President Reagan, the war on drugs changed under President Bush, and there are also a few differences under the Clinton Administration.

What were and are the major threats for the United States, and how did the US try to act against them? Which impact had the war on drugs on Latin America? Was the war on drugs successful? Which administration had the best and most successful approach to this topic?

II. The Reagan Administration

II.1. Launching the War on Drugs: Tough Words…

In February of 1982, twenty years ago, President Reagan launched the War on drugs. Then, the war on drugs was seen as a US security issue, drug abuse had increased over the seventies and was seen as major threat. The President was confronted with rising domestic pressure to do something about the burgeoning US drug “epidemic” during his first year in office.[1]

The US government increased expenditures for narcotics control programs during the ensuing seven years of Reagan’s two-term presidency, reaching $ 4,3 billion annually in 1988.[2]The result was a tougher legislation concerning national drug issues, and, maybe more importantly, the involvement of the US military forces in the anti drug war. Washington’s tougher anti-drug campaign in the 1980s was paralleled by intensifying US diplomatic pressures and economic sanctions against Latin American countries.[3]

Another campaign started at this time was the “Just Say No” program in the media and the educational system. First Lady Nancy Reagan was the founder of this campaign.[4]With this massive promoting the war on drugs suddenly became a major topic of the time.

“Control of drug trafficking ranked higher than immigration, foreign debt, and communist expansion in Central America as a priority issue in US-Latin American relations.”[5]

A lot of money was spent, but scholars agree that the war on drugs in his early years was lost on every front.[6]At the end of the eighties, drugs were more readily available and cheaper than in 1982, and drug abuse had continued to increase dramatically. According to the National Drug Policy Board (1988), in 1987 between 322 and 418 metric tons of cocaine were available in the North American market at stable prices and quality.[7]There were similar trends in the cases of marijuana, heroin, and other drugs.

Only a few victories had been won, for example federal cocaine seizures rose from just 2 tons in 1981 to 27 tons in 1986 and to almost 100 tons by 1989.[8]But the overall picture was not a victory; drug abuse was a bigger threat at the end of the eighties than in the beginning.

At the same time, according to Salazar, there was a dramatic increase in secret underground laboratories in North America, where synthetic drugs were produced. In 1985 there were 419 underground labs, and in 1987, already 682 were known.[9]

For the US American government, the Latin American states were responsible for this dangerous situation. The first years of the war on drugs went terribly wrong, the situation intensified in the eighties enormously. The US had spent a lot of money in the drug war, but the outcome of the early years was disastrous. There was a strong front against drugs, the public opinion supported the war on drugs, the media cooperated and the congress supported the war too. But what went wrong?

II.2. …but weak actions?

Perhaps the most common line of explanation claims that the Reagan administration, despite its though anti-drug rhetoric, never actually went to war.[10]There were different politicians who complained that drug prevention programs were not organized well and that not enough effort had been made. There was the opinion that the war on drugs was not though enough, and that despite the big speeches not enough happened in fact.

Others criticized Reagan for not giving the US military a leading role in the war on drugs. I think this criticism is wrong, in 1986 the US House of Representatives approved a bill which specifically directed the US Armed Forces to “seal” the country’s borders against drug trafficking.[11]

The military played a role, and I think that this was not the reason for the miserable outcome of the war on drugs in the eighties. The main reason, in my opinion, is the national perspective of the Reagan administration. There was no international cooperation, the US didn’t negotiate with Latin American states very seriously. Even bilateral cooperation wouldn’t have been enough, I think that the war on drugs needs to be fought on a international basis.

A lot of politicians demanded no more negotiations but more US pressure, economical and political, on Latin American governments to force them to cooperate. For example, former US Senator Paula Hawkins demanded such pressure, and she won a 1986 congressional decision to suspend US aid to Bolivia on the grounds of non-compliance – in spite of the Reagan administration’s protests that such sanctions would be counterproductive for future Bolivian cooperation against drug trafficking and other US foreign policy goals in that country.[12]In short, the critics thought that the Reagan administration talked tough, but never really got tough.

There was a congressional demand of harsher US laws, more manpower, resources and firepower against the traffickers and more diplomatic and economical pressures against non-cooperating states.[13]


[1]Bagley, Bruce Michael,After San Antonio,p. 2. and Steiner, Roberto,Hooked on Drugs: Colombian-US Relations, p. 161.

[2]Bagley, Bruce Michael,US Foreign Policy and the War on Drugs: Analysis of a policy failure, p. 189.

[3]Bagley,After San Antonio, p. 2.

[4]See website:

[5]Bagley,The new hundred years war?,p. 161.

[6]Bagley,USForeign Policy and the War on Drugs,p. 190.

[7]Salazar, Luis Suarez,“Drug Trafficking “and Social and Political Conflicts in Latin America: Some Hypotheses, p. 84.

[8]Bagley,After San Antonio,p. 2.

[9]Salazar, p.84.

[10]Bagley,USForeign Policy and the War on Drugs,p. 191.

[11]Bagley,USForeign Policy and the War on Drugs,p. 191.

[12]Bagley,USForeign Policy and the War on Drugs,p. 192.

[13]Bagley,USForeign Policy and the War on Drugs,p. 193.

Excerpt out of 23 pages


The War on Drugs
University of New Orleans  (Department of Political Science)
SE US-Latin American Relations
very good
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
560 KB
USA, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, War on Drugs
Quote paper
Bernhard Hagen (Author), 2003, The War on Drugs, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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