Way back in 1971, President Nixon declared a “War on Drugs.” The federal drug control agencies were dramatically beefed-up, the DEA was created (1973). Quaint as it seems now, much of the effort was directed at marijuana. Back in those innocent days, marijuana was considered a major drug problem. By the 1980s the use of cocaine and its cousin, crack, became a major problem in this country. Cocaine usage increased by 700% just in the years 1978-1984. Many believed that marijuana was a gateway drug to these harder substances.

By the early 80’s, President Reagan, initiated get tough laws on drugs. “Zero tolerance” initiatives were the trend. It was during the 1980’s that this country’s prison began to fill with drug users. From 1980 to 1997, the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent drug offense increased eight-fold! The DARE program, an off-shoot of the War of Drugs was initiated in the 1980’s by Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates, who was actually quoted as saying that casual drug users should be shot. (I’m sure he didn’t mean that literally but it sure did fit in with the “war” theme.)

By the 1990’s Presidents Bush and Clinton continued to escalate the so-called War on Drugs. The prison population continued to explode in great part because of the increasingly hysterical War on Drugs. Three-strikes laws became a thing and many who found themselves in prison for life under three-strikes laws were there because at least one of the strikes was a drug offense. I am not talking about cartel-type drug dealers, these were often drug users and addicts and no more.

As the century turned, the War on Drugs was starting to look like a lost war. Even as policy wonks were questioning the efficacy of this so-called war, President Bush II was ramping it up. It was during his administration that the DEA started looking more like a military agency than a domestic law enforcement agency. By the end of President Bush’s term Americans had been the subject of 40,000 paramilitary-style SWAT raids.

But the mood of the country was changing. Americans were beginning to understand that the War on Drugs wasn’t working, that it was making criminals out of people who needed help, and was costing the country billions of dollars. The country elected a president who admitted to prior marijuana and cocaine use. I just want to stop there and make a point: If Mr. Obama in his younger days had been unlucky enough to be arrested and convicted for possession of cocaine, his career would have taken a different trajectory. How many young lives were ruined by the War on Drugs due to their youthful indiscretions? That is just something to think about.

While Mr. Obama was running for president, he called the War on Drugs an “utter failure.” Under his administration, things began to slowly change. But the prisons are still filled with people whose only crime is being a drug addict.

In the past 45 plus years since President Nixon first declared a War on Drugs, Americans use of drugs has not abated. In fact, it is much worse and much more dangerous now. The opioid addiction epidemic is spiraling out of control in some areas of the country. Yes, this country has a serious drug problem but it won’t be solved by a “war”. Oddly enough, the drug that started the war, marijuana, is now legal in California and many other states.

Yet, rumblings in our new administration hint at re-escalating these failed policies. There is a call by our current attorney general to bring back the “Just say No” polices of the Reagan administration and he has said—with a serious face—that marijuana is “only slightly less awful” than heroin. Word is that the US Attorney General is planning to reinvigorate the drug war by increasing drug prosecutions and implementing anti-drug policies from the 1980s and 1990s. Didn’t work the first time, don’t know how it would work this time.

Orange County criminal defense attorney William Weinberg is available to consult with you regarding any criminal matter. You can reach him at his Irvine office at 949-474-8008 or email him at