Drugs and the Criminal Justice System

V. A New Era: The 1960s and 1970s

While government agencies are by their very nature political, it was during the 1960s and 1970s that drug abuse moved into the forefront of the political arena. By the mid- 1960s, drug abuse had spread into the middle class, particularly among college-age people, the very people most vigorously protesting the Vietnam war, perhaps because they were also the group most likely to be drafted. Thus, in addition to becoming a more visible problem in itself, drug use also came to be associated with antigovernment sentiments and activities. Richard Nixon, then president of the United States, became the first president to declare a war on drugs and to explicitly tie illicit drug use to more general criminal activity.

With the help of Congress, Nixon took a series of steps that launched the efforts against drugs into a new era. First, Congress passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. This act replaced numerous laws scattered across agencies and combined them into a single law to be enforced by the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (combination of the Bureau of Narcotics and the Bureau of Drug Abuse Control, formed in 1968). The act was intended to eliminate unnecessary duplication of efforts across agencies and consequently increase efficiency and accountability. It also created the system, still in place today, by which drugs are placed into one of five categories or schedules. Schedule I drugs are those that have no legitimate medical use and therefore cannot be prescribed by doctors. At the other extreme are Schedule V drugs. These drugs have little or no addictive potential and are considered the least dangerous. The act also gave the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs the power to regulate doctors and pharmacists who distribute prescription drugs and to decide production levels of individual drugs. The act gave the Bureau, and later the DEA, the power to decide the category into which drugs were to be placed, the power to take away the ability of physicians and pharmacists to prescribe drugs, and the power to monitor drug distribution to prevent diversion to the illicit market. Reflecting the historical emphasis on law enforcement, the act did not require the agency to reflect the opinion of medical professionals.

Having streamlined drug laws, Nixon then turned to streamlining the bureaucracy of federal drug enforcement. In 1973, he signed a reorganization plan that combined the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement, and other federal offices into a “super agency,” the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The DEA began an ambitious effort to more aggressively counter the drug problem and to gather information about emerging drug use trends. The DEA also dramatically expanded the number and capacity of federal drug laboratories to assist investigators and prosecutors.

VI. Drugs and Crime

Nixon’s war on drugs—and the wars that followed—was predicated on the notion of a direct link between drugs and crime. It was believed that much of the street crime and domestic violence in America could be directly traced to the use of illegal drugs. Researchers have spent years studying this issue, and a clearer picture is emerging. First, there is a distinction between crime linked to the business of drugs and crime linked to drug use. There is no question that the business of drugs is linked to crime, particularly violent crime, as battles emerge over sales turf or as disputes arise over price or the quality of the product. More complex is the link between drug use and crime. Not all drug users engage in crime. In fact, most drug users are experimental users whose drug using career is short, for whom drugs cause no major disruption in their lives, and for whom there is little crime. More problematic for the criminal justice system are chronic drug users, many of whom are actively involved in crime. While fewer in number than the experimental user, their impact on the criminal justice system is substantial. The best evidence is that for chronic drug users who are engaged in criminal activity, their criminal careers began before their drug-using careers, but that once drug use began, their involvement in crime escalated. In other words, drugs do not create crime but amplify existing criminal tendencies. What would happen to crime if illicit drugs were to suddenly disappear? Crime related to the business of drugs would almost certainly go away. Crime by drug users might go down, but this is not a certainty. Users might simply switch to legally manufactured prescription drugs, or they might increase their use of alcohol, the drug most closely connected to violence.

VII. The Modern Era

Nixon may have been the first president to declare a war on drugs, but he was not the last. In November of 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president and by 1982, he was declaring a war on drugs. Like Nixon, Reagan’s war was to include both legislative action and bureaucratic restructuring, all with the help of Congress. He began by creating the Drug Abuse Policy Office (a.k.a. the “Drug Czar’s” office), accountable directly to the president. Next, every federal agency was required to submit a budget indicating what it was doing in the war on drugs. Members of the president’s cabinet were also asked to explain what they were doing in the war on drugs. In short, the entire federal bureaucracy was directed to attack the drug problem. Even the military was expected to provide support for civilian drug enforcement efforts.

President Reagan had made the war on drugs one of the cornerstones of his presidency. During that time, Congress was controlled by Democrats, who were also seeking to gain political advantage from the war on drugs. The opportunity for Congress to make a bold public statement came in 1986, following the death of Len Bias, a college basketball star who within 48 hours of being drafted by the Boston Celtics died from an overdose of cocaine. The media frenzy surrounding his death presented a highly public opening for Congress to quickly pass sweeping legislation that would fund additional anti-drug efforts and give the government unprecedented power to apprehend drug traffickers. State lawmakers followed suit, enacting harsher penalties and giving criminal justice unprecedented power to attack the drug problem. Out of this general environment arose a host of programs and practices. Some of these programs arose from grassroots citizens organizations, such as parent groups. Others, such as extensive drug testing for job applicants, arose from private businesses. However, the focus in this research paper is on the criminal justice response, and it was sweeping. Though the various components of the system often worked in concert to respond to the drug problem, to simplify the discussion the police, courts, and corrections will be discussed separately.

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