War on Drugs: where does it come from?

‘The War on drugs’: I know you’ve heard of it. I’m not talking about the drugs; the violence; the displacement. I’m talking about that catchy phrase. If you watch television, read the papers and haven’t been living as a hermit for the last40 years, then you’ve heard of it. None of us can pinpoint where or how it came to be; it’s just there.

But you haven’t just heard of it, have you? We’re all guilty of using the term ourselves to describe... I don’t know. What are we describing? Drug abuse? Drug production?


And why wouldn’t we use it? It’s in the history books; it’s in the news; it’s in the BBC and Channel 4 documentaries. Like with everything else we don’t understand: we mimic the Media.

My research

I spent 10,000 words and (even more hours) trying to answer these questions in my Undergraduate dissertation. I didn’t come to a neat conclusion there, so I don’t have a chance of doing it here. However, my research did help me come to one conclusion: ‘The War on Drugs’ (the term, that is) has been, and continues to be, far more dangerous than any drug cartel.

Stay with me. I know it sounds crazy. How can a few words be more dangerous than a cartel or cocaine itself? The answer lies, as always, in the misleading chat from three of the most powerful groupsin the world: politicians, the media and academics.

I began my research where every other lost undergraduate does: in the library reading through everything and anything that’s vaguely connected to my topic. Titles like ‘The War that Can’t Be Won: Binational Perspectives on the War on Dugs’ and ‘Shooting up: Counterinsurgency and The War on Drugs’ were staring back at me. Fancy names.

But could I find two books that could agree on what they meant by ‘The War on Drugs’ or an author who didn’t contradict himself? Nope.

Looking back

And how could there be a consensus? A little more prodding and I discovered that the damage was done back in the 70’s, where the media mistranslated Nixon’s first ever use of the ‘War on Drugs’in a press conference in 1971.

It was supposed to refer to ‘Plan Colombia’: a military intervention and the destruction of cocaine crops in, as the name suggests, Colombia. Instead, that day every paper and TV news reported that Nixon had ‘tied addiction to crime’: this was, supposedly, to be a war against the Western addict, not Colombian farmers.

We haven’t looked back since. Stacey Dooley Investigates’ series and Russell Brand’s ‘End the Drugs War’ documentary both claim to be ‘lifting the lid on the Drug War’, but not once do they refer to Plan Colombia. Ask a Colombian, and they’ll tell you that this began as a political war for power; drugs were simply the way to fund it.

Looking Forward

The joining of ‘War’ to ‘Drugs’, with both words being multi-meaning symbols (I go into full detail about this in my dissertation if you fancy a read), was a poor choice from Nixon: an act of war in itself.

But what is worse is that,40 years on, people in power continue to use a politically and violently charged term as if it were a stable signifier of the drug problem.

The west has claimed a dangerous term that does not belong to them. Drugs are a problem, but marrying it to war, and any other violent political talk, is not the answer.

They, and we, have a responsibility to correct this.