Timeline: America's War on Drugs

President Richard Nixon

President Richard Nixon officially declared a "war on drugs" in 1971, two years after calling for the creation of a national drug policy. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

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President Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter campaigned for president on a platform that included decriminalizing marijuana. Brian Alpert/Keystone/Getty Images hide caption

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Drug kingpin Pablo Escobar

Drug kingpin Pablo Escobar in Bogota, Colombia, in 1989. That year, Forbes magazine listed him as the seventh-richest man in the world. Reuters/CORBIS hide caption

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General Manuel Noriega

Panamanian General Manuel Noriega allowed cocaine to be shipped through Panama. DSK/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Nancy Reagan speaks at an anti-drug conference at the White House in 1986.

First Lady Nancy Reagan launched "Just Say No," her anti-drug campaign, in 1984. She's seen here speaking at an anti-drug conference at the White House. Doug Mills/Bettmann/CORBIS hide caption

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Mug shot of Carlos Lehder, a former Colombian politician accused of heading a drug smuggling ring.

Carlos Enrique Lehder Rivas, a former Colombian politician, was accused of heading the Medellin drug cartel. In the 1980s, the drug ring was responsible for smuggling 74 percent of the cocaine used in the United States. This mug shot of Lehder was taken after his 1987 arrest for drug smuggling. Bettmann/CORBIS hide caption

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U.S. soldiers advance toward a military command post in Panama in December 1989.

U.S. soldiers advance toward their position at a military command post loyal to Gen. Manuel Noriega on Dec. 23, 1989, in Santiago, Panama. Noriega was accused of drug trafficking, money laundering and racketeering. Manoocher Deghati/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Mug shot of Panamanian General Manuel Noriega after his surrender to the DEA.

Panamanian Gen. Manuel Noriega on Jan 4, 1990, in Miami. He surrendered to the DEA in Panama the day before. He's currently in a federal prison in Miami. DSK/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Posters with the portrait of late leader of Colombian drug cartel Pablo Escobar

Posters display the portrait of the late Colombian drug cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar, who was killed by police in Medellin in 1993. The posters read "Pablo for President-Sovereignty-Independence." These were posted in Bogota more than a decade after Escobar's death, during the 2006 presidential race. STR/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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A Colombian soldier advances in a field of coca, while a plane sprays a defoliant over the crop.

A Colombian soldier advances in a field of coca, while a plane sprays deadly defoliant in September 2000. U.S. and Colombian officials have declared their seven-year-long spraying policy a success. But Colombian coca production has not decreased — just dispersed to smaller, harder-to-find locales. Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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A field of poppies in bloom in the mountains of Afghanistan.

A poppy field in bloom in northeastern Afghanistan. In 2005 the country produced 90 percent of the world's opium, which is refined into heroin for sale in many parts of the world. U.N. experts warned that the country was turning into a "narco-state" less than four years after the fall of the Taliban. Paula Bronstein/Getty Images hide caption

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An Afghan Counter Narcotics Police officer guarding plastic bags of opium siezed from a fuel tanker.

An Afghan Counter Narcotics Police officer guards plastic bags of opium. More than 1,650 pounds of opium were siezed from inside a fuel tanker in May 2005 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Paula Bronstein/Getty Images hide caption

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Four decades ago, the U.S. government declared a "war on drugs." From the rise and fall of kingpins to current efforts to interdict and stamp out drugs, follow events so far:

July 14, 1969: In a special message to Congress, President Richard Nixon identifies drug abuse as "a serious national threat." Citing a dramatic jump in drug-related juvenile arrests and street crime between 1960 and 1967, Nixon calls for a national anti-drug policy at the state and federal level.

June 1971: Nixon officially declares a "war on drugs," identifying drug abuse as "public enemy No. 1."

July 1973: Nixon creates the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to coordinate the efforts of all other agencies.

November 1975: Colombian police seize 600 kilograms of cocaine — the largest seizure to date — from a small plane. Drug traffickers respond with a vendetta, killing 40 people in one weekend in what's known as the "Medellin Massacre." The event signals the new power of Colombia's cocaine industry, headquartered in Medellin.

1976: Former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter campaigns for president on a platform that includes decriminalizing marijuana and ending federal criminal penalties for possession of up to 1 ounce of the drug.

1979: Carlos Lehder, co-founder of the Medellin cartel, purchases a 165-acre island in the Bahamas. Small planes transporting drugs from Colombia to the United States use the island to refuel. Operations continue on the island until 1983.

1981: The Medellin cartel rises to power. The alliance includes the Ochoa family, Pablo Escobar, Carolos Lehder and Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha. The drug kingpins work together to manufacture, transport and market cocaine. The United States and Colombia ratify a bilateral extradition treaty.

1982: Panamanian leader Gen. Manuel Noriega allows Pablo Escobar to ship cocaine through Panama. In the United States, Vice-President George H.W. Bush combines agents from multiple agencies and military branches to form the South Florida Drug Task Force, Miami being the main entry point at the time.

In March, Pablo Escobar is elected to the Colombian congress; he gained support by building low-income housing, doling out money in Medellin slums and campaigning with Catholic priests. He's driven out of Congress the following year by Colombia's minister of justice.

1984: Nancy Reagan launches her "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign. In July, The Washington Times publishes a story about DEA informant Barry Seal's infiltration of the Medellin cartel's operations in Panama. The story shows that Nicaraguan Sandanistas are involved in the drug trade. As a result of Seal's evidence, a Miami federal grand jury indicts Carlos Lehder, Pablo Escobar, Jorge Ochoa and Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha. (In February 1986, Seal is assassinated in Baton Rouge, La., by gunmen hired by the cartel.)

1985: Colombia extradites drug traffickers to the United States for the first time. U.S. officials discover that the Medellin cartel has a "hit list" that includes embassy members, their families, U.S. businessmen and journalists.

Mid-1980s: Because of the South Florida Drug Task Force's work, cocaine trafficking slowly changes transport routes. The Mexican border becomes the major point of entry for cocaine headed into the United States. Crack, a cheap, addictive and potent form of cocaine, is first developed in the early '80s; it becomes popular in the New York region, devastating inner-city neighborhoods.

October 1986: Reagan signs the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which appropriates $1.7 billion to fight the drug war. The bill also creates mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses, which are increasingly criticized for promoting significant racial disparities in the prison population because of the differences in sentencing for crack and powder cocaine. Possession of crack, which is cheaper, results in a harsher sentence; the majority of crack users are lower income.

February 1987: In February, Carlos Lehder is captured by the Colombian National Police and extradited to the United States, where he's convicted of drug smuggling and sentenced to life in prison without parole, plus an additional 135 years.

May 1987: After receiving personal threats from drug traffickers, the justices on the Colombian Supreme Court rule by a vote of 13-12 to annul the extradition treaty with the United States.

1988: Carlos Salinas de Gortari is elected president of Mexico, and President-elect George H.W. Bush tells him he must demonstrate to the U.S. Congress that he is cooperating in the drug war. This process is called certification.

1989: President George H.W. Bush creates the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and appoints William Bennett as his first "drug czar." Bennett aims to make drug abuse socially unacceptable. That same year, Forbes magazine lists Pablo Escobar — known for his "bribes or bullets" approach to doing business — as the seventh-richest man in the world.

December 1989: the United States invades Panama. Gen. Manuel Noriega surrenders to the DEA on Jan. 3, 1990, in Panama and is sent to Miami the next day. In 1992, Noriega is convicted on eight counts of drug trafficking, money laundering and racketeering, and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

1991: The Colombian assembly votes to ban extradition in its new constitution. Pablo Escobar surrenders to the Colombian police the same day. He is confined in a private luxury prison, though reports suggest that he travels in and out as he pleases. When Colombian authorities try to move Escobar to another prison in July 1992, he escapes.

1992: Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari issues regulations for DEA officers in his country. The new rules limit the number of agents in Mexico, deny them diplomatic immunity, prohibit them from carrying weapons, and designate certain cities in which they can live.

November 1993: President Clinton signs the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which increases the amount of trade and traffic across the U.S.-Mexican border. This makes it more difficult for U.S. Customs to find narcotics moving across the border.

December 1993: Pablo Escobar, in hiding since mid-1992, is found by Colombian police using American technology that can recognize his voice on a cell phone call and estimate his location. He tries to flee but is killed.

May 1995: The U.S. Sentencing Commission releases a report that acknowledges the racial disparities for prison sentencing for cocaine versus crack. The commission suggests reducing the discrepancy, but Congress overrides its recommendation for the first time in history.

August 2000: President Bill Clinton gives $1.3 billion in aid to Plan Colombia, an effort to decrease the amount of cocaine produced in that nation. The aid supports the aerial spraying of coca crops with toxic herbicides, and also pays for combat helicopters and training for the Colombian military.

2003: In February, three Americans — contracted by the Pentagon to help with Colombia's anti-drug effort — are taken hostage by guerrilla fighters after their surveillance plane crashes. In April, the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act is enacted, which targets ecstasy, predatory drugs and methamphetamine.

2004: Along with the State Department and the Department of Defense, the DEA announces its involvement in the U.S. Embassy Kabul Counternarcotics Implementation Plan. It's designed to reduce heroin production in Afghanistan, the world's leading opium producer.

January 2006: Authorities announce the discovery of the longest cross-border tunnel in U.S. history, the work of what they call a well-organized and well-financed drug-smuggling group. The half-mile long tunnel links a warehouse in Tijuana, where about two tons of marijuana were seized, to a warehouse in the United States, where 200 pounds of the drug were found.

Sources: Based on reporting from PBS' Frontline series and NPR staff.

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