A Brief History Of The War On Drugs Commentator Cokie Roberts talks with NPR's Rachel Martin and responds to listener questions about the history of the politics of drug laws and enforcement.

A Brief History Of The War On Drugs

A Brief History Of The War On Drugs

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Commentator Cokie Roberts talks with NPR's Rachel Martin and responds to listener questions about the history of the politics of drug laws and enforcement.


When President Trump traveled to Georgia this week to address the opioid crisis, he joined a long line of presidents who have tried to tackle drugs.


RICHARD NIXON: America's public enemy No. 1 in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.

MARTIN: That was Richard Nixon in 1971. His so-called war on drugs and anti-drug legislation ever since is our subject today with commentator Cokie Roberts. She joins us every week to answer your questions for our Ask Cokie segment. Good morning, Cokie.


MARTIN: All right. Here is our first question. This comes from Henry Wilson (ph), who wants to know the following. What was the first federally criminalized drug, and what led to its criminalization?

ROBERTS: Well, the first federal law came in 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act, which was aimed at home remedies that contained narcotics like Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup for fussy babies.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

ROBERTS: You would like this, Rachel. The primary ingredients were morphine and alcohol.

MARTIN: Oh, yeah. That'll soothe you right up (laughter).

ROBERTS: Right. States had enacted anti-opium laws before that aimed at Chinese immigrants. Then in 1914, the Harrison Narcotics Act was passed and that set up that schedule of chemical substances. The Drug Enforcement Agency still uses this schedule of drugs, going from 1 - drugs like heroin - down to 5 - drugs like Lomotil.

MARTIN: OK. Our next question has to do with that schedule. It comes from Mike Mazor (ph). He writes - what's the real story behind weed being outlawed in 1937 despite objections from the AMA? Who is responsible for keeping it a Schedule 1 drug even though it's been used here medicinally since the 1850s? Cokie?

ROBERTS: You can get so many theories going behind the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. Critics say that the first head of what was the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Henry Anslinger, was a racist who wanted to prosecute Mexicans who sold marijuana and African American jazz musicians who used it. The American Medical Association opposed the law because it taxed physicians for prescribing marijuana. President Nixon kept it a Schedule 1 drug over the unanimous recommendation of his drug commission that called for decriminalization.

Later, his aide, John Ehrlichman, said Nixon wanted to get at pot-smoking, anti-war protesters and to disrupt black neighborhoods with criminalization. Whatever the reason, marijuana is still a Schedule 1 drug, according to the DEA.

MARTIN: All right. We've got a question about the politics of drug policy next. A listener wanted to know, which party - which political party has been more inclined to legalize illegal substances?

ROBERTS: Well, Jimmy Carter called for the legalization of marijuana when he ran for president, but then he didn't follow through. Look, Rachel. Both parties have wanted to show that they are tough on drugs. Joe Biden was one of the prime proponents of anti-drug laws in the '80s. And it's likely to be a problem for him in this era of legalization.

But there was a huge upset in Congress about drugs in the '80s. I covered those bills. And I can tell you members of both parties couldn't get to the microphones fast enough to support tougher sentencing mandates. And they reinstated the federal death penalty in 1988, put it in for drug kingpins.

MARTIN: Commentator Cokie Roberts. You can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work by tweeting us with the hashtag #AskCokie. Cokie, thanks so much.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you, Rachel.

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