The Successes and Failures of George Bush's War on Drugs

By Dan Check

United States President George Bush officially began his "war on drugs" on September 5, 1989, when he gave the first prime time address of his presidency, in which he outlined the federal government's strategy for eradicating drug use. The plan called for $7.9 billion from Congress, a $2.2 billion increase from the previous budget.1 Of the $7.9 billion that Bush asked for, 70% would go to law enforcement, which included $1.6 billion for jails. However, only 30% went to prevention, education, and treatment.2 The Bush administration sought to wage its war by primarily focusing on demand in the United States, which, to Bush, meant attacking and arresting the drug user, rather than focusing on prevention, education and treatment, or interdiction (Trying to reduce the supply of drugs). Since the federal government has very limited police power, it would have to wage this war through the coercion of states. States that did not comply with the Bush plan would be penalized with a reduction in funding from the federal government.


Every president since Eisenhower had created new measures to decrease drug use in the United States, but, until 1979, none had actually succeeded. In 1989, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) released a report stating that there was a 37% drop in casual (non addicted) use from 1979 to 1989.3

Despite this trend, drug abuse and addiction had become a serious and dangerous problem in the 1980's, due to a rise in the popularity of casual cocaine use among the middle and upper class, and the invention of crack cocaine, a smokable, more potent form of cocaine, used primarily by poorer, drug addicted people.4 Before long, cocaine became the main export of Colombia, and a major product of Bolivia and Peru.5 Crack became so prevalent that by 1990 it cost only 35 cents to import and manufacture a vial (a common quantity) of it.6 Moreover, despite the interdiction efforts of President Ronald Reagan, the wholesale price of cocaine dropped from $60,000 per kilo in 1980 to $10,000 per kilo in 1988.7 All of this drug use amounted to immense profits; drug lords were getting $80 billion in tax free profits every year.8

President Reagan's "war on drugs," which was the basis for President Bush's war on drugs, began with First Lady Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign in the 1980's, which focused on teaching children to do just that: Say no. Ms. Reagan felt that there were more important reasons for curbing drug use than the fact that drug kingpins were reaping such high profits; she felt that the most important reasons for fighting drugs were the destructiveness to the family, the cost to business, and the connection with crime.9 The Bureau of Labor estimated that 9% of employees show up to work with drugs in their system, which costs businesses an estimated $60 billion every year.10 There was, and still is, a lot of controversy over the links between drugs and crime, but no one denies that they are in some way related.11 In 1985, the United States Department of Justice released a report revealing that of the 132,620 people convicted of crimes in 1983, 48% were under the influence of alcohol at the time that they committed their crimes.12 Clearly, drugs were taking their toll on American society. It was important both to the present and future of America that the destructive effects of drug use be curbed.

Despite the efforts of Ms. Reagan and the Reagan administration, drug usage did not stop. The biggest improvement was the reduction in casual drug use, but despite this improvement, 20 to 40 million people still used drugs,13 a problem that Bush would most certainly have to deal with.

Bush's Plan

Between Bush's inauguration and his speech that September, Bush and the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, William J. Bennett (frequently referred to as the "drug czar"), tried to find a viable plan that would meet their primary goal: The end to casual drug use.14 Bush and Bennett felt that the best way to get casual use to end was to put the primary focus on demand here in America, rather than putting the major focus on the supply from other nations.15

In his inaugural address, Bush announced that "this scourge will stop,"16 and he was committed to the idea. Although Bush called for a complete stoppage of drug use, the rest of his administration set more reasonable goals; they were working towards a 10% decrease in casual drug use over the next two years, and a 50% reduction over the next ten years.17


Bush's war on drugs did produce results. The biggest success was the 22% decrease in cocaine use.18 This was a definite victory for the government. However, it is not entirely clear that the government was responsible. The middle class may have finally opened their eyes to the effects of cocaine usage. When a drug is first introduced, people have not yet seen the negative effects of the drug first hand, but, as time goes on, people see these effects, and begin to stay away.19

The war on drugs, however, did nothing to curb drug usage among the poor. In fact, the opposite happened. Poor people used more cocaine, heroin, and crack by 1992 than when the war on drugs began.20 One million people still smoked crack by the end of the Bush administration.21 The crime rate increased during the war on drugs.22 In 1989, Bennett said that he would take the nation's capital as a test case. After a year of fighting drugs in Washington, D.C., Bennett admitted failure. Drug use did not decline, and the homicide rate remained steady.23 The question that is obviously posed by these statistics is why the Bush plan failed. It then becomes necessary to examine the plan in greater detail.


His budget drew immediate criticism. When Bush revealed that only $500 million would go towards research, he was chastised by researchers who didn't feel that that enough was known about addiction itself to create successful programs to combat it. He was also criticized by those who believed that the future of drug treatment was in finding more drugs like methadone, a drug given to heroin addicts to satisfy their physical craving for heroin, without giving them a high.24

Coercion of the States

President Bush also required the states to do a large amount of the fighting, because of the federal government's limited police power. In November of 1990, a bill was passed that coerced the states into suspending the driver's licenses and revoking government permits and benefits (including college loans) of those who were convicted of drug crimes. If the states did not enact the legislation mandated by this federal bill, there would be a significant reduction of federal aid to their highways, beginning in 1993.25

States and localities would only receive $200 million from the federal government to pay for the extra expense of arresting, trying and jailing record numbers of people.26 Despite the fact this was more than 200% increase over the previous budget,27 New York Governor Mario Cuomo was outraged.28 By coercing the states into doing the brunt of the fighting, without providing them with adequate funds, the federal government was forcing them to spend more money out of their own budgets to fight the Bush administration's war. Somehow, the federal government would have to provide an incentive for the states to comply.

The tactics suggested by the administration were a heavy use of forfeiture, or confiscation of property that the government believed to be drug related. This law was used primarily to confiscate cars and currency, but, in some cases, land was also seized.29 The seized property is then auctioned off to raise money for both the state and federal governments.30 The major criticism of forfeiture is that it doesn't even require a trial, let alone a conviction.31 Forfeiture laws operate under assumed guilt, which lends them to abuse, as is evidenced by the fact that they brought in an estimated $1 billion in 1989.32 Since trials cost the states money, there were also new laws passed to keep people out of courts. This included new provisions for the increased use of civil fines (Which do not require a trial),33 and frequent encouragement of plea bargaining to avoid trials.34

Overcrowded Jails

Despite these measures, the jails soon became overcrowded. Drug arrests rose from 56,013 in 1985 to 94,490 in 1989, an increase of almost 69%.35 By 1992 there were more people in federal jails for drug charges than there were for all crimes in 1980, causing Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Rehnquist to say that there were just too many arrests.36 Despite the $1.6 billion that had gone to build new federal prisons, there was a logjam. A large part of this logjam was due to attacks on the drug user; twice as many people were arrested for possession than for selling.37 This overcrowding meant that sentences had to be shortened.38 With shortened sentences, drug dealers were soon back out on the street, selling drugs again.39

Social Ills

One drug dealer explained that the reason why doing and selling drugs is so alluring to Americans living in poverty is the fact that there is nothing else to do. There are no jobs, and there is no recreation.40 This would point to a very prevalent view, which is that drug use is not only a social ill, but also the result of other social ills, and the best way to fight drug use, especially heavy drug use, is to fight poverty.41 This would explain why the war on drugs did absolutely nothing to stop drug use among poor Americans; in fact, drugs became more popular among poor Americans during Bush's term in office.42 Still, Bennett, when designing the plan with Bush, stated that the war on poverty had been fought for too many years, without enough results. He felt that it would be futile to wait until that war was won. At the same time, however, he called for stronger community and church action to help stop drug use.43 Apparently Bennett wanted social ills to be eased, as long as the money for it did not come out of the amount budgeted for the war on drugs.

New York City

Eventually the federally ordered war on the casual drug user proved to be too much for New York City. Jails were consistently above their maximum capacity, forcing the city to open up jail boats for their prisoners.44 Instead of going after drug users, a plan that had been deemed fairly unsuccessful, New York City decided that the best course of action would be trying to catch traffickers (The wholesalers and distributors), and others who reaped the rewards of selling drugs. As a result, the arrest rate went down 26% and the city saved hundreds of millions of dollars in trial and imprisonment costs.45 Jails were no longer overcrowded. Instead, they suddenly dropped to 92% of capacity.46 The city admitted that this didn't solve the immediate problem that had been the focus of the Bush plan, but, the city argued, it was a wise move in a war that cannot be won without a curb in the volume and profitability of drugs.47 This tactic of interdiction had never worked in the past. The fact that New York City reverted to it proves that the war on drug use was a war fought primarily because of coercion by the federal government, a war which not all localities could afford to wage. Perhaps the war would have had more positive effects if the states had been willing participants, rather than being forced into fighting a war under the threat of reduced funding.


The most severe criticism of the Bush program was the noticeable lack of focus on treatment. In the 1989 proposal, only $925 million was allotted for treatment.48 Congress felt that this was so inadequate that it soon added $1.1 billion for treatment, prevention, and education.49 By 1992, the amount for treatment alone had grown to $1.9 billion.50 The underlying problem, however, was that not enough was known about drug abuse and addiction to treat it.51 It was known that 70% of drug addicts also had an addiction to alcohol or a mental problem.52 It was also known that only one half of cocaine addicts stayed clean for two years after treatment.53 One of the main theories about why treatment was so unsuccessful was the fact that drug users were lumped together as a scapegoated group, universally hated by society. If treatment were to work, many argued, it must recognize the addict as a person and address the addict as an individual, with individual needs and concerns.54

The other major problem was the stark lack of facilities. Public facilities were overcrowded, and those who wished to stop using drugs by entering a public treatment program were often put on long waiting lists.55 Bennett said that the government should only provide facilities for one million of the four million addicts, saying that two million could help themselves, without the help of a treatment facility, and the other million were lost causes.56 What Bennett ignored is that treatment is less expensive than prison. Keeping someone in a prison costs $25,000 to $50,000 annually, whereas inpatient treatment for addiction costs only $15,000, according to Dr. Peter Pinto of the Samaritan Village, Incorporated.57 That means that putting all four million drug addicts into inpatient services would cost a maximum of $60 billion annually, whereas holding them in jail would cost $100 billion. The treatment of the four million addicts, however, carries an estimated cost of only $5.6 billion, since not all would require inpatient treatment.58 Incarceration is neither cost efficient nor effective.

The biggest problem, however, was that the prisoners themselves would generally rather serve out their prison term than go into treatment, probably because the prison sentences were so much shorter than any treatment program.59 Drug dealers did an average of eight months at Ryker's Island in New York City.60 Drug traffickers did an average of 22 months.61 Drug addicted dealers who showed a good chance of recovery were offered an alternative to serving out their sentences: rehabilitation at Phoenix House. The treatment was rejected by many, simply because it can take up to two years.62 The war on drugs drastically hindered itself by forcing local authorities to arrest so many people that prison sentences had to be reduced, because the reduced sentences were so much shorter than the amount of time need to complete rehabilitation without relapse.

Treatment is also cost effective. In fact, according to the National Association of State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors, $1 in treatment brings a return of $11.54 for society.63 After examining this overwhelming evidence, it becomes necessary to ask why the federal government did not put the brunt its of effort into treatment. Congressman John Conyers (D-Mi) believes the reason is that "Drug . . . treatment [has] gained a name as a wimp activity." Again, the Bush administration had moved away from the pragmatic approach (which would be to attempt to rehabilitate people, rather than saying that the government had no business rehabilitating 75% of all drug addicts), and had, instead, moved towards the more visible results of arrests and interdiction.


The attempts at education, primarily through Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE), were generally unsuccessful. DARE was a program that began in 1983 in Los Angeles, under Chief of Police Daryl Gates.64 In 1993, five million fifth graders participated in the DARE program, which tried to keep children off drugs, primarily through role playing activities in which they learned how to avoid and refuse drugs.65 According to Family Council on Drug Awareness director Chris Conrad, DARE is inaccurate, and did not achieve its goal.66 Mr. Conrad was far from the only person who believes that DARE doesn't work. NIDA released a study in 1991 that stated that there was no significant difference in drug use among those who had participated in the DARE program as opposed to those who hadn't.67 The DARE program did teach kids how to say no, but it did not make them any more likely to want to.68 It would be unfair to chastise the Bush administration for funding a program like DARE, because, at the time, there were no studies that claimed that DARE did not work, and, even during the Bush administration, the studies that were released were flawed, and therefore could not be assumed to be accurate.69 It is, however, fair to criticize Bush for giving federal funds to a program that was factually inaccurate.


Interdiction was a failed strategy that continued to thrive in the renewed war on drugs. In February of 1990, Bush called a summit between the United States, Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru, the three major cocaine producing nations in South American. The purpose of the summit was to keep the three nations fighting against coca production within their own countries.70 In return, the United States would supply $2.2 billion for economic and military aid towards those countries.71 This policy caused friction with the nations involved, due to the fact that these nations have made an economy on cocaine production, which had always been supported by the people of the United States.72 In addition to the friction it caused, interdiction was also ineffective. According to a report released in March of 1990, there was 25% more land worldwide dedicated to growing illegal drugs, and global drug abuse rates were up.73

The other interdiction measure taken was to confiscate drugs as they entered the United States. This program had failed as well, despite the $2.4 billion budgeted for it in Bush's initial proposal.74 Between 1980 and 1989 the United States spent $10 billion on interdiction, and successfully confiscated perhaps 10% of all cocaine entering into the country.75

In 1989, the United States seized record amounts of cocaine. While only 12,000 pounds had been seized in 1982, 181,000 pounds were seized in 1989. Over the same time period, heroin seizures also rose dramatically, from 515 pounds to 700,000 pounds.76 Still, there were 10 times as much cocaine in the United States in 1988 as there was in 1982.77 For this reason, Congress wanted to know what percentage of all cocaine coming into the country was seized, and how much it would cost to seize half of it. Paul A. Yost, Commandant of the Coast Guard, responded by saying that the Coast Guard had only seized 3% of all cocaine entering into the country, and that there wasn't enough money in the entire federal budget to seize half of all cocaine entering into the United States.78 There were, however, some positive effects of interdiction. Wholesale prices rose slightly under Bush, but street prices were not affected.79 This meant reduced profits for those involved in the production, traffic, and sale of drugs. However, since the ultimate goal of the war on drugs was to decrease drug use in the United States, and since interdiction did nothing towards that end, it can be safely said that interdiction was a failure.


The drug war was a dismal failure in its dealings with the poor. It was, arguably, a success among the middle and upper classes, who developed an attitude intolerance toward drug use during the war. It is not at all clear, however, that the war on drugs was responsible for this shift. The government also chose a very costly way of waging its war, and made the states pay for it. The large number of arrests and the overcrowding of jails did nothing to stop people from doing or selling drugs, because criminals did very little time, and there was no effort made to rehabilitate those convicted of drug related crimes. If the government had actually sought to reduce demand, as it said it would, perhaps it would have achieved more success. One way of reducing demand would have been a heavier emphasis on treatment, with factually correct education. The war on drugs would have been much cheaper, and might have done something to combat the problem of heavy drug addiction amongst the poor, rather than achieving the short term goal of a few years of decreased casual drug use among the moneyed classes, and a glut of poor drug users and dealers behind bars.

FOOTNOTES (Click on the numbers to return to the text)

1 Bernard Weintraub, "President Offers Strategy for United States on Drug Control," New York Times, 6 September 1989. A1.
2 Ibid, B7.
3 Johnathan Harris. Drugged America (New York: Four Winds Press, 1991), 156.
4 Joseph B. Treaster, "Police in New York Shift Drug Battle Away From Streets," New York Times, 3 August 1992. A1.
5 Louis Krane, "How to Win the War on Drugs," Fortune, 12 March 1990, 75.
6 Ibid, 71.
7 Harris, 157.
8 Krane, 75.
9 Nancy Reagan, "The War on Drugs is Desperately Needed," as published in How Should the War on Drugs be Waged? (Pamphlet version) (Minnesota: Greenhaven Press, Incorporated, 1988), 18.
10 Krane, 75.
11 Some people argue that drugs cause crime, while others argue that those who are likely to do drugs are the same people who are likely to commit crimes.
12 "Criminals Using alcohol Before Commiting Offenses Updated: 9/87," [ data-surv/crimes1.txt], September, 1987.
13 Harris, 156.
14 Weintraub, B7.
15 Harris, 146.
16 Richard L. Berke, "No Change in Basics," New York Times, 6 September 1989. B7.
17 Harris, 149.
18 Joseph B. Treaster, "20 Years of War on Drugs, and No Victory Yet," New York Times, 14 June 1992. IV 7.
19 Joseph B. Treaster, "Four Years of Bush's Drug War: New Funds but an Old Strategy," New York Times, 28 July 1992. A7.
20 Treaster, "20 Years of War on Drugs, and No Victory Yet." IV 7.
21 Treaster, "Four Years of Bush's Drug War: New Funds but an Old Strategy." A7.
22 Treaster, "20 Years of War on Drugs, and No Victory Yet." IV 7.
23 Harris, 157.
24 Ibid, 146.
25 Ibid, 145.
26 Berke, B7.
27 Harris, 145.
28 Ibid, 146.
29 Ibid, 180.
30 Dan Baum, "The Drug War on Civil Liberties," The Nation, 29 June 1992, 887.
31 Ibid, 886.
32 Harris, 149.
33 Ibid, 145.
34 Ibid, 145.
35 Treaster, "Police in New York Shift Drug Battle Away From Streets." A1.
36 Baum, 886.
37 Ibid, 886.
38 Treaster "Police in New York Shift Drug Battle Away From Streets." A1.
39 Ibid, A1.
40 Treaster, "Four Years of Bush's Drug War: New Funds but an Old Strategy." A12
41 Berke, B7.
42 Treaster, "Four Years of Bush's Drug War: New Funds but an Old Strategy." A12.
43 Harris, 148.
44 Treaster, "Police in New York Shift Drug Battle Away From Streets." A1.
45 Ibid, A1.
46 Ibid, A1.
47 Ibid, A1.
48 Weintraub, B7.
49 Harris, 144.
50 Treaster, "20 Years of War on Drugs, and No Victory Yet." A7.
51 Krane, 74.
52 Ibid, 73.
53 Ibid, 73.
54 Harris, 156.
55 Berke, B7.
56 Krane, 72.
57 Harris, 155.
58 Krane, 71.
59 Ian Fisher, "Selling Addicts on Treatment Rather Than Prison," New York Times. 1 December 1992. B3.
60 Fisher, B3.
61 Krane, 75
62 Fisher, B3.
63 Harris, 154.
64 Krane, 74.
65 Dennis Cauchon, "D.A.R.E. Doesn't Work -- USA Today," [66 Chris Conrad, "Oakland Eliminates D.A.R.E. Program," [67 Cauchon.
68 Ibid.
69 Ibid.
70 Krane, 70.
71 Ibid, 75.
72 Harris, 157.
73 Ibid, 150.
74 Krane, 71.
75 Harris, 157.
76 Ibid, 149.
77 Ibid, 157.
78 Ibid, 152.
79 Treaster, "Four Years of Bush's Drug War: New Funds but an Old Strategy." A12.

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Dan Check is currently (1995) a junior at Send email to the author
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