Presidential Politics and the Formation of Drug Policy 1968-1986

Open Access
Plevelich, Jake Bonarrigo
Area of Honors:
Bachelor of Arts
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Charles Lloyd Lumpkins, Thesis Supervisor
  • Michael James Milligan, Honors Advisor
  • war on drugs
  • nixon
  • ford
  • carter
  • reagan
  • crack
  • cocaine
  • marijuana
  • heroin
  • shafer commission
  • len bias
  • southern strategy
This thesis explains the formation of anti-drug policy in the United States from President Nixon through President Reagan. It narrates several important themes that informed the evolution of the government’s anti-drug policy. The themes of the southern strategy, presidential politics, moralism, the media, and the political advantages of a “tough on crime” ideology undergirded the policies. This is essentially a story of how the foundation for the prison-industrial complex was built. President Nixon started the “war on drugs” in response to his suspected centrism among conservative Republicans. He deepened the criminalization of marijuana even though his appointed commission to study drugs charged that criminal penalties for marijuana possession and consumption did more harm to society than the drug itself. The moral perception of drugs as criminal persisted throughout this period and was adopted by both the Republican and Democratic parties during the Presidency of Ronald Reagan. The media’s increased coverage of drugs during the Carter and Reagan Presidencies coupled with the existing bureaucratic apparatus to combat drug trafficking and to foster political unity on an anti-drug policy contributed greatly to America’s increased involvement in the drug war.