The war on drugs picked up steam under President Ronald Reagan. Reagan was the first president to systematically target the entire drug chain from producers to dealers to users.
Prior strategies of harm reduction were replaced with ones of deterrence and by attacking the drug problem at its source, namely producer countries like Colombia. In his first year, the drug budget allocated to law enforcement increased 20% while that for treatment declined 25%. In 1981, Congress passed the Department of Defense Authorization Act, sanctioning the military’s involvement in drug interdiction. The Pentagon’s budget for combatting drugs leaped from $1 million to $196 million within five years. Around 70% of the budget was committed to attacking drugs in source countries though interdiction and eradication, while 30% was used for education, prevention and treatment. Emblematic of Reagan’s aggressive stance, in a 1982 speech on his approach to fighting drugs, he declared that ‘we’re taking down the surrender flag…[and] running up the battle flag.’ The first lady, Nancy Reagan, became famous for her ‘Just Say No’ campaign to dissuade American teens from experimenting with drugs and Drug Resistance Education (DARE) programs were introduced throughout the nation’s schools.
Reagan complemented tough rhetoric and financial resources with a series of laws raising mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, allowing for the seizure of assets without conviction and the federal death penalty for drug kingpins. These were the 1984 Comprehensive Crime Control Act, the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Amendment Act, and the 1988 Drug Free Workplace Act. Most notably, the 1986 Act mandated a five-year minimum sentence without parole for possession of 5 grams of crack and 500 grams for powder cocaine, which resulted in 100:1 disparity between the two drugs that seemed to unfairly target inner city minorities who were more involved with sale and consumption of crack. The 1988 Act applied mandatory minimum sentencing even for first time possession but only for crack cocaine. Finally, the 1988 National Narcotics Leadership Act established the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) with a director who would report directly to the president and be responsible for formulating policy to control both drug demand and supply.
In 1988, the U.N. followed suit, establishing the last of its three major drug treaties. The Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances provided the INCB with greater legal muscle to enforce its previous two treaties, with a particular focus on the sale and possession of drugs in order to the fight drug cartels. It also provided a legal basis for extradition among countries where such bi-lateral frameworks were absent. Whereas the previous two U.N. treaties targeted producers and traffickers (i.e. Latin America), the 1988 Convention forced consumer countries (i.e. the U.S.) to enforce demand reduction.