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How Can We Battle the Ongoing Drug Crisis?

Ellis is a harm reduction advocate, trained in Naloxone administration. Overdose deaths in his area have created many harm reduction sites.

The Prohibition of Substances

The Smoking Opium Exclusion Act

Even before Nixon declared war against substances almost 50 years ago, there were several federal attempts to regulate, prohibit, and tax substances. The Smoking Opium Exclusion Act was the start of federal intervention in drug related crimes.

  • The Smoking Opium Exclusion Act went into effect in 1909
  • The act prohibited the possession of morphine and opium for recreational smoking use
  • In 1890 taxes were imposed on recreational opium and morphine before prohibition began

The Smoking Opium Exclusion Act paved a path for the Prohibition Era of the United States.

The Harrison Act

Following the Smoking Opium Exclusion Act was The Harrison Act, imposing taxes and controlling the distribution of cocaine and opiates. The act went into effect in 1914, a few years before the prohibition of liquor and alcohol trade nationwide.

The Eighteenth Amendment

Federal government further controlled the distribution and possession of mind altering substances. The infamous alcohol prohibition began in 1919, lasting until 1933 when it ultimately failed.

  • The eighteenth amendment was overturned by the twenty-first amendment
  • Alcohol prohibition was a result of the temperance movement, a movement to encourage the abstinence from alcohol
  • The 1920's is remembered as a period with gang violence

Marijuana Tax

The federal government began hemp, marijuana, and cannabis taxation in 1937.

  • Possession of marijuana wasn't criminalized, but 5 years in prison with a large fine was given to those who didn't pay the necessary taxes

The War on Drugs

Beginning in 1971, and still ongoing almost half a centennial later, Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs to battle overdose rates which were on the rise. There has been implication racism has played a role in Nixon's campaign against drugs.

  • In 1970, Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act which called for further regulation of substances
  • Nixon funded numerous substance control agencies, and created harsh consequences for those convicted of drug crimes
  • Richard Nixon helped create SAODAP (Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention) and DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration)
  • The Controlled Substances Act compiled five lists (or what the act calls "schedules") determining the medicinal properties of drugs along with abuse risks

Drug Classification by the Controlled Substances Act

Examples of drugs from each schedule with criteria for each classification group

Examples of drugs from each schedule with criteria for each classification group

Racism and the War on Drugs

Racism being so deeply rooted throughout the political and justice system resulted in mass incarcerations of black, Latino, and Chinese people nationwide. Although the War on Drugs has been taking a more adaptive approach in recent years, marginalized communities are still heavily being targeted for drug possession.

Black and Latino people are prosecuted more often and more harshly than any other population for drug related crimes.

Eye-Opening Quote From Nixon's Campaign

"The Nixon campaign in 1968...had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people... We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily...We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."

— Quote from John Ehrlichman

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Harm Reduction and Decriminalization

Since the failure of prohibition, officials and the public have scrambled to try to find means to fight the drug crisis while avoiding the conditions Nixon created. Harm reduction methods and decriminalization have been in the spotlight for the War on Drugs.

What is Harm Reduction?

Harm reduction is not impeding on someone's drug use, but giving the individual resources to be safe about their drug use. It seems counterproductive due to the stigma and stereotypes around substance abuse, however, provides many benefits to the public and the effected populations.

An example of harm reduction (which is in my own community) is needle exchange stations.

How these exchanges work is the organizers will have a designated sharps container, or have one nearby for people to drop their used needles into. The disposal keeps the needles off of the sidewalks, and prevents reusing old needles. The needle exchange stations will also usually have alcohol wipes, Fentanyl testing strips, clean needles, and Naloxone (Narcan).

Naloxone (Narcan) is an emergency overdose reversal which only works for narcotics/opioids, the source of most overdoses. Currently, most areas require a prescription for Naloxone to be given to you.

Strong headed prohibitionists are against harm reduction, deeming it to not be harsh enough on the drug users and giving them a free pass. The world isn't made to work one way, alternative means are always necessary in the event something (in this case, prohibition) falls through and fails.

What About Decriminalization?

Decriminalization is merely decriminalizing the possession of drugs. It is not legalizing the use of the drug.

Allowing the public to possess substances rather than incarceration drastically reduces prison populations. The majority of drug arrests are in relation to possession, where some of the most unjust sentences are made. Instead of incarceration, the individual will have to pay a fine. Some countries have been participating in decriminalization of drugs, along with a few states.

Harm Reduction and Your Community

How Can I Keep My Friends Who Use Drugs Safe?

If they are unaware, inform them on:

  • what the drugs they are using may be doing to their physical or mental health
  • Fentanyl strips and where to get them
  • local needle exchanges
  • where to get Naloxone
  • keeping a friend nearby while using drugs in the event of an overdose
  • food pantries if necessary (using drugs on an empty stomach may do more harm)
  • substance abuse counselors/programs/services in the area

It is not possible to force someone to stop doing drugs. The desperation for a substance can result in withdrawals, sickness, suicide, and lead to other unfortunate circumstances. There is no stopping substance abuse, but it is possible to keep drug users alive long enough to overcome addiction.

Your Stance on the War on Drugs


Anderson, L. A. (2020, June 17). CSA Schedules.

Coyne, C. J., & Hall, A. R. (2020, September 22). Four Decades and Counting: The Continued Failure of the War on Drugs.

The DEA. Decriminalization, harm reduction, and other alternatives.

Drug Policy Alliance. (2020). A Brief History of the Drug War.

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. Prohibition. Editors. (2017, May 31). War on Drugs.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, October 19). Overdose Death Rates.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Ellis Morrison

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