Fighting the War on Drugs: How Presidential Administrations Produce Distinct Policing Regimes

April 2021

Engaged in a war on drugs, the United States government embarked on a gradually escalating offensive against individual consumers, distributors, and manufacturers of illicit substances well before President Nixon’s famous national declaration of a “war on drugs.” Anti-drug sentiments represent a shift in societal attitudes, not the sudden emergence of a drug epidemic. In the 1800s, the United States had few regulations on the distribution of narcotics or other drugs, and the legality of opium, cocaine, and marijuana existed through the early 20th century (Recio, 2002, p. 22; Hasegawa, 2000, p. 68). The heightened attention to the drug “problem” in America is new, largely derived from Nixon’s war on drugs declaration and the subsequently enacted policy changes.

This critical case analysis argues that presidential politics, rhetoric, and legislative strategies directly shape the type of policing regimes present during each distinct era of governance under the Nixon, Reagan, Obama, and Trump administrations. Policing regimes are defined in this paper as: the administrative priority and resource allocation towards the role of law enforcement or social services for alleviating a societal problem. This definition has been originally developed in this paper, as well as the subsequent characterization of the distinct regime typology. As these strategies vary from administration and party, distinct policing regimes form as a result.



  • Sam Murray

    Sam Murray is currently working as a pathways intern for the FDA and is a second-year Master of Political Science student. He served as a Columnist at the Public Purpose Journal last year and is continuing through the 2021-2022 academic year. His research and interest areas are primarily on energy and the environment, policing, and labor policy reforms. When taking a break from work and writing, he enjoys hiking, running, rock climbing, and snowboarding.

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