Anne L. Foster is Associate Professor of History at Indiana State University, author of
Blurring the Lines, 1980–Present
The United States fully embraced a “war on drugs” approach during the 1980s. Mandatory minimum and differential sentencing meant that both dealers and users, especially Black people, could face significant jail time. Supply-side efforts led to increased interdictions at US borders and environmentally destructive crop eradication techniques. These harsh measures did not control drug use well, as the opioid epidemic that began in the 1990s showed. Americans also significantly changed their attitude about marijuana, and a legalization effort had many successes.
The “war on drugs” approach is associated with punitive laws aimed at users. Since the 1950s, US state and federal laws have oscillated between imposing mandatory minimums and backing off when their harmful effects attracted negative attention. Mandatory minimums have been implemented in ways that harm Black people significantly more than white people and often disproportionately fall on users rather than dealers.