Article hosted by Responsible Statecraft

When it comes to ‘forever wars,’ few can rival the longevity of the U.S. War on Drugs. President-elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will now inherit this war, first proclaimed in 1971 by President Nixon, and waged at home and abroad for nearly a half a century since. 

Absorbed into myriad government agency missions over the decades, the drug war will not be easy to unwind. But new urgency to reform domestic criminal justice and drug policy can help Biden and Harris start reining in the U.S. drug war in the Americas. Doing so will require being candid about why the anti-drug crusade has failed so badly.

Washington escalated this law enforcement campaign in the 1980s, with bipartisan passage of draconian sentencing laws such as the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, co-sponsored by then-Senator Biden. The same bill created the “drug certification” process, requiring the President to judge whether other nations were cooperating on drug control and threatening sanctions for countries deemed unhelpful. Also in 1986, President Reagan named drug trafficking a national security threat, formally engaging the Pentagon in drug interdiction.