The War on Drugs – our longest war – and Portugal

How might we summarize the War on Drugs launched in 1970 under President Nixon1 and supported by every President and Congress since? Now, 54 years have elapsed. It began as a cynical political maneuver and has continued to be just that.

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people,” Ehrlichman said. “You understand what I’m saying? 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 disrupt those communities. 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.”2

BTW – for younger readers, John Ehrlichman was President Nixon’s domestic policy chief.

Certainly, it has been very successful at supporting our status as the NUMBER ONE in incarceration state in the world..

The US also leads the world in the use of illegal drugs.

“One of the most widely used methods of quantifying drug use is to express it in Disability-Adjusted Life Years (DALYs), which represent the number of healthy years of life lost to the use of illicit drugs, averaged across the country’s entire population.”3

And the War on Drugs has been expensive.

So, we can describe the US War on Drugs as comprehensively a complete failure.

“More than one million people have died since 1999 from a drug overdose. In 2021, 106,699 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States. The age-adjusted rate of overdose deaths increased by 14% from 2020 (28.3 per 100,000) to 2021 (32.4 per 100,000).”4

An Alternative Strategy

An NPR report on 2.13.2024 provides a brief view into a completely different and very effective approach to drug addiction in Portugal. There drug addiction is treated as an illness, not a crime. Police hand out flyers to addicts they encounter to get them to enroll in treatment programs. Treatment programs are readily available and free.

Here is a link to the NPR story (both the audio – ~ 7 minutes –  and transcript):

How Portugal got the number of fatal overdoses in the country to drop 80%

A startling and telling counter to our completely failed 54 year policy.


  1. Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970
  2. accessed 2.14.2024
  3. accessed 2.14.2024
  4. accessed 2.14.2024