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ANJA Presents: Presidents, Pot, and Politics

Ashley Robins
November 07, 2022

What is the War on Drugs, and why was cannabis caught in the crosshairs?

For 51 years, America has been at war with itself in what has been termed “The War on Drugs.” The Nixon administration first declared this war in June of 1971, when Nixon stated that drug abuse was “public enemy number one” and greenlit a dramatic increase in the size and presence of federal drug control agencies, no-knock warrants, and mandatory sentencing for minor possession. [1] The War on Drugs was a relatively small component of federal law-enforcement efforts until the presidency of Ronald Reagan, which began in 1981.[2] Reagan, mimicking the law-and-order style seen in the Nixon administration (and less so in the Carter administration), had a strong agenda against domestic drug usage.

Reagan severely disapproved of cannabis usage, going so far as saying “marijuana is probably the most dangerous drug in the United States,” during his 1980 presidential campaign. For Reagan, cannabis usage was not only politically reprehensible but also morally reprehensible. On February 14, 1981, Newly elected President Ronald Reagan wrote a diary entry regarding his Valentine’s Day. In this entry, Reagan spoke about his wife—Nancy—for a bit, but focused primarily on what many Americans think of during a tender and romantic evening: illicit drug use. Reagan’s diary entry described his romantic comedy movie experience, and its callous disregard for America’s youth: “It was a comedy (Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton & Lilli Tomlin) “Nine To Five.” Funny—but one scene made me mad. A truly funny scene if the 3 gals had played getting drunk but no they had to get stoned on pot. It was an endorsement of Pot smoking for any young person who sees the picture.[3]”

During the Reagan administration, the white house became a trailblazer in anti-drug messaging; in 1982—just one year into the Reagan administration—Nancy Reagan revealed her “Just Say No” slogan at an elementary school. Following the grand unveiling of “Just Say No,” the First Lady made appearances across the country to discuss her anti-drug efforts, purchased thousands of billboards and public service announcements, and appeared on dozens of talk shows. It was also during this time when The Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program was created- leading to the formation of clubs in thousands of schools that enticed and targeted pupils to sign anti-drug pledges. Despite all of these public awareness efforts, the proportion of Americans polled who saw drug abuse as the nation’s “number one problem” was only 2-6% after 3 years of effort (by 1985). [4]

After seeing only minor results from their efforts, the administration created The Partnership for a Drug-Free America in 1985, which is responsible for the creation of the iconic “This is your brain on drugs” advertisement series. [5] The Drug-Free America campaign was highly effective in increasing public support for stricter drug enforcement. In 1986, the Anti-Drug Abuse act became law—resulting in higher minimum sentencing for drug-related offenses, increasing funding for drug-control agencies, and increasing penalties for drug possession. By September of 1989, the percentage of Americans who saw drug abuse as the nation’s “number one problem” had reached 64%- one of the highest fixations by the American public on any issue in polling history. This was an increase of ~58% in a matter of 4 years. But just one year later in 1990, this figure had plummeted to below 10% as the public largely began to move on.

Even though the American public had largely moved away from the drug war by 1990, the policies and agencies empowered by past administrations continued to result in escalating levels of arrest and incarceration. Subsequently, the number of people behind bars for nonviolent drug law offenses increased from 50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 by 1997.[6] Since 1990, the focus of the war on drugs has shifted predominantly to low-level marijuana offenses. A study published in the Journal of Harm Reduction in 2006 found that 82% of drug arrests nationally were for marijuana offenses, with a significant 88% of them involving minor possession. Only 1 in 18 of the arrests resulted in a felony conviction, meaning that approximately $4 billion dollars in resources are being dedicated to prosecuting minor offenses annually.[7] According to statistics from the World Prison Brief, the United States has the highest prison population of any country in the world, despite not having the highest population in the world. There are 2.1 million people in US prisons at the moment, with the total population of the US being 325 million people. For reference, China has 1.6 million prisoners, despite having a total population of 1.38 billion people.[8]

Today, both sides of the aisle agree: The War on Drugs has destroyed countless lives, families, and futures; this cannot and should not continue. Republican Senator Ted Cruz was quoted as saying: “A great many fair-minded observers have looked back over the last two decades and have acknowledged that long mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders produce injustices and our criminal justice resources are better allocated focusing on violent criminals…I think that’s a policy change that makes sense. [9]” While Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders has been quoted with a similar sentiment: “The War on Drugs has been a disaster. We need to legalize marijuana nationwide, invest in the communities that have been destroyed by its criminalization, and expunge past marijuana-related convictions.[10]”

The Anja team acknowledges and recognizes the painful past and consequences that The War on Drugs has imparted, specifically on minority communities. As a proud minority and women-owned business, we strive to respect and acknowledge the privilege and social responsibility we have as a legal, adult-use recreational cannabis retailer. Help us be part of the wave that defines cannabis as a wellness tool; Let’s sit down, light up, and have a conversation. You got questions, we Got ANJA.


[7] King, R.S., Mauer, M. The war on marijuana: The transformation of the war on drugs in the 1990s. Harm Reduct J 3, 6 (2006).

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