17 June 1971: USA declares ‘War on Drugs’

Richard Nixon © Getty Images
US president Richard Nixon declared drugs ‘public enemy number one’

The 1960s was a time of mind expansion, free love and tiresomely earnest discussions about the nature of the universe – all fuelled by drugs, man.

But The Man wasn’t having it. Less than two years after the Sixties finally shut up and went to bed, Richard Nixon declared – on this day in 1971 – that he was going to wage a ‘war on drugs’.

It wasn’t so much the hippies that got up Tricky Dicky’s nose, it was more the fact that GIs in Vietnam were getting hooked on extremely powerful narcotics, which wasn’t doing much for the war effort.

The sensible solution might have been to pull out of Vietnam and give some serious counselling to the traumatised young fighters. But when it comes to drugs, sensible rarely enters into the conversation.

Drugs were named ‘public enemy number one’, and the USA led the world in throwing money and legislation at the problem, seemingly having learned nothing from its disastrous experiment with prohibiting alcohol.

As with most wars, it wasn’t going to be cheap – either in monetary terms, or the number of lives lost or ruined. And with the global drugs trade worth £435bn a year, it was facing a formidable foe.

Since Nixon’s speech, the USA has spent over $1trn in fighting drugs. A quarter of the people in jail in the US – some half a million people – are there because of drugs offences, and $41bn a year is spent on enforcing America’s drugs laws, according to CNN.

But if currently illegal drugs were to be taxed on the same basis as tobacco and alcohol, it’s estimated that the country could raise nearly $50bn a year. Indeed, Colorado, which legalised the sale of cannabis for recreational use in January 2014, raked in over $91m in taxes and fees in the year to the end of April 2015. And in the year to April 2016, that figure has risen to over $142m.