The Uncontrolled Fire

October 17, 2013

The Uncontrolled Fire: Ronald Reagan, Conservatism, and the War on Drugs


In October of 1982, Ronald Reagan spoke from the Rose Garden of the White House. “We've taken down the surrender flag and run up the battle flag,” the President said. “And we're going to win the war on drugs.”[1] The need for a war on drugs was far from obvious. Marijuana use had been declining since 1979, only the super rich could afford cocaine, and heroin had become less popular than Jimmy Carter.[2] But none of that mattered. The cavalry was already on its way.                                                                                                                            

Between 1980 and 1990, federal spending on drug control skyrocketed from $1.5 billion to $6.7 billion.[3] The prison population doubled, and the portion of state prisoners incarcerated for drug offenses jumped from one in fifteen to one in three.[4] 85% of those inmates were convicted for mere possession.[5] Public opinion underwent an equally radical transformation -- by 1989, after an incessant barrage of media coverage and political attention, 64% of Americans believed that drug abuse was the nation’s most serious problem. Just three years earlier, that number had been 3%.[6] Thousands of “parents’ groups,” galvanized by Nancy Reagan and her “Just Say No” campaign, sprang up across the country to protect their children from the drug menace. Child institutionalization for “drug problems” increased 350%.[7] Three major pieces of legislation, the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988 allowed the federal government to escalate the war on drugs to dizzying heights.          

Despite this full-scale mobilization, by the end of the decade the war on drugs had been lost on virtually every front. The price of marijuana, cocaine, and heroin had plummeted, and there had been no substantial reduction in the supply.[8] Narcotics flooded the United States from Central America.[9] Domestic production of marijuana swelled, particularly in California, which had captured 20 to 25 percent of U.S. demand by 1986.[10] Accurately quantifying changes in drug use is nearly impossible for a variety of reasons, but most scholars seem to agree that overall “drug use and abuse...increased dramatically over the 1980s.”[11] Though many middle-class users tuned in to Nancy Reagan and dropped out of the drug market, illicit substance use spiked among the urban poor.                                                                                                                              

Ronald Reagan was not the first president to lose a war on drugs. Richard Nixon had declared war in 1971 in an attempt to enforce the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, which had been in place since 1914.[12] Though Nixon initially succeeded in disrupting the international heroin market, after a few years poppy production simply migrated from Turkey to South-East Asia.[13] Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, called for the legalization of marijuana in his 1976 campaign against Gerald Ford. As president, Carter realized that interdiction had no effect on the flow of drugs and that “imprisonment was worse than narcotics use.”[14] He allowed the enforcement machinery to languish, slashing spending and downsizing the CIA, and spurring a wave of marijuana decriminalization across the United States.[15]                                                                                

Ronald Reagan was the self-prescribed antidote to Jimmy Carter. The days of decriminalization were over. Born in Dixie, Illinois in 1911, Reagan had pursued a career in show business after graduating from Eureka College, first as a radio announcer and then as an actor in dozens of B-movies. His breakout performance in King’s Row in 1941 brought stardom and critical acclaim, though his career gradually stalled. Reagan had been a lifelong Democrat; he admired FDR and appreciated the New Deal, which had saved his family from poverty during the Great Depression.[16] But in the 1950s, while touring the country as a spokesman for General Electric, Reagan was drawn in by the staunch anti-communism of American conservatism, and he switched parties in 1962. His speech in 1964 in support of Barry Goldwater’s presidency, “Time for Choosing,” brought in $1 million dollars in donations (an unprecedented sum at the time) and launched Reagan’s political career.[17] After two terms as Governor of California, Reagan challenged Gerald Ford for the Republican presidential nomination, losing by a narrow margin. Reagan himself challenged Carter in 1980, and his landslide electoral victory ushered in a Republican majority to the United States Senate for the first time in 30 years. With decades of experience as an actor and a spokesman, Reagan brought to the White House a flair for public relations not seen since President Roosevelt.   After decades in the wilderness, conservatism had finally come to power.                                                                                                                  

The history of American conservatism is a strange saga. Deprived of a Burkean tradition, conservatives struggled to find their place in politics. The American Revolution created a civic structure based on liberal principles born of the Enlightenment, and as a result, “American politics resemble a family quarrel: Locke’s heirs squabbling over their common patrimony.”[18] In the 1930s, the Old Right advanced an anti-statist agenda, opposing government intervention at home and abroad. But after WWII, isolationism had been discredited, and liberalism secured a formidable ideological monopoly. Republican presidents like Eisenhower and Nixon had to accept the New Deal and its legacy -- the ever-expanding welfare state. The New Right of the 1950s retained the economic libertarianism of the Old, but shed its isolationism and called instead for militaristic expansion to deter the communist threat. A schism of sorts arose in the 1970s, with the rise of the Religious Right and the founding of the Libertarian Party. The Libertarian Party consisted of Republicans disaffected by Nixon’s use of wage and price controls. Its membership wanted deregulation of industry, decreased defense spending, and no laws dictating personal morality. The Religious Right, on the hand, assembled under the banner of the New Right, which held on to the militarism and laissez-faire economics of its 1950s ancestor, but had added religious moralism into the mix.  This New Right lobbied for school prayer and vigorously opposed abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment. Though the New Right and the libertarians were ostensibly antithetical to one another, both groups supported Ronald Reagan in 1980 and merged under the “Big Tent” of the GOP, united by a mutual mistrust of the federal government.[19]  The war on drugs, however, slowly pulled these strands apart, with the moralistic New Right pushing for massive escalation and the individualistic libertarians demanding immediate disarmament.

This thesis will explore the effect of the war on drugs on Ronald Reagan’s experimental brand of conservatism. It will present two arguments. First, that the escalation of the war on drugs in the 1980s can be interpreted not merely as an extension of the New Right’s agenda, but rather, as a product and reflection of Reagan’s unique rhetorical skills, especially optimism and simplification. Second, that the war on drugs exposed the difficulty of translating conservative ideology into practical public policy. This challenge stemmed from two central paradoxes: conservatism’s contradictory impulses towards federalism and anti-statism, and its overinvestment in Ronald Reagan, who proved to be both a dream and a nightmare for Congressional Republicans. These contradictions became increasingly unmanageable, and by the end of the decade, conservatism seemed too weak to survive.

The historiographies of the 1980s drug war and the Reagan presidency are curiously disjointed. Scholars in both fields seem largely unaware of each other’s existence, which is perplexing, given their profound degree of commonality. Both, for instance, accuse the media of promoting the Reagan agenda at the expense of the public good.[20] Both claim that ideology shielded failed policies (supply-side economics, supply-side drug suppression) from the withering light of pragmatism.[21]  More generally, both are high-stakes historiography; the debates at hand are not static, they rage on today, whether in the form of the Bush Tax Cuts or California’s Proposition 19, which sought to legalize and tax marijuana.

The disconnect between the two historiographies can in part be explained by divergent interests. Reagan historians focus on the administration’s economic and foreign policies. The war on drugs is relegated to a minor role, usually in relation to interventionism in Central America. For Reagan historians, tax cuts and interventionism constituted the administration’s most lasting contribution to American politics. Lou Cannon’s work has dominated the historiography -- his book Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime is considered the authoritative text.[22] Few works of scholarship strive to place Reagan within the broader context of conservatism, with the notable exception of Sean Wilentz’s The Age of Reagan.[23] Analysts of the drug war, on the other hand, are preoccupied with exposing the media’s role in inventing the “Crack Epidemic” and fomenting mass hysteria. These scholars believe that the media’s impact on politics and public opinion qualifies as the period’s most dramatic development. When they speak of Reagan, it is usually as a stand-in for a monolithic version of conservatism.

In terms of what brand of conservatism Reagan represented, critics have struggled to formulate a consensus. For Godfrey Hodgson, Reagan’s conservatism was reactionary, a refutation of the “perceived excesses” of liberalism and the erosion of American prestige.[24] For Stephen Newman, Reaganism was a “New Right cocktail, an electorally intoxicating blend of laissez-faire with anticommunism and traditionalism.”[25] Cannon’s conclusion lacks ambition, but holds up to the most scrutiny: “Reagan did not fit the neat ideological stereotype.”[26] For Cannon, Reagan was a sometimes-ideologue-sometimes-pragmatist, an “American original” who cared little for the internal politics of the Republican Party.[27] Reagan’s protean core resists any attempt at categorization -- he managed to appeal to several different constituencies simultaneously, despite the fact the “the viewpoints assembled under the banner of Reaganism were wildly at odds with one another.”[28] And yet, the prevailing opinion among historians is that Reagan definitively shifted the country rightward.

Scholarship on the drug war is far less chaotic. Two assumptions are generally accepted as fact: 1) the war on drugs was entirely futile 2) this seemingly benign civic undertaking was, in fact, a façade, concealing the sinister repercussions of criminalization. Scholars differ only in which sinister repercussion they choose to emphasize, and in what remedy they propose -- usually legalization or a renewed emphasis on demand-side suppression via education.

The futility of the war on drugs stems from several sources, some conceptual, and some practical. The most oft-cited conceptual error is simply that rather than suppressing crime, prohibition created it: “Through the alchemy of capitalism, the lead of suppression has often been transformed into the gold of stimulus.”[29] In terms of practicality, it seems that interdiction cuts off one supply only to divert it elsewhere. As one frustrated Foreign Service Officer told the New York Times in 1984, “It’s like trying to nail a blob of mercury.”[30] As for the sinister repercussions of criminalization, taken holistically, scholars have supposed that the war on drugs also functioned as a War on Minorities,[31] a War on the Criminal Justice System,[32] a War on Public Health,[33] a War on the Constitution,[34] a War on the Welfare State,[35] a War on the 60s,[36] and a War on Democracy.[37] These interpretations are not mutually exclusive; the war on drugs, like Ronald Reagan, played many different parts all at once.

In general, though the historiography challenges the efficacy of prohibition, it lacks sophistication in its understanding of American politics. Scholars are content to label the war’s escalation as a “bipartisan” effort, when, in fact, the fundamental differences and tensions between the two parties had a significant effect on policy. Some of this can perhaps be explained by bias. Leading drug policy reformers like Ethan Nadelmann may be hesitant to attach the deleterious effects of prohibition to a particular political ideology, lest they isolate potential allies. After all, it is still unclear where reform will come from -- the libertarian faction of the GOP, or the progressive faction of the Democratic Party.

An attempt at synthesizing these two historiographies reveals a symbiotic relationship: analyzing the drug policies of the 80s can help us answer many of the questions that have consumed Reagan historians -- for instance, the pressing issue of whether or not a “Reagan Revolution” occurred in the 1980s. Historians have concluded that a revolution did indeed take place, not in the size of government, but in the more nebulous field of public opinion.[38] Americans took a few firm steps to the right in the 1980s, and liberalism, both its agenda and its legacy, suffered a serious blow. But for scholars of the drug war, the Reagan revolution did not take place deep within the political consciousness of the citizenry. Reagan and his Congressional allies doubled the incarceration rate, destroyed the federal court system, eroded the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 (the longstanding barrier excluding the military from civilian affairs), devastated the inner cities, and, most significantly, marginalized a quarter of the American population -- those who admit to illicit drug use. Despite the poor outcomes, this revolutionary public policy has survived throughout the post-Reagan decades, and its ideological victory in establishing “sobriety” as the ultimate goal of society has been so absolute that a counter-revolution (legalization, decriminalization) seems all but impossible.[39]

Because both historiographies tend to gloss over conservatism’s complexity, this thesis will attempt to fill in the gaps by tracing the evolution of two paradoxes. Section I (1981-1982) will introduce the first -- the incompatibility of federalism and anti-statism. Section II (1983-1984) will introduce the second -- the strained power dynamic between conservative President and conservative Congress. Section III (1985-1986) and Section IV (1987-1988) will show how time and pressure exacerbated these contradictions. In every section, we will examine the ways in which Reagan’s rhetorical skills nurtured the war on drugs. [40]

In terms of sources, this thesis will draw primarily on contemporary newspaper accounts in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, and The Washington Post, which offered comprehensive coverage of the war on drugs, as well as Reagan’s speeches and public announcements, as archived by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. This emphasis on journalistic accounts is appropriate because presidential rhetoric as consumed and restated rapidly by print media was the dominant medium for political communication during the 1980s.

I. 1981 - 1982 ---- Experimentation

Hysteria would not set in until 1986, but Reagan’s speech in 1981 to the International Association of Police Chiefs and his 1982 “Battle Flag” speech established the basic assumptions of the war on drugs by connecting drug use with crime and weaving both into a larger conservative framework. During this formative period, the drug war exposed both the nascent contradictions encoded into the conservative movement and the unique rhetorical skills of the Reagan administration, especially moralization, optimism, and statistical manipulation.

Reagan’s “Secret Weapon” -- The First Lady[41]

Nancy Reagan’s role in the war on drugs has been understated. In her capacity as First Lady, Mrs. Reagan essentially set the tone for the entire conflict. Her covertly politicized “anti-drug crusade” generated the core tenets of the drug war -- namely, that drug use is a moral transgression that poses an existential threat to America’s future. Mrs. Reagan’s campaign began in October of 1981. Though the media had initially criticized “Queen Nancy” for her lavish lifestyle, these attacks metamorphosed into praise once she launched her educational initiative, which has lead some to speculate that it was originally conceived as a publicity stunt.[42]

Mrs. Reagan proved to be a talented peddler of fear. On October 22nd, 1981, she told The New York Times, “If we don’t do something [about drug use], it seems to me we’re just going to lose a whole generation...their brains are going to be mush. It’s the future of our country.”[43] When the fabricated “crack epidemic” terrified the public in the summer of 1986, she joined her husband on national television, and told the audience, “No one is safe from it [the epidemic] -- not you, not me, and certainly not our children, because this epidemic has their names written on it.”[44] Mrs. Reagan’s cheerless oratory received an immense amount of publicity and provided a counterbalance to Reagan’s sunny optimism. The dire tones of Mrs. Reagan’s pessimism articulated another one of the major presumptions of the war on drugs: much more than simply an unhealthy personal choice was at stake. This, in turn, rendered a moderate approach inadequate. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, for instance, achieved near unanimous approval because the drug issue “evolved into a ‘motherhood’ movement too sensitive for any elected official to oppose.”[45] Mrs. Reagan’s dark predictions seemed to fit the mold of the so-called “paranoid style” of the American Right -- an oft-cited cultural theory advanced by Richard Hofstadter.[46] Drugs, like communism in the 1950s, were presented as a subversive internal enemy. Such dismissive commentary, however, fails to recognize that the “paranoid style” is, in actuality, an old American tradition endemic to both the Right and the Left.

Nancy Reagan did not simply identify the problem of drug use, she also proposed a solution: “I’m a big believer in the family unit. This is what made our country great, but the whole family structure has become so loose over the last 20 years, with the permissive approach. We’ve just got to get it back together.”[47] By singling out American families as the antidote to the poisonous drug menace, Mrs. Reagan both encouraged the growth of the parents’ groups and justified Reagan’s budget cuts for drug treatment. The LA Times reported, ”Defending the Administration cutbacks and her own efforts to rally the public against drug abuse, Mrs. Reagan said it was her opinion that money alone doesn’t solve anything...’It doesn’t take money to buy love and awareness and to spend time with kids.’”[48] Mrs. Reagan made a concerted effort to only visit private treatment centers that did not receive federal funding.[49]

In other words, the tough-love familial unity solution to the drug “scourge” signified an attempt to fuse libertarianism with moralism. The Reagans believed that parents could replace methadone clinics and even police. [50] Nancy Reagan forged a lasting alliance with the thousands of parents’ groups that proliferated throughout the decade, and these parents’ groups proved to be potent forces of grass-roots conservative activism.[51] While most historians have suggested that President Reagan snubbed the New Right, putting social issues on the back burner and using empty rhetoric to keep them huddled together under the Big Tent of the GOP, the Reagans’ ringing endorsements of the parents’ groups suggests otherwise. [52] Mrs. Reagan became the “spiritual leader” of this socially conservative movement, and the movement actively supported Reagan’s policies. [53]

Magic Tricks -- Reagan’s Use of Statistics

The Reagan administration had a gift for filling empty rhetoric with misleading statistics.[54] These skills proved invaluable in the war on drugs; statistics helped Reagan disguise the futility of supply-side drug policies. In Reagan’s galvanizing “Battle Flag” speech in 1982, the President boldly declared, “The results of our [South Florida] task force have been dramatic. The Vice President tells me drug-related arrests are up over 40 percent, the amount of marijuana seized is up about 80 percent, and the amount of cocaine seized has more than doubled.”[55] These statistics sounded impressive, but unfortunately, they became meaningless when placed in their proper context. In 1982, The New York Times reported, “...drug enforcement officials acknowledged that they were succeeding in diverting only 2 to 5 percent of the heroin entering the country...”[56] Four years later, officials in the South Florida Task Force would admit that “they have barely dented the drug trade here.”[57] Publicizing increases in the number of drug arrests or the tons of narcotics seized and citing it as evidence of progress was a clever rhetorical strategy, one that is still employed today.

Similarly, the “Gateway Drug” theory, which became “holy writ” under the Reagan administration, was yet another example of statistical manipulation.[58] This theory, used to justify punitive cannabis policies, cited the amount of hard drug users who had tried marijuana as proof that pot smokers would likely become heroin or cocaine addicts. As aptly demonstrated in Jacob Sullum’s Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use, the “Gateway Drug” theory disintegrates when mixed with even trace amounts of common sense.[59] Overall, the Reagans had to exercise extreme caution in using statistics, lest the public realize the extent of their hyperbole. Despite Mrs. Reagan’s constant entreaties to save the children, for instance, only 8 children died of cocaine in 1984.[60] Even the “crack epidemic” of 1986 had no basis in statistical reality. Drug use had been steadily declining since 1980. 

“We’re Going to Win the War on Drugs” --- Reagan’s Unstoppable Optimism

Reagan’s contagious optimism helped to guarantee the drug war’s continued escalation throughout the decade. In his rousing 1982 speech, Reagan said, “For too long the people in Washington took the attitude that the drug problem was so large nothing could be done about it. Well, we don't accept this sit-on-your-hands kind of thinking...”[61] This energizing confidence equated decriminalization with inaction and defeatism. Optimism colored every one of Reagan’s statements throughout the decade. When he addressed the nation at the height of the crack “epidemic,” in 1986, he gently reassured the panicked public: “When we all come together, united, striving for this cause, then those who are killing America and terrorizing it with slow but sure chemical destruction will see that they are up against the mightiest force for good that we know. Then they will have no dark alleyways to hide in.”[62] Reagan’s can-do optimism trickled right down to the citizenry, and as the criticism poured in throughout the decade, from the press and from the Congress, Reagan’s limitless store of positivity helped sustain national morale.[63]

Conservatism’s Incompatible Agendas: Anti-Government vs. Federalism

Although the rhetoric of the Reagan administration provided the soil in which the war on drugs could sprout and flourish, the crusade had the side effect of exposing many of conservatism’s irreconcilable contradictions.  The most serious inconsistency concerned the administration’s dual mandates to “preserve law and order” while simultaneously “getting the government off our backs.”[64] Of course, Reagan’s “law and order” rhetoric was nothing new -- it had helped elect Richard Nixon in 1968.[65] Nixon, however, had not vowed to reduce the size of government. Reagan had, and this central paradox proved to be conservatism’s weak point, a vulnerability seized upon by the federal bureaucracies and the Democratic opposition.

Newspapers first noted this inherent contradiction. Ronald Ostrow, who covered the war on drugs for The LA Times and The Washington Post, wrote, “Temporarily dropping the Administration’s budget-cutting campaign, President Reagan today will launch a new crackdown on illegal drugs in Los Angeles and at least 11 other cities plagued by the problem.”[66] The Boston Globe reported, “Even while he was launching another attack on big government, Reagan announced that he was forming four separate units to deal with the crime problem -- a Task Force on the Victims of Crime, a system of Law Enforcement Coordinating Committees, a Bureau of Prisons, and a Special Council on Narcotics Control.”[67] The Wall Street Journal ran an article entitled, “Reagan Calls for a Crackdown on Crime but is Silent on Federal Money for Jails.”[68] Such dualistic sentence structures can be found in several sources throughout this early period, and they had pinpointed the problem: Reagan set out to slash government spending and halt bureaucratic growth, but what about the federal spending which provided law and order?

Federal bureaucracies and Congressional Democrats immediately learned to exploit this dilemma. William Webster, the director of the FBI, told The New York Times, “Unless the bureau obtains more agents, Webster said, it may have to choose between increasing its fight against violent crime and maintaining its campaign against organized and white-collar crime. At the same time, he is trying to fend off budget reductions proposed by the Reagan administration.”[69] The FBI not only sought to sustain its budget -- it hoped to expand. Reagan’s fiscal austerity began to sound like a threat to law and order. The drug treatment bureaucracy relied on similar tactics: “A dramatic increase in burglary, car theft, and property crime is ‘inevitable’ if the Reagan administration gets its way in slashing funds to drug and alcohol treatment programs, experts warned last week.”[70] Here, the experts implied that Reagan’s stinginess would pave the way for anarchy and allow the crazed addicts to rule the streets. Both the supply-side enforcers and the demand-side reducers tried to undermine fiscal conservatism by capitalizing on the nation’s deepest fears.[71] Unlike environmental protection or corporate regulation, crime was not an abstract threat, and thus Reagan could not manage to forfeit this federal responsibility.

Just like the bureaucracies, the Democrats hoped to harness the power of the paradox to loosen the federal purse strings.  Rep. Charlie Rangel, who served as head of the Subcommittee on Narcotics Abuse, incessantly criticized Reagan’s drug war. He told The LA Times, “Reagan has made himself seem to be a strong opponent of drugs, but local authorities have not seen any federal support for greater law enforcement efforts.”[72] Throughout the 80s, Rangel tried to expose the supposed hollowness of Reagan’s promises. But Sen. Alan Cranston of California offered a much more sophisticated criticism when he delivered the Democratic response to Reagan’s lofty “Battle Flag” speech, retorting that it was “refreshing today to hear Ronald Reagan suggest that our government can provide a valuable and necessary service to the American people...He usually argues that the government is a problem, that much of it should be dismantled and most of its spending stopped.”[73] Cranston also “called on Reagan to recognize that the government can also do something about problems in the fields of education, health, jobs, pollution, crime, poverty, discrimination ‘and the myriad other areas where he’s tried to emasculate government services to the American people.’”[74] By promising to throw the weight of the federal government behind the war on drugs, Reagan admitted its ability to act as a positive force, which, in turn, contradicted his mantra that government is “the problem” and never the solution.

The war on drugs did not just increase federal spending --- it also granted the government tremendous new powers that often contradicted some of conservatism’s most basic values. The drug war slowly ate away at several Constitutional protections, especially the Fourth Amendment and the Posse Comitatus Law, which prevented the military from intervening in civilian affairs. Prohibition would even undermine one of conservatism’s greatest causes: states’ rights. In 1984, when Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) spearheaded a massive grassroots campaign, Reagan voiced his support for the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which forced the states to raise their drinking ages to 21 by threatening to withhold federal highway funding.[75] In 1986, a White House Panel suggested that the government withhold funding if a state decriminalized marijuana, a step that 11 states had already taken.[76] And in 1988, the Anti-Drug Bill forced states to “revoke the drivers’ licenses of convicted drug users.”[77] All of this undermined Reagan’s idea of “New Federalism,” which sought to transfer powers from the federal government to the states. The drug war even compromised the principle of corporate deregulation: beginning in 1986, the government began threatening to revoke federal contracts if companies did not “show good faith efforts to maintain ‘a drug-free’ workplace.”[78] Finally, conservatism’s devotion to militarism also came under fire as a result of the war on drugs. Critics began inquiring about the discrepancy between military and domestic spending, as Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE) argued, “spending money for that fight [on drugs] is as important as lavishing funds on the Pentagon.”[79] In 1986, some Senators suggested taking $877 million out of the defense budget for drug control, much to the chagrin of Reagan and the Secretary of Defense.[80]

It is worth pointing out the peculiar nature of these contradictions: they were essentially self-inflicted wounds. Analysts and even Reagan himself noted that crime and drug use are primarily dealt with at the state and local levels, but Reagan actively expanded the federal government’s responsibility for collective security -- a major, and unnecessary, undertaking.[81] Moreover, Reagan burdened the federal government with a responsibility that it could not possibly fulfill. Prohibition is a Sisyphean struggle, as many observers noted at the time.[82]

The Real New Federalism

Reagan did attempt some reconciliation of the anti-statist/federalist paradox. In the 1980s, conservatism profited from its status as a “new” and “fresh” approach to governance, and although the war on drugs spurred significant growth in the federal government, Reagan indicated that his version of big government would bear no resemblance to that of the Democrats. Reagan’s federalism would be both less elitist and more efficient. In his 1981 speech to police chiefs in New Orleans, Reagan fiercely denounced the “social thinkers of the 1950's and '60's who discussed crime only in the context of disadvantaged childhoods and poverty-stricken neighborhoods.”[83] Reagan asserted instead that criminality is caused by a lack of moral fiber, not material conditions. Comments like these recurred throughout the decade. At a North Carolina rally in 1986, Reagan said, “The proliferation of drugs has been part of a crime epidemic that can be traced to, among other things, liberal judges who are unwilling to get tough with the criminal element in the society...We don’t need a bunch of sociology majors on the bench.”[84] For Reagan, moral exemplars, not elitist experts, were qualified to dictate public policy. Nancy Reagan’s campaign followed this paradigm: “I’m not an authority, but if I had to guess, I think the breakdown of the family unit has a great deal to do with this [drug] problem.”[85] Despite her acknowledged lack of expertise, Mrs. Reagan declaimed on the causes of drug use and led an education movement.

The idea that anyone could lead the war on drugs had far-ranging consequences. First, it allowed the anti-drug movement to insulate itself from academic criticism. In July of 1982, a study from the National Academy of Sciences reviewed the United States drug policies, and suggested that marijuana be decriminalized. Newspapers reported that the Reagan administration “balked” and “repudiated” the study, not by challenging its central arguments, but by marginalizing its experts as politically motivated.[86] These were the sorts of liberal “social thinkers” that Reagan had demonized in his New Orleans speech. Second, the “everyman” anti-expert principle allowed various unqualified individuals to command the war on drugs. In 1986, Reagan nominated Ann Wrobleski for a key post in the administration’s drug war, despite the fact that she was a “34-year-old former press secretary for Nancy Reagan, with neither drug enforcement nor diplomatic expertise.”[87] Dr. Gabriel Nahas, the prohibitionist’s point man on the dangers of marijuana, was vilified as a quack by the entire medical community.[88] This trend continued even after Reagan left office -- Bush’s Drug Czar, William Bennett, had formerly served as the Secretary of Education. Clearly, Reagan’s big government did not imitate the “Brain Trust” model of FDR.

Reagan’s big government would also be more efficient than those of his predecessors.  A reporter for The Christian Science Monitor wrote, “Many critics see the Reagan administration’s antidrug efforts as more window dressing than a new attack on the problem...”[89] Many of Reagan’s enforcement initiatives, like the “Task Force” approach, had been used by Jimmy Carter. To diffuse some of this criticism, Reagan argued in his “Battle Flag” speech that his administration, unlike previous ones, would be waging a “planned, concerted campaign.”[90] Reagan involved the FBI in the struggle, and even considered merging it with the DEA.[91] This idea of a smarter, leaner government was one way in which the newly empowered conservative movement could operate on liberalism’s turf and use federal power opportunistically. 

Overall, the idea that conservatism profited from the war on drugs seems to be a misinterpretation. It seems as if those most invested in federal power, the liberals and the bureaucracies, had the most to gain from prohibition. In this early period, the war on drugs revealed one of conservatism’s chief logical fallacies: Reagan could not pursue an anti-statist agenda if he hoped to “win” the war on drugs. These incompatible aspirations became increasingly problematic as the decade wore on.

II: 1983-84 --- MISUSE

In this period, Reagan recruited Congress to his war on drugs, and prohibition evolved into a fully formed public policy. In 1983, Congress passed a punitive Crime Bill, one that would have revived the death penalty for some federal crimes, abolished parole, and tightened bail restrictions.[92] But Reagan vetoed the 1983 bill, objecting to its demand for a “Drug Czar.” The Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 did pass in the Senate, but it was stalled in the Democratic House. Reagan used this hesitation in his re-election campaign against Walter Mondale, a contest in which Reagan triumphed, carrying 49 states. The 1984 bill, which was signed into law on October 12th, was significant in that it allowed the government to seize any land on which drugs were grown and permitted the military to provide materials for the war effort, an innovation that lead to a massive enforcement campaign in Northern California, called CAMP. The Reagan Administration, meanwhile, extended the “successful” South Florida Task Force to several other cities across the nation, in an effort dubbed the National Narcotics Border Interdiction System (NNBIS). In this period, the war on drugs benefited from Reagan’s unique oratorical gifts, but it also exposed the tenuousness of his relationship with the Republican Congress.

Black and White Thinking -- The Construction of the “Drug” Monolith

The war on drugs continued to thrive, cultivated by one of Reagan’s most unique skills -- simplification. This “genius for simplification,” as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called it, has usually been referenced in terms of Reagan’s foreign policy.[93] Betty Glad, for instance, deconstructs the President’s speeches and concludes that Reagan divided the world into two camps: good and evil, and acted on the assumptions of this framework.[94] After examining Reagan’s public statements on the war on drugs, it becomes clear that this sort of dialectical thinking also guided the administration’s drug policies. Through rhetorical simplification, Reagan accomplished three things: he erased the distinctions between drug use and drug abuse and hard drugs and soft drugs, and he also dispelled the problematic ambiguity between legal and illegal drugs. This process of simplification allowed Reagan to turn “drugs” into a monolithic enemy -- an enemy against which the country could unite.

Simplification began in the 1981-82 period. In his “Battle Flag” speech, for instance, Reagan declared, “We're making no excuses for drugs -- hard, soft, or otherwise. Drugs are bad, and we're going after them.”[95] In all his public statements throughout the 80s, Reagan continued to rally the public against this nebulous threat called “drugs.” But grouping all drugs together under the classification of “bad” turned out to be a self-defeating approach. First of all, it defied science. Marijuana is non-addictive, relatively harmless, and unlike almost every other substance on earth, it has no lethal dose.[96] Needless to say, the same cannot be said for heroin, cocaine, or, for that matter, alcohol and tobacco. Reagan’s indiscriminate policies made any attempts at education lose credibility. If a teenager tried marijuana and found it to be relatively benign, he or she would be less inclined to heed warnings about more serious narcotics.[97] Reagan’s simplifications had another unfortunate ramification: pursuing marijuana smuggling and heroin smuggling with equal zeal encouraged the trafficking of harder drugs, which were less difficult to transport and more profitable. Drug syndicates adjusted their priorities accordingly.[98] This was analogous to what occurred during prohibition, as bootleggers switched from beer to whisky and gin.

Another casualty of Reagan’s simplification was the crucial distinction between “drug use” and “drug abuse.” In his 1984 remarks on “Drug Awareness Week,” Reagan lamented the ignorance of previous decades:

We lacked accurate information about the hazards of some of the most widely used drugs, and our efforts to combat the lies, misconceptions, and moral confusion surrounding drug abuse lacked credibility. There was a feeling of inevitability regarding widespread drug use and uncertainty over what was the right thing to do. The early 1980s have brought a dramatic change. People no longer believe that drug abuse is inevitable.[99]

Here the terms “drug use” and “drug abuse” were used interchangeably. However, these two labels have little in common -- drug abuse implies chronic and destructive dependence, while drug use can be recreational, benign, and even beneficial, if the drug is medicinal. Just as Reagan created a monolithic version of drugs, he constructed a monolithic version of drug users. In other words, the real “dramatic change” of the early 1980s was the notion that drug abuse was inevitable. Newspapers began to mimic this habit of grouping casual users with dysfunctional addicts.[100]

The implications of this careless language were profound. First, by conflating drug use with drug abuse, Reagan discredited the notion of moderate, responsible drug use. Jacob Sollum, who calls functional drug users “The Silent Majority,” points out that this “is like assuming that the wino passed out in the gutter is a typical drinker.”[101] The effects on policy were manifold. Things like drug testing began to make sense; if a bus driver had tried marijuana, then he must be an addict incapable of coming to work sober, and therefore a threat to public safety. Drug users became tragic figures that needed to be rescued from their cycles of destructive behavior, and “experimentation” became intolerable. Nancy Reagan justified this reasoning with moralism in her 1986 Washington Post editorial, titled “The Need for Intolerance.” Mrs. Reagan wrote, “You cannot separate drug use that ‘doesn’t hurt anybody’ from drug use that kills. They are ethically identical -- the only difference is time and luck.”[102]

What is most striking about this terminological coalescence is that Reagan himself is proof of its inaccuracy. As Lou Cannon detailed in his 1982 monograph, Reagan was a very moderate drug user -- his drinking was “largely limited to a glass or two of wine.” [103] Reagan’s father, on the other hand, was a wretched alcoholic whose drug abuse ruined Reagan’s childhood and confined his family to poverty. Reagan had seen firsthand the difference between casual use and addiction. Curiously, neither the press nor scholars have discussed the context of the president’s background and its influence on his drug policies.

Simplification also dispelled ambiguities that might otherwise mire the crusade in self-doubt. The war on drugs glossed over complexities in its quixotic quest for a “drug-free” society. For instance, in Mrs. Reagan’s “advice about drugs” for children, she wrote, “Medicine from a doctor is different from the drugs we are talking about here. Only take drugs when the doctor says to...” Nancy Reagan had to clarify that legal drugs were exempt from the ethical implications of illegal drug use.[104]

The Reagans’ arbitrary standards of acceptability had unfortunate consequences for the nation’s sick and dying, as Rep. Henry Waxman found out in 1984, when he proposed the “Compassionate Pain Relief Act.” This bill would have allowed doctors to prescribe heroin for terminally ill cancer patients, as it had been proven to be a most effective analgesic. Though several prominent newspapers, like The New York Times, supported the bill, it faced overwhelming opposition.[105] Rep. Hamilton Fish (R-NY) blasted the proposal, arguing, “This bill will send a signal to the youth of this nation that heroin is okay...”[106]

The defeat of the Compassionate Pain Relief Act was the first, but certainly not the last, occasion in which the profound ambiguity between “legal” and “illegal” drugs turned the war on drugs into a war on the sick. Reagan’s broad-brush approach denied the historical evidence that the legality of a drug was contextual and often reflected little more than the mood of the times. Many illegal drugs had medicinal purposes.  Bayer, for instance, the German pharmaceutical company, first synthesized heroin, two years before it discovered aspirin. The opposite was true as well: many legal substances could be used recreationally, whether it was Valium, Robitussin, or glue, spray paint, and bath salts. The ambiguity did, however, allow for a new enlistee to the anti-drug crusade in 1984 --- Pharmacists Against Drug Abuse (PADA).[107] The pharmaceutical companies had already signed up in 1982.[108]

As Arthur Schlesinger editorialized, “Mr. Reagan understands, as his predecessor never did, that politics is ultimately an educational process.”[109] Through the rhetorical device of simplification, the Reagans taught the nation how to discuss the drug problem.[110] It is no coincidence that in the 1980s, drug policy was reduced to two short slogans: “Just Say No” and “Zero Tolerance.” These slogans could only operate in a black and white universe.

The Special Relationship -- Reagan and his Congress

The war on drugs also exposed conservatism’s paradoxical balance of power: Republicans had invested everything in Ronald Reagan, but he could be both invaluable and destructive to the long-term goals of the GOP. Republican control of the Senate had proved enormously beneficial to the Reagan agenda.[111] And yet, during this period, the two crime bills in 1983 and 1984 exposed the underlying insecurity of the power dynamic.  It became clear that the President and Congressional Republicans often had competing interests.

Throughout the 1980s, one of the primary criticisms of Reagan’s war on drugs, apart from accusations of inadequate funding, was his refusal to appoint a cabinet-level “Drug Czar.” Congressional critics throughout the decade contended that bureaucratic infighting had sabotaged the war on drugs, and that a Drug Czar could resolve these tensions.[112]  However, when the Justice Department urged the administration to veto the 1983 Crime Bill, which called for the creation of a Drug Czar position, Reagan agreed, disregarding the vociferous objections of dozens of senators, many of whom were Republicans.[113] Reagan claimed, “The creation of another layer of bureaucracy within the executive branch would produce friction, disrupt effective law enforcement and could threaten the integrity of criminal investigations and prosecutions...”[114] Reagan also recommended that the Customs service fire 2,000 employees, while Congress suggested adding another 650.[115]

Reagan’s decision to veto a crime bill, one whose provisions he had been calling for since 1981, was a dramatic, perhaps even risky, maneuver. As The Washington Post reported, “Reagan, who has a strong anti-crime stance, would have ‘an appearance problem’ if he vetoed a bill that appears to crack down on crime.”[116] Democrats and Republicans denounced Reagan for spoiling the fruit of their labor. The Post observed that Reagan’s veto “angered both conservatives and liberals in Congress. They charged that the coalition they had formed to pass the bill was now splintered, with little hope of passing a crime bill in the remaining two years of Reagan’s administration.”[117] The veto had destroyed congressional efforts at bipartisanship.

Rep. Harold S. Sawyer (R-MI) said, “By vetoing this legislation, crime reduction efforts have been thwarted...It is hard to justify this action, especially in light of the violent situation in Florida...The Congress can hardly fulfill its responsibility of protecting the safety of our citizens when our efforts are continually frustrated.”[118] Sen. Arlen Spector (R-PA), added, “We’re all the administration’s allies...We were telling them head-on that the important issue of the war on riding on our ability to deliver crime legislation. This was just the opening wedge.”[119] The Republicans spoke in tones of sorrow, anger and disbelief, and communicated a pervasive sense of betrayal. Reagan appeared insensitive to the needs of Congressional Republicans, who clearly did not share his opposition to bureaucratic growth.

Reagan’s decision to veto the 1983 Crime Bill must have seemed almost inexplicable given the fact that his drug war had precipitated immense bureaucratic growth. In 1984, Reagan increased the Justice Department’s budget by nearly 50%.[120] In June of 1983, the Reagan administration announced “yet another bureaucratic weapon it was unleashing on dope traffickers: a Cabinet-level executive board, headed by Vice President Bush, to coordinate and supervise the smuggler-catching operations.”[121] And in March of 1983, just two months after vetoing the bill, Reagan told the leaders of “Morality in Media,” a group of religious conservatives, that he would agree to appoint a “Smut Czar” to coordinate federal attacks on pornography.[122] Clearly Reagan recognized the need for executive coordinators.

The fact that Reagan was willing to rankle his congressional allies, even though 1) he could have easily placated them by naming Bush as the “Drug Czar” and 2) he had never shown any hesitation to expand the enforcement bureaucracy, seems especially significant in light of the fact that Reagan presided over the first Republican majority in the Senate in over 30 years. This conservative infighting, which gradually increased in intensity until it reached critical mass in 1987, had revealed a problematic contradiction: what was best for the conservative President was not always best for the conservative Congress. The Republican Party may have invested all its hopes in Reagan, but the affectionate feelings were not necessarily mutual. This may have been a result of the fact that the GOP, ever since Nixon, had focused its “energies and expertise on the organization and employment of presidential power.”[123] Now, however, Congressional Republicans had to learn how to effectively harness their legislative power, and the war on drugs complicated this process. Reagan could wage the war on drugs unilaterally, but Congress proved to be a constant nuisance -- even when it had a Republican majority. Moreover, these conflicting impulses could emerge spontaneously, and conservatism could only achieve real unity during election years, as illustrated by the collaboration on the 1984 Anti-Drug Bill.

In 1984, the Democratic House stalled the Omnibus Anti-Crime Bill, which gave immense powers to prosecutors, called for uniform sentencing, a loosening of the exclusionary rule, and preventive detention. Though the bill passed 90-1 in the Senate, the House frowned on the “Omnibus” approach and delayed voting on the controversial bill.[124] Reagan promptly capitalized on their hesitation: “The President was more direct in accusing House leaders of resisting the package of anticrime bills recently passed by the Senate. ‘The leadership has bottled them up in committee,’ Mr. Reagan contended, even though they included confiscation, sentencing and bail provisions that could be a ‘knockout blow against the drug syndicates that are poisoning this country.”[125] The Washington Post reported, “In appearances in New Jersey and Connecticut, key blue-collar battlegrounds in the presidential campaign, Reagan said ‘years of liberal leniency’ had led to a rising crime rate in America, and he blamed the ‘liberal leadership’ of the House for bottling up Senate-passed anti-crime legislation.”[126] The Chicago Tribune quoted Reagan as saying, “The liberal approach of coddling criminals didn’t work and never will.”[127] In all these vitriolic condemnations, Reagan used the war on drugs to emasculate the word “liberal” by connecting it with permissiveness and inaction.

The Congressional Republicans followed Reagan’s lead: “The Republicans...have been delivering an almost daily drum of criticism on the House floor...The House Republicans expect their strategy to be reinforced by attacks from Reagan...”[128] The GOP’s testosterone tactics were quite effective: Biden and the Senate Democrats urged the Democrats in the House to pass the bill, defenseless against the conservative onslaught. During this period, Republicans first became cognizant of the political utility of the war on drugs: Congressional Democrats had no stomach for the “tough” approach that the situation required, and Republicans could use this to expose their impotence. The fact that Reagan had vetoed a very similar crime bill just a year previously seems to have been drowned out in the noise, and the animosity between Congress and the President instantly evaporated. A relationship that seemed strained in 1983 was now stronger than ever.

However, the rickety foundations of the Presidential-Congressional axis had been discovered and election cycles did not necessarily guarantee unity -- the alliance was only as strong as Reagan’s approval rating. When Reagan slashed funding for the 1986 Drug Bill in 1987, Congressional Republicans severed all connections with their former collaborator, and even a presidential election would not be enough to restore a sense of loyalty. In 1984, Reagan’s war on drugs was an asset. By 1988, it would be a liability.

Section III: 1985-1986 --- ABUSE

On September 14, 1986, President Reagan and the First Lady addressed the nation about a terrifying epidemic, which was in fact a rather minor outbreak. Americans had become convinced that crack, a new smokeable form of cocaine, was ravaging the cities and suburbs, enslaving minds and killing children. In actuality, trends in cocaine use had declined since 1982, and the crack “plague” was limited to a few inner cities, which also happened to be the ones most devastated by Reaganomics.[129] In a modern reenactment of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the cocaine overdose of college basketball star Len Bias had brought an extensive alliance of Democrats and Republicans into a new world war on narcotics.

With Congressional elections close at hand, the House of Representatives had formulated a desperate legislative response to the public panic: the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. It had a $3.75 billion price tag. Caught between their principles of fiscal austerity and the public’s demands for law and order, the Republicans looked to the White House for leadership. The fate of Reagan’s final two years in office hung in the balance. But despite polls showing that Republicans seemed “better equipped” to handle the drug epidemic, the Democrats ultimately recaptured the Senate.[130] 

During this period of panic, the war on drugs wreaked havoc on the structural integrity of the GOP’s Big Tent. The contradiction between federalism and anti-statism had provoked some limited factional strife throughout the early 80s -- but now, with the 1986 Drug Bill and Reagan’s call for widespread drug testing, it had incited an insurrection. Conservatism’s greatest paradox came to the forefront: though conservatives of all stripes had migrated towards the Republican Party, attracted by Reagan’s anti-government rhetoric, the varying responses to the war on drugs made it clear that many factions disagreed about the proper role of government. By systematically examining the opinions of these factions -- the New Right, the libertarians, and the fiscal conservatives -- their incompatibility becomes explicitly clear.

The New Right: More Federalism, Please.

The New Right had an ambiguous attitude towards government. The meager historiography of conservatism has identified this central paradox, and the behavior of the parents’ groups testifies to its veracity. [131] The parents’ groups, the grass roots political organizations painstakingly fostered by the Reagans, had much in common with the “Pro-Family” movement, which also approached their federalist agendas from a libertarian perspective.[132] The parents’ groups ostensibly shared this attitude -- one leader suggested that government had failed to fight the drug epidemic, concluding, “There is only one team left: moms and dads.”[133] And yet, simultaneously, the parents’ groups lobbied the federal government for legislation beneficial to their cause, like stricter paraphernalia laws, harsher drug sentences, and higher drinking ages. The parents’ groups were frequently criticized “as a right-wing force bent on moralizing to the rest of America.”[134] In other words, the parents’ groups, a sub-sect of the New Right, had no objections to extending the reach of the government -- as long as it served a moralistic agenda. 

Neither the parents’ groups nor the New Right have received much scholarly attention, which makes it difficult to gauge « Back to Collected Works