GOP Debate Will Honor Reagan and Ignore His Disastrous War on Drugs

President Reagan speaking at a rally for Senator Durenberger
By Michael Evans, February 8, 1982
Courtesy of Ronald Reagan L
President Reagan speaking at a rally for Senator Durenberger By Michael Evans, February 8, 1982 Courtesy of Ronald Reagan Library, National Archives and Records Administration

Tonight, round two of the GOP presidential debate will be taking place at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley California. I am fairly confident that there will be glowing tributes to President Reagan and references to Reagan's "optimism" and "strength" and the need to "Make America Great Again."

What likely won't be highlighted is the role Ronald Reagan played in our country's disastrous war on drugs.

While Richard Nixon officially launched the drug war in 1971, his war was modest compared to Reagan's war. Reagan's presidency marked the start of a long period of skyrocketing rates of incarceration, largely thanks to his unprecedented expansion of the drug war. The number of people behind bars for nonviolent drug law violations increased from 50,000 in 1980 to more than 400,000 by 1997.

Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy made the "drug crisis" one of their signature issues and our country is still suffering the consequences of their actions. While the public hysteria that they whipped up has now subsided, we're still stuck with the same draconian, zero-tolerance policies that were implemented in the 1980s.

Who can forget Nancy Reagan sitting in classrooms and all over our television sets with her simplistic "Just Say No" campaign? It was during this time that the DARE programs were implemented in schools across the country, despite their lack of effectiveness. Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates, who believed that "casual drug users should be taken out and shot," founded the DARE program, which was quickly adopted nationwide.

Reagan's "war at home" was not only ineffective, it was devastating. Upon taking office in 1981, Reagan shifted drug control resources from health agencies to the Department of Justice. It was under Reagan's guidance in 1986 that the worst of the federal mandatory minimum drug laws were passed into law. These laws included the crack sentencing guidelines that meant that someone possessing just 5 grams (two sugar packets) worth of crack received an automatic 5 years in prison. These laws filled our prisons for decades with low-level drug users.

The irony is that Reagan's own daughter developed a cocaine problem, but I don't imagine Reagan pushed for her to serve 5 years in a cage for her addiction.

Ronald Reagan's harsh drug policies didn't just lead to skyrocketing prison populations. He also helped block syringe exchange programs and other harm reduction policies that could have prevented hundreds of thousands of people from contracting HIV and dying from AIDS.

While Ronald and Nancy Reagan were demonizing people who use drugs at home, their foreign policy objectives included funding the Contras in Nicaragua who played a role in flooding Los Angeles and other cities in the United States with crack cocaine.

In 2015, leaders from across the political spectrum are distancing themselves from mass incarceration and the war on drugs. While there is gridlock on many of the issues of the day, cutting our prison population is one that is finding bipartisan support. There is legislation moving forward in D.C. and unlikely allies from Newt Gingrich and the Koch Brothers to Van Jones and the ACLU are mobilizing around cutting our prison population by 50%.

It is predictable that many will gush over Ronald Reagan tonight. But let's remember that Ronald Reagan amplified a war on people of the United States that continues to haunt us today. And it is time for our leaders to find an exit strategy from this unwinnable war.

Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug PolicyAlliance(

This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog.