The Republican Party Policies on Substance Abuse

The United States has moved away from the tough stance toward drug abuse that symbolized the early years of the war on drugs. Discover how Republicans have influenced American drug policy since the war on drugs began and how the party plans to fight today’s drug epidemic.

For half a century, the Republican Party has advocated for strict drug laws and little tolerance for drug use. Republican presidents are credited with launching the war on drugs, creating policies that filled prisons and using military resources to combat international drug trafficking. Nearly 50 years after President Richard Nixon took office, the war on drugs is widely viewed as a failure. Critics blame misguided sentencing laws and an inadequate focus on treatment. But Republican drug policy has never ignored research, education or rehabilitation. FBI task forces and international military intervention may be the Republican Party’s most recognizable attempts to halt drug abuse, but the party has supported and co-sponsored legislation to fund research, advance treatment methods and reform criminal justice policies since the 1970s.
President Richard Nixon

President Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970.

“Almost all drug strategies, certainly in the Reagan years forward on through Obama, have rhetorically emphasized a ‘balanced strategy,’” said Dr. David Murray, a senior fellow at the nonprofit Hudson Institute, where he co-directs the Center for Substance Abuse Policy Research. “That means they’ll do public health and public safety, both demand and supply reduction.” Murray told that the war on drugs could be seen as a failure by some measurements, but it depends on the way one measures success. He said the marijuana legalization movement led to a popular, but arguably inaccurate, belief that old strategies had failed. “It’s not necessarily a dispassionate, objective examination,” Murray said. “It’s kind of thrust politically to say nothing has ever worked and it’s all been a failure. Under the perspective of that narrative, people characterize earlier years as having somehow been misguided and failed.” Murray entered government service as the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s chief scientist during the George W. Bush administration. He’s also served as the ONDCP’s associate deputy director of supply reduction. He said drug policy has always tried to solve both sides of the equation: supply reduction (a law enforcement approach) and demand reduction (a public health approach). “There’s always been a dual emphasis present,” Murray said. “Go back to the beginning of the National Institute on Drug Abuse or the formation of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Those show by and large a public health understanding to do research on treatment, on prevention, on neurophysiology and the impact of various drugs.” Today, Republicans advocate for criminal justice and health care reform, but most conservatives condemn marijuana legalization or decriminalization. The party platform calls for stiffer immigration laws and increased border security, both hallmarks of the Donald Trump campaign. There’s also a willingness to reach across the aisle and work with Democrats to fix the issue. The Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act of 2016 is the most recent example of bipartisan cooperation that has existed since the beginning of the war on drugs. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., introduced one of the first versions of the bill in the House with 42 Republican and 91 Democrat co-sponsors. The final version of the bill, introduced by a Democrat in the Senate, was co-sponsored by 17 Republicans and 25 Democrats. That cooperation is reminiscent of a long history of bipartisan drug policy passed by Democratically controlled Congresses and signed by Republican presidents.

The Mid-Century Drug Crisis

Many people credit Nixon with declaring a war on drugs that shaped United States drug policy and the Republican approach to substance abuse for the next four decades. It’s important to understand the landscape that the president inherited. The Nixon administration wasn’t the first to take a tough approach on drug offenders. Rep. Hale Boggs, D-La., sponsored the Boggs Act in 1952, and Democratic President Harry Truman signed it into law. The law mandated minimum sentences of between two and five years for possession of illicit drugs. Four years later, Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Narcotics Control Act of 1956, lengthening minimum sentences for drug traffickers.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower

President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Narcotics Control Act of 1956, which lengthened sentences for drug trafficking.

Democrats controlled the White House and Congress throughout the 1960s, when illicit drug use was increasing throughout the country. Scholars and policymakers were trying to understand the impact of drug abuse and develop ways to prevent it. When Nixon was elected in 1968, he became the second Republican in the oval office since 1933.

Launching the War on Drugs

Nixon’s 1968 campaign for presidency included promises to restore law and order to the nation. The Republican Party’s platform pledged to combat drug trafficking and addiction to drugs, and it promised to increase research on preventing crime and drug addiction. As president, Nixon first spoke to Congress about drugs in 1969 when he talked about the dangers drugs presented to American youth. He requested legislation that would provide more resources for law enforcement to combat drug addiction from a Democrat-controlled Congress.

The Controlled Substances Act of 1970

This act clarified and strengthened the federal government’s authority to regulate the manufacture, distribution and possession of controlled substances. It also created five classifications of drugs called schedules. The law increased funding for treatment, education and research.

Congress responded by passing the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, which Nixon signed in 1970. Title II of the bill, more commonly known as the Controlled Substances Act, became a key component of future U.S. drug policy. It wasn’t until 1971 that Nixon gave his famous press conference declaring a war on drugs. He told reporters: “America’s public enemy number one in the U.S. is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.” A combination of agencies, including the Bureau of Customs, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs and the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement, were tasked with enforcing the regulations of new drug laws.

The Shafer Commission

When Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act, marijuana was temporarily listed as a Schedule I controlled substance. The National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse was tasked with reviewing the drug’s effects and the effectiveness of national drug policy. Republican Gov. Raymond Shafer of Pennsylvania led the bipartisan commission, often referred to as the Shafer Commission. In its report titled “Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding,” the Shafer Commission concluded that marijuana users were not dangerous, and it recommended that drug policy focus on prevention and treatment.
“We have concluded that society should seek to discourage use while concentrating its attention on the prevention and treatment of heavy and very heavy use. The Commission feels that the criminalization of possession of marihuana for personal use is socially self-defeating as a means of achieving this objective.”
1972 Report from the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse
Nixon and Congress largely ignored the recommendations of the report, and marijuana has remained a Schedule I controlled substance for more than 40 years.

Bipartisan Efforts

There is some belief that Nixon’s war on drugs spurred unnecessary incarceration time for thousands, but during Nixon’s time in office, Congress actually passed several repeals of 1950s mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

Reorganization Plan No. 2 of 1973

This executive order abolished the BNDD and merged all drug enforcement agencies into the newly created U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration under the Department of Justice.

The majority of the legislation passed during the early 1970s focused on the expansion of law enforcement efforts to combat drug trafficking, but it should be noted that many of the bills Nixon signed and executive orders he declared created educational campaigns, increased funding for treatment and spurred research initiatives. Nixon signed legislation in 1972 that authorized the creation of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the country’s leader in research on the effects of drug use. In 1973, Nixon consolidated the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement and drug enforcement offices in Customs into a single unit under Reorganization Plan No. 2. The law established the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Another Nixon-era law laid the foundation for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, today’s federal authority on public health efforts involving mental health conditions.

The Comprehensive Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1974

This law grouped the National Institute on Drug Abuse with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Institute of Mental Health under the authority of the newly created Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration.

By 1974, Nixon believed he was winning the war on drugs. In a message to Congress on the state of the union, he wrote that “progress has been made” on drug addiction.
He said successes included:
  • A heroin shortage caused by law enforcement efforts
  • Availability of addiction treatment to anyone who needed it
  • A reduction in the number of people suffering from heroin addiction and the number of people becoming addicted to drugs
Later that year, Nixon was forced to resign because of declining public sentiment and almost certain impeachment stemming from the Watergate scandal.

The Ford Presidency

Vice President Gerald Ford

President Ford signed the Drug Abuse Office, Prevention, and Treatment Amendments in 1978.

Vice President Gerald Ford took office in 1974, and he tasked the Domestic Council with reviewing the country’s response to drug abuse and the increased availability of drugs. The council’s report claimed that Nixon’s belief that the U.S. was winning the war on drugs was premature. It acknowledged that decreasing drug availability through law enforcement was ineffective, and it recommended a balanced approach that included emphasis on prevention and addiction treatment. After receiving the report in 1975, Ford told Congress he was concerned about the flow of drugs from Mexico, and he requested approval of mandatory minimum sentences for drug traffickers. He also asked the legislature to approve the United Nations Convention of Psychotropic Substances, a treaty developed to control international drug use and trafficking.
In 1978, Ford signed the Drug Abuse Office, Prevention, and Treatment Amendments, which required the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare to report:
  • The state of substance abuse in the country
  • The effectiveness of anti-drug programs in their departments
  • Recommendations for new anti-drug efforts
The amendments made numerous departments responsible for combatting the war on drugs. The most influential personality in the White House during the late ’70s may not have been the president, though. First lady Betty Ford arguably had more influence than her husband over American culture. She was open about her experience receiving psychiatric care in the 1960s during an era when such care was highly stigmatized. She was understanding of marijuana use among youth and once speculated that her own children might have tried the drug. When her husband left office, Betty Ford revealed that she had battled addictions to alcohol and prescription drugs. She received treatment for addiction, and in 1982 she opened the Betty Ford Center, a rehab facility that became one of the most prestigious treatment programs in the country.

Searching for Effective Policy

It’s difficult to judge the effectiveness of 1970s drug policy. Neither Democratic President Jimmy Carter nor his Republican predecessors eliminated illicit drug use or drug-related crime. Each president advocated for balanced approaches to drug policy, and none were privy to the amount of research on the science of addiction that is available today. Murray has made a career on evaluating drug policy. He believes the national Monitoring the Future survey of high schoolers is the only reliable instrument for measuring drug trends across decades because its methodology has been consistent since it began. He admits that the survey has limitations but says illicit drug use in high school — primarily marijuana use — is a strong predictor of future substance use and the effectiveness of drug policy. Looking at historical data, Murray said marijuana use “was rising steeply from 1973 to 1978. It peaked in ’78. Around 1985 you get the crack cocaine outbreak, and then it dropped very steeply and very steadily from 1985 to 1992.”

Past 30-Day Marijuana Use by High School Seniors

Graph showing the number of 12th grade students who have used marijuana in the past 30 days by year.

Source: The Monitoring the Future Study, the University of Michigan

He’s quick to say the data doesn’t scientifically associate a president with a specific trend, but he said “That does coincide with Carter coming in ‘77 up through 1981, when it’s rising, Reagan taking the reins in 1981 through 1989, and then Bush Sr. into 1993. “That period of time corresponds to the steep decline,” Murray said of the time Republicans were in office from 1981 to 1993. “Is it the president that does this? Is it the drug policies of Republicans who were largely in charge? Or were there other very striking environmental cultural changes going on in American life at the same time?” It’s impossible to account for all of the variables, but if one uses high school marijuana use as a measuring stick, drug policies during the Reagan and Bush era shine a positive light on the war on drugs.

Running Up the Battle Flag

The Reagan era is characterized by a law enforcement renaissance, with an increased focus on supply reduction through robust police efforts and international cooperation. When the Republicans challenged Carter’s bid for reelection in 1980, the party made it clear that it believed a tougher stance on drugs would be more effective than the decriminalization of marijuana that Carter advocated.
“In recent years, a murderous epidemic of drug abuse has swept our country. Mr. Carter, through his policies and his personnel, has demonstrated little interest in stopping its ravages. Republicans consider drug abuse an intolerable threat to our society, especially to the young.”
1980 Republican Party Platform
The Republican Party pledged to:
  • Strengthen the FBI’s ability to fight drug trafficking
  • Firmly punish drug traffickers, using mandatory minimum sentences when appropriate
  • Increase cooperation between drug rehab centers and federal, state and local agencies
A year after taking office, President Ronald Reagan promised to increase prevention efforts by strengthening law enforcement capacity. He created a task force led by Vice President George H.W. Bush to increase the number of officers, prosecutors and judges in South Florida — a hot spot for drug trafficking. The task force was authorized to use military technology to combat international drug trafficking, and it involved novel multi-agency cooperation. “We’re making no excuses for drugs — hard, soft, or otherwise,” Reagan said in 1982. “Drugs are bad, and we’re going after them. As I’ve said before, we’ve taken down the surrender flag and run up the battle flag. And we’re going to win the war on drugs.” Reagan created regional task forces across the country based on the South Florida model. The task forces were successful at dismantling several major drug trafficking operations, but Reagan’s approach may have had a greater impact on street-level dealers and users than traffickers. Inmates convicted of drug crimes began overwhelming the nation’s prison system.

National Estimates of Drug Arrests:

Graph showing the national estimates of drug arrests from 1980 to 1990

Source: National Council on Crime and Delinquency

The 1984 Republican Party platform praised Regan and Bush’s task force on organized crime and the administration’s efforts to boost FBI, DEA and other law enforcement investigations, noting that stopping drug trafficking was “a top national priority.” The platform also advocated for a comprehensive public health strategy:
“We must address ailments not symptoms, in health-care policy. Drug and alcohol abuse costs thousands of lives and billions of dollars every year. We reaffirm our vigorous commitment to alcohol and drug abuse prevention and education efforts.”
1984 Republican Party Platform
During the Reagan era, Congress passed several bills designed to deter substance abuse and promote research, prevention and treatment. The most comprehensive law was the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by 100 Republicans, 200 Democrats and one independent in the Democrat-controlled House. Two years later, Reps. Thomas Foley, D-Wash., and Robert Michel, R-Ill., co-sponsored an amendment to the law, which Reagan signed during his final year in office. A key focus of the Reagan administration was educating children about the dangers of substance abuse. The president believed that if children could be convinced to avoid drugs during youth, they would continue to avoid them as adults.

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986

This law increased criminal penalties for drug traffickers, repeat offenders and criminal organizations. It also boosted funding for prevention and treatment efforts and established new research programs. One part of the law, the Federal Analogue Act, increased funding for new prisons and educational programs, but it created a controversial mandatory minimum sentencing policy that would later influence the disproportionate prosecution of African-Americans.

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988

This act created the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the position of Director of National Drug Control Policy, popularly referred to as the drug czar. It also ordered the Department of Justice to create programs for civil law enforcement and authorized a variety of educational and research programs.

“Let’s redouble our personal efforts to provide for every child a safe and drug-free learning environment,” Reagan said in his 1987 State of the Union address. “If our crusade against drugs succeeds with our children, we will defeat that scourge all over the country.”

Just Say No

Like first ladies Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter before her, Nancy Reagan played a large role in influencing public opinion on drugs. She spoke during several of Ronald Reagan’s addresses on drug abuse, and she helped develop the “Just Say No” slogan. In 1986, she told the nation: “There’s a drug and alcohol abuse epidemic in this country, and no one is safe from it — not you, not me, and certainly not our children, because this epidemic has their names written on it.” Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign is credited with raising juvenile awareness on the dangers of drugs and how to avoid peer pressure. During her time as first lady, she traveled to 65 cities, the Vatican and eight different countries to raise awareness about the dangers associated with substance abuse. “Say yes to your life,” Nancy Reagan said in 1986. “And when it comes to drugs and alcohol, just say no.”

Cracking Down on Drug Crimes

The 1988 Republican Party platform leading up to Bush’s bid for presidency advocated for an even tougher approach to drug crime.
The party’s stance on drug policy included:
  • Opposition to legalization or decriminalization of any drug
  • Support for stiff penalties, including the death penalty, for drug traffickers
  • Increased penalties, such as ineligibility for federal assistance or loans, for anyone convicted of a drug crime
  • Support for drug-free work places
  • Advocacy for the expansion of the military’s role in combatting drug trafficking
  • Support for drug education in schools
After entering the oval office, Bush bolstered supply reduction efforts with a national drug control policy that focused heavily on law enforcement efforts. The policy sought tougher drug sentences for recreational users and drug traffickers. It also shifted the focus away from the borders and toward American streets.
Bush’s four-part strategy included:
  • Expanding law enforcement and criminal justice measures to deal with drugs
  • International assistance to Colombia, Peru and Bolivia
  • Increasing the number of drug rehab facilities
  • Increasing funds for school and community programs to help youth say no to drugs
Other components included creating more prisons for drug offenders and funding treatment programs for addicts. With the 1989 plan, Bush requested a $7.9 billion budget for the war on drugs, an increase of $2.2 billion from the year before.
The plan requested:
  • $3.1 billion for law enforcement
  • $1.6 billion for corrections
  • $1.2 billion for prevention and education
  • $925 million for treatment
  • $250 million for the court system
Near the end of his term, Bush was requesting more money, but the country was beginning to grow weary of throwing money at the problem.
A 1992 New York Times article compared Bush’s drug budget to previous Republican presidents:
  • Nixon spent the majority of the $3 billion he requested on treatment and educational programs.
  • Reagan spent about 20 percent of his budget on treatment and education.
  • Bush requested a $12 billion budget, more than double Reagan’s budget, and the majority focused on law enforcement tactics.
But Murray said budget analyses can be misleading because funds categorized under drug control can serve several purposes. “Most people who approach this as critics don’t really understand how drug budgets work,” Murray said. “The Office of National Drug Control Policy doesn’t itself actually have any money.” He said the ONDCP tries to coordinate budgets for numerous federal departments, such as the Departments of Health and Human Services, Education, Justice and State. It tries to make sure the president’s drug control strategy is accounted for in the agency budgets, which often serve several purposes in addition to drug control. “It’s very misleading when people say ‘$19 billion a year is spent for drug policy,’” Murray said. “No. That’s not real. That means ONDCP was able to marginally influence the money that went to the agencies. The amount of the money that’s actually in drug control is a fraction of that amount. It’s very misleading to say that’s the amount the drug war cost.”

The Growth, Decline and Rebuild of the ONDCP

Bush appointed the first director of the ONDCP in 1989. Bill Bennet, a Republican who served as Secretary of Education under Reagan, advocated for harsh penalties for drug offenders and was described by a 1989 Rolling Stone article as a “cowboy in the capital.” He advocated for tough approaches on crime and a revamp and expansion of the criminal justice system. But he also recognized addiction as a public health issue that couldn’t be solved through law enforcement alone. In 1991, Bush appointed a new ONDCP director, former Republican Gov. Bob Martinez of Florida. As governor, Martinez had been credited with stiffening penalties for drug traffickers, extending military use to combat drug trafficking and leading anti-drug efforts in the National Governors Association. Murray said you can determine a president’s belief in drug policy by how he treats the ONDCP. “You look at the status of the ONDCP,” Murray said. “The office director — are they powerful? Do they have the ear of the president? Are they supported? Is it a cabinet-level post?” The structure of the ONDCP changed drastically during each of the next three presidential administrations.

The Clinton Years

The Republican Party platform of 1992 continued to advocate for punishments for drug offenders and to oppose drug legalization or decriminalization.
The party boasted its success in the war on drugs, citing:
  • Increased operations against drug traffickers
  • Reduced drug use in the military
  • Declining overall drug abuse
The Democrats won the oval office, though. Despite promoting the director of the ONDCP to a cabinet-level position, Murray says, President Bill Clinton reduced the office’s authority. “You really see the striking effect from ’79 through 1992, which I think we’d regard as very positive, then it coincides with a new administration in 1992 — Bill Clinton,” Murray said. “What happens to drug policy? One of the things that Clinton did was practically eliminate the ONDCP.” Murray said Clinton steeply reduced staff numbers and the office’s budget, limiting the ability of the nation’s authority on drug control to operate. The Republican Party condemned Clinton’s approach in its 1996 platform.
“The Office of National Drug Control Policy was cut by 80 percent, and federal drug prosecutions dropped 25 percent. His Attorney General proposed to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking and related crimes, and his Surgeon General advocated legalization of narcotics.”
1996 Republican Party Platform
“[The ONDCP] was seriously demoted and undermined, and things got out of control,” Murray said. “Monitoring the Future data show a striking rise [in drug use] between 1992 and 1997, the Clinton years.”
Heading into the 1996 election, the Republican plan for combatting drug abuse was to:
  • Increase prosecution and penalties for drug traffickers
  • Create mandatory minimums for drug-related crimes
  • Amplify intelligence efforts and international cooperation
  • Expand drug testing in every phase of the criminal justice system
  • Support the “toughest possible state laws” for driving under the influence
Clinton won a second term in office, and Murray credited the president, and his advisor Rahm Emanuel, with reversing course when they realized the strategy wasn’t working. “Rahm Emanuel told [Clinton] he needed to put a new director into ONDCP, someone with visibility and authority, and to put some money back into rebuilding that office,” Murray said. “General Barry McCaffrey became director in 1996, and very quickly that drug ascent stopped.”

Republicans Gain Control

During the 1990s, it became clear that mandatory minimum sentencing laws were ineffective at reducing drug use, but Democrats and Republicans alike were hesitant to sound soft on crime. One exception was Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah, then the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In 1994, he told The Atlantic: “Mandatory minimums are a political response to violent crime. Let’s be honest about it. It’s awfully difficult for politicians to vote against them.” In 1995, Republicans gained control of both houses in Congress for the first time since the ‘50s. The next year, Hatch sponsored the Comprehensive Methamphetamine Control Act of 1996. It also created a public health monitoring program. One year later, Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, sponsored the Drug-Free Communities Act of 1997.

The Comprehensive Methamphetamine Control Act of 1996

This law established criminal penalties for trafficking of methamphetamine and precursor chemicals used to make the drug.

The Drug-Free Communities Act of 1997

This act provides grants to local organizations that promote anti-drug messages to youth.

The two laws exemplified a dual focus from Republicans in Congress on supply and demand reduction.

Rebuilding the ONDCP

By 2000, there was a clear shift in Republican views. It had been eight years since there was a Republican president, the longest gap since Nixon took office in 1969. President George W. Bush told Time in 2001 that the drug war was winnable, but it had to have a renewed emphasis on education and treatment for addicts. “A lot of the consumption is done by the addicts, and we’ve got to do a better job of helping people rid themselves of their habits,” George W. Bush said. “Addiction does require treatment, and I think we ought to look at all sentencing laws, just to make sure that we’ve achieving what we want to achieve, which is winning the battle on the war on drugs.” George W. Bush strengthened the ONDCP, appointing John Walters, the deputy director for supply reduction from 1991 to 1993, as the director of the office. That’s when Murray joined. “When Bush comes in, he brings in John Walters,” Murray said. “Walters returns and insists on cabinet status, and they rebuild the office. They do get some traction during that time period. Measuring by youth use, it starts down again. By 2007 they’ve achieved about 24 percent reduction in the youth use of marijuana and any illicit drug, which is fairly consequential.” In 2003, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., sponsored a bipartisan bill with Republican co-sponsors Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., titled the Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act. It failed in the senate, but a similar act was included in the PROTECT Act of 2003, which was sponsored by Hatch. The PROTECT Act was designed to protect children from child abuse, but it also contains a provision called the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act.

The Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act of 2003

This act outlawed the lease, rent or use of a structure for the purposes of manufacturing or distributing a controlled substance. It also ordered the creation of a DEA special agent in each state who was in charge of reducing the supply of club drugs. It also authorized the use of funds to educate parents and youth about the dangers of club drugs.

The George W. Bush administration and the ONDCP’s strategy on drug use reduced teenage drug use by 25 percent, and it dismantled more than 5,000 drug trafficking organizations, according to White House archives. Murray said there were a number of marijuana legalization initiatives in states such as Nevada and Arizona that the Bush administration helped defeat. George W. Bush also created the Faith-Based and Community Initiative, an effort to reduce funding barriers and increase cooperation with faith-based social services organizations.
According to White House Archives, the program:
  • Supported more than 200,000 people with substance use disorders
  • Helped more than 100,000 children of prisoners match with mentors
  • Provided resources for former inmates to transition to normal life
  • Gave more than 50,000 homeless people access to a shelter or home
The president was always a vocal supporter of faith-based initiatives because he knew first-hand that they could work.

A President in Recovery

In his many years running for political office, George W. Bush often referenced being irresponsible during his youth. Days before the 2000 election, media reports revealed that Bush had been arrested for driving under the influence in 1976. “I oftentimes said that years ago I made some mistakes,” Bush told reporters at a press conference four days before the election. “I occasionally drank too much and I did on that night. I regret that it happened. But it did. I’ve learned my lesson.”
Director Kerlikowske at the ONDCP’s Drug Policy Reform Conference

Director Kerlikowske opens ONDCP’s Drug Policy Reform Conference.

Murray credits George W. Bush with speaking honestly and openly about the dangers of substance abuse and his own experiences with alcohol. “He spoke of it in his State of the Union addresses,” Murray said. “He expressed that he himself had concerns with his own substance use as a drinker. There was an expression of concern and leadership.” About 10 years after the arrest, George W. Bush quit drinking cold turkey on his 40th birthday. In numerous interviews, he’s said he realized drinking wasn’t worth the consequences. The president credited bible study and Christian support with helping him quit. In a 2007 interview, he told ABC News’s Martha Raddatz, “I doubt I’d be standing here if I hadn’t quit drinking whiskey, and beer and wine and all that. … It’s a difficult thing to do, which is to kick an addiction.”

Drug Policy Today

Public opinion on the war on drugs deteriorated even further toward the end of George W. Bush’s time in office. Democrats regained control of the Senate and House in 2007. The first signs of the prescription drug epidemic were appearing, a marijuana legalization movement was growing and Americans were getting tired of racial disparities in prisons. Going into the 2008 election, the Republican Party’s platform still emphasized a supply reduction approach, but it also supported several demand reduction strategies.
“We will continue the fight against producers, traffickers and distributors of illegal substances through the collaboration of state, federal and local law enforcement. We support the work of those who help individuals struggling with addiction, and we support strengthening drug education and prevention programs to avoid addiction.”
2008 Republican Party Platform/cite>
Speaking of the progress made combatting teen drug abuse during George W. Bush’s time in office, Murray said the success began to wane as Democrats regained control. “There’s been a gradual increase [in teen drug use] that coincides with the new administration coming in 2008,” Murray said. “One of [Obama’s] first steps was to remove the director [of the ONDCP] from cabinet status.

The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010

This law increased the amount of crack cocaine required to meet the threshold for a mandatory drug trafficking sentence and repealed the five-year minimum for first-time possession of crack. It also ordered the U.S. Sentencing Commission to review and amend sentencing guidelines.

“At the same time there was the perception that the ONDCP didn’t have as much political clout. The emphasis began to shift, along with the rhetoric very strongly shifting, saying today under this administration we’re going to reform.” One of the biggest reforms during the Obama administration was the first repeal of mandatory minimum sentencing laws since the Nixon administration. Five Republican senators, including influential figures such as Sens. Orrin Hatch and Chuck Grassley, co-sponsored the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. The Republican Party’s response to increased calls for drug reform was to reinforce a tough stance while remaining open to new ideas to combat the problem.
“We support mandatory prison sentencing for gang crimes, violent or sexual offenses against children, repeat drug dealers, rape, robbery and murder. … We endorse State and local initiatives that are trying new approaches to curbing drug abuse and diverting first time offenders to rehabilitation.”
2012 Republican Party Platform
During the 2012 presidential campaign, Republican candidate Mitt Romney was unclear about his stance on drug policy, but he was adamantly opposed to the marijuana legalization movement. President Barack Obama won the election and has continued to focus on shortening sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, expanding access to treatment and gaining funding to combat the opioid epidemic.

A Different Kind of Candidate

The 2016 Republican candidate for president has either divided the Republican Party or shined a light on the divisions that already existed. Donald Trump doesn’t appear to stray too far from the traditional “tough on crime” Republican approach toward most illicit drugs, but he supports the legalization of medical marijuana. He’s also indicated that he’d let the states make the decision on recreational marijuana legalization or decriminalization, a deviation from the party platform. “In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state-by-state,” Trump said at a 2015 rally. “Marijuana is such a big thing. I think medical should happen, right? Don’t we agree? I think so. And then I really believe we should leave it up to the states.”
Presidential Candidate Donald Trump

Presidential Candidate Donald Trump plans to expand drug courts and addiction treatment, if elected.

In terms of drug trafficking, he’s made it clear that he believes weak borders are at the root of the country’s drug problems, and he’s suggested that he might support increased access to treatment. “[Drugs] are coming across the southern border and we are going to stop it,” Trump said at a rally in January. “We are going to try and help the young people, and the old people, and the middle-age people, and everybody that got addicted.” Murray said that to the extent that he’s followed it, he hasn’t been able to get a clear picture of what drug policy under Trump would look like. “He seems a little bit all over the map in the sense that he would support federalism at the state level,” Murray said. “At the same time you get the sense of a more aggressive posture, certainly with regard to international borders. “Depending on which of those statements you think is reflective of general policy, you could say Trump’s about to crack down on the importation and smuggling of drugs or Trump will be hands off and respect the federalism of state decisions.” Trump revealed a more detailed plan after Murray spoke with
At an Oct. 15 rally in New Hampshire, Trump outlined several potential drug abuse policies:
  • Expanding drug courts and mandatory addiction treatment.
  • Expanding access to treatment and removing Medicaid policies that hinder inpatient rehab.
  • Accelerating the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval process for abuse-deterrent drugs.
  • Making it more difficult for drug traffickers to send prescription drugs such as fentanyl through the mail.
Regardless of who wins the election, Murray said he believes strong leadership and a strengthening of the ONDCP are necessary to combat addiction and substance abuse on a national level. “My hope would be regardless of who captures the White House, there will be a return to a willingness to speak and lead on this issue and to put a strong posture forward for ONDCP,” Murray said.

The 2016 Republican Party

The Republican Party may be more divided today than it’s ever been. More than 36 prominent Republicans, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona and House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, have refused to support or denounced support for the party’s presidential candidate.
In terms of drug policy, the 2016 Republican Party platform seems more progressive than ever when compared to previous years.
  • It praises Republican leaders who have supported criminal justice reform such as drug courts, community sentencing for nonviolent offenders and veteran treatment courts.
  • It justifies the need for mandatory minimum sentences in the past but admits modifications can be made today.
  • It supports Medicare and Medicaid reform to combat the overprescription or diversion of prescription opioids.
In other arenas, the party remains true to traditional stances:
  • It calls immigration a top priority and advocates for securing the borders and implementing tough immigration laws.
  • It condemns marijuana legalization and lax federal policies toward recreational marijuana use.
  • It supports research and the support of faith-based programs to rehabilitate individuals, especially veterans, affected by substance use and other mental health disorders.
The topic of substance use disorders didn’t receive the spotlight at the Republican National Convention as it did at the Democratic National Convention, but the party did host the first Caucus for Addiction Solutions. The meeting of experts included Republican Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and Susan Brooks of Indiana, who were leaders in pushing the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act through Congress. If there’s some hope in fighting this epidemic, it’s that Republicans and Democrats alike have shown a willingness to work together on the issue, even if they disagree over some of the details. “If you look at successful drug policies in other nations, what seems to be a desired state of affairs is that drug policy is elevated above partisan divides,” Murray said. “Whatever effort you make has to be sustained. It’s a generation-long battle. It’s not something that can be won in four or eight years.” The fate of America’s war on drugs may not rest with a single leader or political party, but on the ability of the country to work together toward a long-term solution.
This is the second of a two-part series on political substance abuse policies.
Chris Elkins, MA
Senior Content Writer,
Chris Elkins worked as a journalist for three years and was published by multiple newspapers and online publications. Since 2015, he’s written about health-related topics, interviewed addiction experts and authored stories of recovery. Chris has a master’s degree in strategic communication and a graduate certificate in health communication.

Last updated on: December 6, 2019

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