The term "war on drugs" was first used by President Richard Nixon in 1971, to explain his administration's amendment to the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914. Before Nixon came to power, there had been talk of decriminalizing or legalizing drugs. However, he took a hard-line approach to tackling the country's growing drug abuse problem. America's drug problem under the Nixon administration came to light when a report compiled by two congressmen revealed the growing heroin epidemic among United States servicemen in Vietnam. The investigation revealed ten to fifteen percent of soldiers in active duty and at home were abusing heroin. Nixon set aside money for research and treatment into the epidemic, and established the Drug Enforcement Agency and the National Institute for Drug Abuse to tackle the problem.
When Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in 1981, he continued the Republican's war on drugs, primarily tackling the surge in popularity of crack cocaine. In October 1986, President Reagan introduced tough new penalties under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. The bill created a "100 to 1 ratio," meaning persons convicted in federal court of possession of five grams of crack cocaine received a minimum mandatory five year sentence in federal prison, while possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine carried the same sentence. Throughout the 1980s, the number of arrests for drug offenses rose 126 percent, leading to calls for the ratio to be reduced as it was deemed to be discriminatory against ethnic minorities who were more likely to use to crack. However, it took until August 2010 for the ratio to be reduced to 18 to 1 under the Fair Sentencing Act. Reagan's wife Nancy also launched the educational scheme Just Say No in 1982 and travelled across America to promote the anti-drug message to school children.
By the time President George Bush Sr. took office in 1989, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) released a report stating there was a 37 percent drop in casual drug use between 1979 and 1989, although some 20 to 40 million people were still using drugs. Bush continued to tackle the war on drugs by introducing tougher border patrols and foreign military interventions. He oversaw the Plan Colombia program, introduced between 1998 and 1999 by the administration of Pastrana with the goals of ending the Colombian armed conflict and creating an anti-cocaine strategy. In return, the United States government agreed to provide hundreds of millions of dollars per year in military aid, training and equipment to Colombia. Yet by the end of his term in office, The Parents' Resource Institute for Drug Education (PRIDE) annual survey on drug abuse showed narcotic use had increased across the board for junior high students and in seven out of ten categories for high school students.
The situation did not improve under President Bill Clinton, inaugurated in 1993. Within months of being in office he cut staffing for the Office of National Drug Control Policy by over 80 percent and signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that increased the amount of trade and traffic across the American-Mexican border, making it more difficult for U.S. Customs to find narcotics.
In 1994 it was reported one million Americans were incarcerated every year for drug offences, despite drug prosecutions by the Justice Department dropping by more than 12 percent since 1992.
It seemed the United States was losing its war on drugs when a National Household Survey on drug abuse in 1995 revealed marijuana use among teenagers had almost doubled since 1992 after 13 years of decline, more young adults were using heroin and LSD than ever before, and cocaine-related emergency room admissions were at the highest levels ever reported.
By the start of the 21st century, America's war on drugs had seen a reduction in the use of narcotics including crack cocaine and hallucinogens. But new drugs, including synthetic morphine, ecstasy and methamphetamines had contributed to a resurgence in narcotic use amongst young adults. Although President George W. Bush agreed to invest $1.4 billion in military and law enforcement training and equipment over three years to the Mexican government and the countries of Central America to combat drug trafficking in June 2008, three out four Americans polled in October claimed the war on drugs was failing. In spite of this, the Obama administration revealed in May 2009 there was no plan to significantly alter drug enforcement policy, although it would no longer use the term "war on drugs" as it was deemed "counter-productive."