Beyond Saying No: Domestic Drug Policy
and Its Effects during the Bush
Charles F. Levinthal
George Bush was the first U.S. president to have included a specific reference to the problems of drug abuse in America in a presidential inaugural address. These are his words on that occasion in January 1989:
There are a few clear areas in which we as a society must rise up united and express our in-
tolerance and the most obvious now is drugs. And when that first cocaine was smuggled in
on a ship, it may as well have been a deadly bacteria, so much has it hurt the body, the soul of
our country. And there is much to be done and to be said, but take my word for it. This
scourge must stop.
Nine months later, as president, Mr. Bush delivered a prime-time telecast to the nation (the first such telecast of his presidency) on September 5, 1989, devoted exclusively to the drug problem. These two acts remain to this day unique events in the history of the American presidency. Never before had this issue been accorded such prominence and national visibility by an American president, nor has it since.
In President Bush’s September address, he characterized the drug problem as “the toughest domestic challenge we’ve faced in decades,” and outlined his national drug control strategy.1 This statement became his own declaration of a “war on drugs.” However, this actual phrase dates back to 1971, with the drug-control initiatives of Richard Nixon, and interest on the part of a U.S. president in drug control on a national level dates back to the administration of Dwight Eisenhower.2
What exactly was the Bush strategy and what effect did it have? To examine these questions, we need to go back to prior administrations to see the Bush strat-