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June 11, 2004 - DrugSense Weekly (US Web)

Ronald Reagan On Drugs

By Stephen Young, Editor with DrugSense Weekly and author of Maximizing Harm

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In 1986, U.S. President Ronald Reagan made history by urinating. Sure, it's something every president since Washington had done, but Reagan was the first to pee into a bottle for a drug test.

He did it voluntarily, but a few months later, Reagan signed an executive order requiring all federal agencies to plan urine tests for employees in sensitive positions. It was a turning point in the fledgling drug-testing industry, now a multi-billion dollar powerhouse which recently convinced federal legislators that collecting urine is not enough; they want the hair, sweat and saliva of federal workers as well (see

The drug-testing industry is one part of Reagan's drug war legacy. While he was in office, he presented himself as an enemy of overreaching government. But at the same time he demanded increased freedom for Soviet citizens, his rhetoric and policies pushed the U.S. government further and further into the personal lives of Americans.

Reagan wasn't the first president to promote and expand the drug war. And the U.S. Congress during his terms challenged his excesses with nothing but more excessiveness. But Reagan set the tone for the immense bloating of the drug war during the 80s.

Reagan, at certain points in his administration, seemed obsessed by drugs. In "Smoke and Mirrors," journalist Dan Baum's excellent history of the modern drug war, Reagan is portrayed trying to get every aspect of the government involved in the drug war.

"Let's go around the table," Baum quotes Reagan during cabinet meetings. "Cap?" he addressed Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. "What are you doing for the War on Drugs?" Every member of the cabinet, from labor to agriculture, would be quizzed on what he was contributing to the crusade.

Reagan and his first lady were vocal supporters of Straight Inc., an alleged drug rehab program for youth that employed psychological and physical abuse.

"We want you to help us create an outspoken intolerance for drug use," said Mrs. Reagan with the President by her side during a nationally televised address in 1985. "For the sake of our children, I implore each of you to be unyielding and inflexible in your opposition to drugs."

Many paint the Reagan administration as victorious in the war on drugs because self-reports of drug use declined while Reagan was in office. But that analysis overlooks the onset of those reported declines, which took place before Reagan's term began.

Another way to measure the success of Reagan's drug war is to look at the crack market that was created during his term in office. Before the Reagan years, no one knew what crack cocaine was, but by the time George H.W. Bush took Reagan's place in the Oval Office, the new president claimed to be able to buy crack across the street from the White House.

Far from keeping crack under control, Reagan's policies launched the crack revolution. "Dark Alliance," journalist Gary Webb's controversial but thoroughly documented book, explains the relationship between the CIA, the Contras and the crack epidemic. While many Reagan retrospectives have noted the Iran-Contra scandal as the low point in Reagan's administration, the drug angle has been generally overlooked.

Due to human rights abuse, the U.S. Congress had cut funding for the Contras, who were attempting to undermine Nicaragua's Socialist government. Reagan's administration wanted to continue funding the Contras, regardless of the congress and regardless of law. So they used profits from illegally selling arms to Iran to pay for the Contra effort.

This much is well-known; less analyzed is the Contras' financial support through drug trafficking. Not only was this arrangement overlooked by officials in the Reagan administration, Webb presents evidence that it was condoned and protected.

Webb goes even further, tracing the first loads of crack to hit Los Angeles streets in the mid-80s back to the Contra efforts.

The paradoxical nature of Reagan's war on drugs isn't exceptional; it mirrors the whole history of prohibition. Seemingly noble words about protecting the children are always twisted into corruption and abuse, soon to be forgotten as the children face even more dangers from the efforts to save them.

I imagine Reagan the optimist was immune from such dark thoughts. I imagine he took genuine pride after filling a bottle to prove his chemical integrity back in 1986. It's a shame Reagan's vision of a drug-free America has left the rest of us as a nation messily pissing in the wind.

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