June 17, 2022 marks the 51st anniversary of then-president Richard Nixon’s 1971 speech on the “War on Drugs” in which he declared illicit substances to be “Public Enemy Number One” and ordered an all out offensive against their manufacture, sale, and use.

Institute for Policy Studies Drug Policy Director Sanho Tree is available for comment and interviews on the historic and current significance of the war on drugs and its influence on present-day policy decisions at the state and national level. 

Tree has served as an expert on drug policy issues such as drug eradication, interdiction, harm reduction, and law enforcement crackdowns, as well as an advocate for reforms, for more than two decades. 

The war on drugs technically didn’t begin with Nixon’s speech – it began in 1875 with the San Francisco Opium Den Ordinance targeting Chinese immigrants who were seen as competing for jobs with white workers after the gold rush and the completion of the transcontinental railroads. But the Nixon era did come to define a particular carceral approach to anti-drug policies: since Nixon’s opening salvo, the current war on drugs has become synonymous with racialized policing of communities of color, militarization of law enforcement and borders, and the continued expansion of the prison industrial complex.

“The drug war has always been about the oppression and social control of people of color and minority groups,” Sanho Tree notes. “We’ve spent over $1 trillion over the past several decades fighting a war on drugs that’s been mostly a war on vulnerable people. Meanwhile, our policies of prohibition have transformed minimally processed agricultural and chemical commodities that cost pennies per dose to manufacture into priceless substances that can upend economies. The result is clear: drugs have won.

By 2010, the Associated Press estimated that the United States had spent $1 trillion on the failed drug war, while incarcerating millions of Americans for nonviolent drug related offenses each year.

A March 2022 analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative found that 1 in 5 incarcerated people in the United States are locked up due to drug related offenses (374,000 people on any given day).

This year, several states have introduced drug policy related initiatives at the ballot box that could turn the tide in favor of common sense reforms and decriminalization – including, for example, legalizing and then taxing certain drug substances and redirecting the revenue towards critical social programs. Maryland residents, for example, will have the opportunity to vote on the legalization of marijuana and more than 60% are estimated to be in favor of the measure.


To arrange an interview with Sanho Tree, contact IPS Media Manager Olivia Alperstein at or (202) 704-9011.

About the Institute for Policy Studies

For nearly six decades, the Institute for Policy Studies has provided critical research support for major social movements and progressive leaders inside and outside government and on the ground around the United States and the world. As the United States’ oldest progressive multi-issue think tank, IPS turns bold ideas into action through public scholarship and mentorship of the next generation of progressive scholars and activists.

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