How did U.S. drug laws go so awry? Retro Report examines 40 years of heroin in America.

President Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs, starting with heroin
(Image credit: Retro Report/YouTube)

There's a growing bipartisan push to reform America's "War on Drugs" and the harsh prison sentences that came with it. When proponents of criminal justice reform want to highlight the problems with the mass incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders, they often focus on people caught selling marijuana. But Retro Report points out that the War on Drugs — declared by President Richard Nixon and given its punitive jail terms by New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller (R) — was spurred by a less socially acceptable drug, heroin.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, heroin addiction and the accompanying rash of thefts was widely seen as a problem of inner-city black and Latino men, and the short version of the 14-minute Retro Report video might go something like this: Now that a new spike in heroin addictions is recognized as primarily afflicting young white people in the suburbs, lawmakers are focusing more on treatment and less on locking the problem away. The video is much more nuanced, of course: We learn that Nixon's plan initially called for treating addicts, for example, and that Hollywood played a big role in drumming up fear of heroin users and burying Washington, D.C.'s successful methadone treatment experiment. People learn from past mistakes.

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Peter Weber, The Week US

Peter has worked as a news and culture writer and editor at The Week since the site's launch in 2008. He covers politics, world affairs, religion and cultural currents. His journalism career began as a copy editor at a financial newswire and has included editorial positions at The New York Times Magazine, Facts on File, and Oregon State University.