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teachers' guide: Drug Wars
Scenes from the Drug War

Note to Teachers

This guide is a supplement to the FRONTLINE program "Drug Wars." It is designed to provide teachers with background information and ideas for activities that stimulate discussion, promote an understanding of the issues and encourage further research in high school classrooms.

"Drug Wars" is a four-hour documentary examining United States drug policy over the last thirty years. The program is divided into four major themes:

  • Treatment and Education versus Prohibition and Punishment
  • Social Justice
  • The International War on Drugs
  • The Multibillion Dollar Illegal Drug Business
The suggested activities can be used in a variety of subject areas including language arts, social studies, US government and drug education. Teachers should review the guide prior to viewing the program and choose those activities and program segments which are most appropriate for you and your students. Note: Because the program is four hours long, it has been broken into segments for classroom use.

The guide includes a number of activities as suggestions. They fall into various categories including small group discussions, large group activities, written assignments, some requiring research, and a final art activity.

Students should be encouraged, as they view the program, to consider the social, economic, and political factors that contribute to the reality of what they view.


"Drug Wars" is a documentary examining the 30-year history of efforts to control the flow of illegal drugs into the United States and onto the streets of many of its cities. These wars began with President Richard Nixon and they have continued to the present day. Indeed, six presidential administrations have fought this war at considerable cost. Yet a growing number of critics question its effectiveness. All who have analyzed the issue of controlling illegal drugs consider it a complicated task because it involves so many factors: human, financial, and diplomatic.

The drug wars started shortly after Nixon's victory in the 1968 presidential election. He ran on a platform that included strong "law and order" planks. One of the first directives he gave to his staff was to find ways to reduce crime in Washington, D.C. which was considered the crime capital of America. Between 1965 and 1968, robberies had increased by 330 percent and murders were up by 93 percent.

Research at the time revealed that there was a strong connection between drug addiction and criminal activity. In fact, in August of 1969, it was shown that 44 percent of those in jail tested positive for heroin. Around the same time, a pilot drug rehabilitation program involving the use of the synthetic substitute for heroin, called methadone, was shown to be effective in curbing the desire for heroin and the criminal acts associated with it.

All of that was magnified by the general tenor of the times. It was the turbulent 1960s, when protest rocked the nation and drug use was fashionable on college campuses and among professionals. When it also became apparent that heroin addiction was a problem for some US servicemen in Vietnam, a sense of urgency took hold.

Nixon dubbed the menace of illegal drug consumption public enemy # 1 and called for an all out war. He received unanimous bipartisan support, particularly in light of the revelation that 4.5 percent of the servicemen in Vietnam were addicted to heroin. Bear in mind that drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, and heroin had been illegal for a long time. The laws related to possession and sales were vigorously enforced. However, this was largely done by local agencies prior to Nixon's call. Once he declared war, the might of the federal government was applied. It was the start of the drug wars.

By 1972, the Nixon administration increased federal spending on drug programs from $80 million to $600 million. Early efforts focused primarily on two tracks. These were the treatment of drug addiction and the efforts of law enforcement to take drugs off the streets. Nixon's approach allocated two-thirds of the money toward treatment for those addicted to illegal drugs. The merits of one strategy versus the other would remain a topic for debate even as new tactics emerged. Eventually, the government would employ four basic approaches in the drug wars: treatment, law enforcement, interdiction and eradication.

    Treatment focuses on the rehabilitation of drug users, with the assumption that this is a medical or mental health issue rather than a criminal one.
    The law enforcement model treats drug possession, as well as sales, as a criminal matter and punishes offenders through the justice system.
    Eradication attempts to reduce production of the illegal substances in other countries.
    Interdiction involves reducing the flow of illegal drugs into the United States by more vigilant patrolling of the nation's borders.

Pre-viewing Activities


Learning Objective:
To encourage students to link the issue of US drug policy to their own lives.

Direct the students to write about the impact of illegal drugs and/or drug enforcement policies on their lives. After students have completed their writing assignment, ask those who feel comfortable to share their experiences with the large group. Discuss the themes, similarities and differences in people's experiences. You could also stimulate discussion with the following questions: Are illegal drugs a problem? For whom? Why? Has the impact been positive or negative as it relates to family, friends, or the neighborhood?


Learning Objective:
To encourage students to think about ways to address the problem of drug addiction.

Break the class into small groups and discuss what they would do to end drug addiction. Each group should share their proposed solutions with the whole class.

Viewing Activity


Learning Objectives:
To understand the methods currently employed in fighting the drug wars.

While watching segments of the FRONTLINE program, students should take notes on how treatment, law enforcement, eradication, and interdiction have been used, noting the positions taken by each person who is interviewed.

Treatment and Education Versus Prohibition and Punishment


The multi-pronged approach that characterized Nixon's attack on drugs has had a lasting effect. In the early 1970s, his administration advocated drug treatment programs especially for the 4.5 percent of the servicemen who returned from Vietnam with substance abuse problems. In fact, two-thirds of the money budgeted to fight drugs went for that purpose. There are indications that treatment programs did much to reduce crime related to drug addiction.

Nixon also supported vigorous law enforcement efforts. He established the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which has led national and international efforts to stop the flow of drugs ever since. Under Nixon, enforcement included the use of Internal Revenue Service audits, wiretaps, and "no-knock" warrants. Those efforts did have an impact on the drug problem, but critics also viewed these tactics as attacks on individual civil liberties. This prompted a continuing debate over whether it is better to treat this problem as a public health issue or as a law enforcement issue.

Administrations since Nixon have taken various stances. The administration of President Carter in the late 1970s is notable for its relatively liberal position on illegal drugs. Decriminalization of certain drugs, like marijuana, was seriously considered at that time.

Throughout the thirty-year history of the war on drugs, there has been a greater emphasis on resources for law enforcement and punishment, though many officials who were interviewed in the program believe that this has done little to stop the problem. Surprisingly, law enforcement officials have also openly questioned the efficacy of emphasizing criminal sanctions. But that has done little to change the course of the drug wars.

Not wanting to appear soft on crime, few politicians have chosen to back away from this approach. Still, the debate continues over whether education and drug treatment are more effective than prohibition and punishment.


Making Laws: Part 1

Learning Objectives:

  • To examine the voting record of local officials on issues related to drug policy
  • To examine local drug-related crime statistics
As individuals or in groups, students should research the voting record regarding drug policies of their local elected official. In particular, they can check how their elected representative voted on the Mandatory Minimums bill and the Colombia Aid bill. They can also research the crime statistics for their own county or state at For further information, they can research what percentage of crimes was drug-related.

After doing their research, students should discuss their findings. Do they agree or disagree with the positions taken by their representative? What factors contribute to politicians' positions on drugs? How can citizens influence US drug policy?

Making Laws: Part II

Learning Objectives:

  • To examine the process by which laws are established.
  • To analyze the merits of the various public policy options
Activity: Following the screening of the program, tell students in the class that they will play the roles of representatives to the House assigned to develop and consider drug legislation.

Break students into small groups, each of which is assigned to develop drug legislation drawing from the four models examined in the program: treatment, law enforcement, interdiction and eradication. Each group should develop their own approach, assigning budget percentages to each of the various strategies. The groups will then present their approach to the class for discussion and a final vote.

Mock Congressional Hearing

Learning Objective:
Students will understand that the perspective of an individual or group affects their response to a particular drug policy.

Invite to students to select a particular drug policy that will be examined in a mock Congressional Hearing. Examples may include treatment, punishment, eradication of the source and interdiction.

Set up the hearing by assigning roles to each person in the class. Some students will take on the roles of Members of Congress who listen to testimony. (One student should serve as chairperson.) Other students will represent other groups. Discuss with students which groups they could represent. Examples may include: psychiatrists, law enforcement officers, prison wardens, drug addicts or former drug addicts, social service providers, and government experts. Each student or group will present testimony before the representatives. Members of Congress may question each of the witnesses. Encourage the representation of as many perspectives as possible.

Following the mock hearing, lead students in a discussion of what transpired. What have they learned from this experience? Did their views about the topic change based on their experience? What have they learned about the value and effectiveness of a Congressional Hearing?

Interior Monologues

Learning Objective:
To promote an understanding of the impact of drug policy on individuals.

Show students a segment of the program and ask students to choose one person or object in the clip whose perspective they will take in a writing assignment. Following viewing, direct students to write a poem or dramatic monologue, taking the perspective of the person they have selected.

Social Justice


The heavy emphasis on law enforcement to fight the drug wars has resulted in a massive increase in rates of incarceration. They have doubled since 1994, with nearly 2 million Americans or one out of every 147 citizens now serving time. The United States matches Russia for the highest rate of incarceration in the world.

Critics of this approach have noted that half of these inmates are there on drug charges. Two-thirds of them are minorities. 50 percent are black and 17 percent are Hispanic. This far exceeds the proportions of blacks and Hispanics in the population generally. And this is in spite of the fact that three-quarters of America's addicts are white.

There is consensus among those interviewed for the program judges, lawyers, and law enforcement officers -- that there is a racial dimension to the drug wars. Even the United States Sentencing Commission has reported a disproportionate impact upon minorities. And mandatory drug sentences have resulted in longer prison terms than some given for murder or rape.

Nearly one out of every three black men between the ages of 20 and 29 is involved with the criminal justice system. Black women are being incarcerated at increasingly higher rates, which has adversely affected children and other family members.

Elected officials have been reluctant to change the laws, although some privately acknowledge the inequities, but hesitate to speak out. Being tough on crime plays well to voters, so politicians stay tough on drug crimes. They often defend their actions by pointing to the reduction in crime rates over the last decade.

There is also the question of whether these policies are actually effective. Research indicates that the four to five million regular users of hard drugs and ten to fifteen million occasional users have remained constant throughout the tenure of these policies. Most of the regular users of these substances are white males who are comfortably employed. They are perhaps least likely to be affected by the tough policing that results in the sweeps of targeted neighborhoods.

Critics have long questioned the efficacy of the law enforcement approach to the drug wars. Proponents of education and treatment programs respond by saying that crime rates are declining in spite of "get tough" policies. Crack cocaine use, which was associated with much of the violent crime in the 1980s, seems to have declined regardless of outside intervention. The younger generation seems less inclined to use crack, given the drastic impact they've witnessed in their parents' generation.

In addition, some critics of the law enforcement approach believe that the societal costs appear to be high. Minority communities are adversely affected, and society as a whole is degraded. They fear that the tough stand on crime has eroded civil rights and constitutional protections for all citizens.

The FRONTLINE program presents a number of perspectives on the social ramifications of the drug wars. Students are likely to have strong feelings and opinions on the subject.


As students watch the program, have them complete the following chart:
















Following viewing, discuss what students found. What trends did they discover? Is there any apparent stereotyping? Are minorities portrayed as having more of a drug problem than others have? Is this accurate or inaccurate?

Students can also do this activity with another television program and compare those results with their findings from this program.


Social Justice: Impact on minorities

Learning Objective:
To encourage the analysis of the impact of drug policy on minority communities

Following the screening of the program, facilitate a class discussion on the issues of race and class as they relate to the drug wars. Which groups are generally targeted in the enforcement model? Why? Are minorities disproportionately affected? How and why? What are the possible consequences? What is the impact on society in general on the underclass, the middle class, and the upper class? What do statistics say about regular drug users? Is drug use a bigger problem in minority neighborhoods? If yes, why is that the case? Are minorities more susceptible to drug abuse? Do law enforcement officials target minorities in some way? By drug dealers? Why or why not?

Legal versus illegal drugs

Learning Objective:
To help students understand the impact on society of policies regarding the use of legal and illegal drugs

Create two columns on the board, eliciting from students the names of types of drugs that are legal and those that are illegal. (Note: You can use general terms, such as anti-depressants, rather than naming specific drugs.) Discuss with students the impact on society of the drugs that are listed in the "legal" and "illegal" columns. Who benefits from the use of legal drugs? Who suffers? Why? Who benefits from the use of illegal drugs? Who suffers? Why?

Encourage students to consider the policies regarding, for example, medications used to control hyperactivity and alcohol. How do they compare with policies regarding illegal drugs? Using prohibition as an example, what happens when an illegal drug becomes legal? Students could also research and write a paper about this topic.

War on Civil Liberties

Learning Objective:
To promote an understanding of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

Direct students to research the basic civil liberties ensured by the Constitution and the potential impact of the evolving drug laws on them. Encourage the students to discuss their thoughts on the subject in class. Stimulate the discussion with questions. What are the basic rights of privacy and protection from unlawful search and seizure? What personal liberties would you be willing to give up to win the drug war?

International War on Drugs


Efforts to halt the flow of illegal drugs into the United States have long depended on work outside the United States. This involves the eradication of crops and the interdiction of shipments in international waters. During the 1980s, these efforts increased in response to a flood of cocaine, primarily from Colombia. Southern Florida, as a point of entry, became the leading battleground for the war on drugs.

With a seemingly insatiable American appetite for the drug, business boomed and rival gangs turned cities like Miami into killing fields. Despite the demand that seemed to fuel the whole operation, the government continued to focus most of its resources on law enforcement. In fact, President Reagan cut support for treatment programs by 60 percent between 1980 and 1986. The focus shifted to putting pressure on the producing countries to stop exporting drugs.

Halfway through the 1980s, the US government began to demand the extradition of suspected drug traffickers from producing countries. The governments of these countries resisted this. Some of the resistance stemmed from the perception that this was an assault on their sovereignty by the United States giant to the north. The Colombian drug traffickers and their supporters responded with violence that sent the country into a virtual civil war.

Eventually, some of the larger Colombian traffickers were brought to trial, but others quickly replaced them and the drugs kept flowing. During the 1990s under the leadership of President Bush and later President Clinton, attempts to stop the flow of drugs from producing nations continued. While there was some success in slowing the flow from Colombia, other nations rose to take its place.

According to officials interviewed for the program, Mexico has replaced Colombia as the major supplier of narcotics to the United States. However, it is even more difficult to control the flow of drugs from Mexico, given its long border with the United States. In addition, the increased trade between the two nations as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has also made it more difficult to track smugglers.

Critics of the war against drugs have wondered aloud whether the war is really just an exercise in futility. They have called for an increase in the treatment of regular users as the only realistic way to reduce the demand for drugs.


Drug Producing Countries

Learning Objective:
To promote an understanding of the forces at work in drug producing nations

Ask students to consider the impact of the demand for illegal drugs in the United States on countries that produce drugs? Which groups are impacted in the producing countries? How? Who benefits? What are the United States trade policies with producing countries? Should trade relations with a country, such as increased trade between the United States and Mexico through NAFTA, supercede the wellbeing of United States citizens?

What are the merits of focusing on the demand for drugs in this country versus suppliers in other countries? What effect might legalization of certain categories of drugs have on the profit margin for drug suppliers?

Drug Policies in Other Countries

Learning Objective:
To promote an understanding of the methods that other countries use to fight drugs and their effectiveness

Activity :
Students, in pairs or individually, should choose a country to research regarding their drug policies. (You can also assign a country for research. Note that countries including Germany, Australia, Portugal, and the Netherlands focus on treatment while countries including Japan, Sweden, China, and Saudi Arabia focus on strict enforcement policies.)

Students should present their findings to the class. How have the policies in other countries affected society in general and different groups within it? What can the United States learn from other approaches?

The Multi-Billion Dollar Business


Despite a 30-year effort, the eradication of the illegal drug trade has proven to be nearly impossible. At the heart of the difficulty, according to observers, is the amount of money involved. It has evolved into a $300 to $400 billion multi-national business. Americans alone spend $58 billion a year on narcotics. Over two-thirds of that, or $40 billion, comes from the four to five million regular users. Ironically, the country spends about $42 billion to fight drugs.

With so much money involved, the new challenge for traffickers has become how to transform the dollars, located in America, into pesos in Colombia or Mexico. Investigators have recognized that fact and work increasingly with banks to monitor suspicious transactions. But that too has proven difficult given the sophistication of some of the operations.

Ultimately, much of the money makes its way into legitimate businesses. Some are even Fortune 500 corporations. Some of the money finds its way into the stock market and into small companies across the United States. It is clear that drug enforcement agencies will have to develop more sophisticated methods of detecting money-laundering, but the extent to which private and corporate interests are threatened may be a determining factor.


The Business of Drugs

We recommend that teachers consider implementing "The Business of Drugs", a comprehensive activity for high school students described in Beyond Heroes and Holidays (pp.244-254)*.

The activity, which is outlined in detail and includes handouts, centers on a "trial" in which different groups are required to justify their actions as they stand indicted for contributing to "all the robberies and murders related to the use and sale of drugs in the United States". By taking the position of a street dealer, peasant farmer, consumer or the US Government, students begin to understand the complexity and multiple perspectives associated with the business of drugs in the United States. In addition to a detailed description of how to conduct the trial, including reproducible handouts, there are preliminary activities, an article for students to review, and suggestions for additional resources.

*Beyond Heroes and Holidays, Enid Lee, Deborah Menkart, Margo Okazawa-Rey, (Editors, Network of Educators on the Americas, Washington, DC 1998.
Beyond Heroes and Holidays is available through the Teaching for Change catalog:, 1-800-763-9131.

Culminating Activity

Learning Objective:
To allow students to explore their thoughts and feelings about issues relating to drugs by making a visual representation.

Activity :
Direct students to create a metaphorical drawing using one of the following triggers:

    US drug policy is like...

    Drug addicts are like...

    Crack is like...

    Punishing drug addicts is like...

    Treating drug addicts is like...

Encourage students to be as abstract or literal as they please. After creating the drawing, students should form groups to share and discuss their drawings with others. Teachers or students are also encouraged to share their drawings within the school community through the school newspaper, a "gallery" showing, or submit to the FRONTLINE Web site through e-mail at


This teacher's guide was written by Reggie Finlayson and was developed with input from the following advisors:

Mathea Falco
Drug Strategies

Thomas H. Haines
Director of Biochemistry, CUNY Medical School
Chair, Partnership for Responsible Drug Information

Karen Zill
Manager, Educational Services & Outreach
WETA Washington, D.C.

Simone Bloom Nathan, EdM and Anne Kaplan, MA
Media Education Consultants

Jessica Smith and Sharon Tiller

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