How did political and social change influence government policies on illegal drugs?

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In the United States, one significant change in illegal drug policy has been occurring in the first two decades of the 21st century: the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana and cannabis-derived products. Social pressure on politicians has been a strong motivating factor in these changes.

One of the primary reasons cited in changing laws and sentencing is the high rate of prosecution and conviction for marijuana possession. Trying such cases has been a significant expenditure for the state, so reducing the number of cases is cost-effective. Furthermore, conviction for possession gave people criminal records, negatively influencing their ability to find employment. Conviction rates and sentence lengths also have tended to be higher for people of color, so changes in this area have been deemed important to reduce racial injustice. Another legal issue has been the high discrepancy of policies in different states, causing residents of some states to be at higher risk of entering the criminal justice system. The use of medical marijuana, including for cancer patients, has also affected the drive for legalization.

Concern about general welfare and health issues has been one motivating force for determining the legal status of controlled substances and for enforcing laws against their sale and entry into the country. In particular, concern for children’s health and the desire to stop young people from beginning drug use featured prominently in the War on Drugs of the 1970s–1980s. While the Drug Enforcement Administration was established in 1973 under President Richard Nixon, the program expanded and targeted young people under President Ronald Reagan. The “Just Say No” slogan advocated by First Lady Nancy Reagan demonstrates the focus on individual self-control and morality as opposed to identifying substance dependency as a medical and public health problem.

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