President Nixon’s contribution to the War on Drugs was to start it and to set in place the legal and institutional framework that would enforce it for almost half a century, leading up to the present day. On June 18th, 1971, Nixon gave a press conference, during which he said that drug abuse was “public enemy number one in the United States” and gave a pledge to work with Congress to commit more federal resources to preventing drug addiction and rehabilitating those who were currently addicted.
In January 1972, Nixon followed up this pledge by creating a dedicated agency, the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement (ODALE), to wage the war on drugs, though the focus was already much more on prevention and punishment than rehabilitation. In July 1973, ODALE was combined with other federal drug agencies into the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), a vast super-agency with a remit to deal with every aspect of drug trafficking, manufacture, distribution, and use in the United States (and, to some extent, outside the country, in the case of supply chains and foreign-based cartels).
The War on Drugs has always been a controversial policy. The United States prison population, which had been fairly stable since the 1920s, doubled from 1970 to 1986, largely as a result of Nixon’s policy. The phrase “War on Drugs” fell out of favor during the Obama administration, but the federal policies and the role of the DEA have not changed significantly since the 1970s.