Graduation Year


Date of Submission


Document Type

Open Access Senior Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts



Reader 1

Jon Shields

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© 2019 Alexandra N Carter


New drug epidemics often unleash punitive campaigns to end them- highlighted by the 1980’s drug wars. However, the opioid crisis has been met with public-health driven policies, like clean needle programs and community-based substance abuse therapy. This thesis asks why policy responses to the opioid crisis are so different than those of the War on Drugs.

First, as the cost of the drug war became clearer, policy makers across the political spectrum became less inclined to wage a new punitive war against opioids, especially as public-health responses proved to be more effective while also less costly.

Second, the demographics of those addicted to opioids is different than those who were addicted to crack cocaine. The brunt of War on Drugs policies was felt by those in the lowest socioeconomic brackets and perpetuated poverty in low-income communities. Today’s softer approaches have been informed by a greater percentage of middle- to upper-class individuals affected by the opioid crisis.

Third, as opioids have legitimate medical purposes, they are harder to demonize or ban, rendering it more difficult to declare total war against them. Further, the influence opioid manufacturers have has made policy makers less inclined to declare war, taking supply-side action.

Public-health driven policies and policies that minimize supply-side action against pharmaceutical opioid manufacturers are duplicate representations of the United States’ departure from War on Drug tactics. As long as the “medical model” of health care, which emphasizes drugs, medical treatment, and surgery is ingrained in society and the economy, these patterns will continue.