I’m supposed to be working tonight, doing the actual work that I’m paid to do, but there are load of helicopters flying around outside my apartment because of the State of the Union address, and I’m finding it very hard to concentrate. So instead I’ve been looking at what previous presidents have said during their SOTUs when it comes to drugs.

The first mention is William Taft, back in 1911. Two years previously the US had convened the International Opium Commission in Shanghai. The international conference at the Hague, to adopt measures to control, regulate and limit the use of opium took place just weeks before his address. A number of States have passed legislation limiting opium trade, and Taft uses this State of the Union Address to introduce federal narcotic legislation.

Next up is Calvin Coolidge, in 1923. Alcohol and narcotic prohibition are underway, and Coolidge uses the SOTU to justify the Government’s role in regulating this aspect of the citizen’s private behavior

In 1962, JFK promises to ‘crack down on the illicit sale of habit-forming drugs and in 1968, LBJ steps up the tempo, proposing a “Drug Control Act to provide stricter penalties for those who traffic in LSD and other dangerous drugs” and asking for, “more vigorous enforcement of all of our drug laws by increasing the number of Federal drug and narcotics control officials by more than 30 percent. The time has come to stop the sale of slavery to the young.”

In 1976, Gerald Ford boasts of increasing heroin seizures, and recommends mandatory fixed sentences for those convicted of selling hard drugs. The tone of Jimmy Carter’s address in 1981 is slightly different. He mentions treatment and rehabilitation efforts for the nation’s half a million heroin addicts, and talks of efforts to reduce heroin-related injuries and heroin overdose deaths. Efforts to reduce supply continue. He provides an overview of the framework that still guides US drug policy today:

First, we must deal aggressively with the supplies of illegal drugs at their source, through joint crop destruction programs with foreign nations and increased law enforcement and border interdiction. Second, we must look to citizens and parents across the country to help educate the increasing numbers of American youth who are experimenting with drugs to the dangers of drug abuse. Education is a key factor in reducing drug abuse. Third, we must focus our efforts on drug and alcohol abuse in the workplace for not only does this abuse contribute to low productivity but it also destroys the satisfaction and sense of purpose all Americans can gain from the work experience. Fourth, we need a change in attitude, from an attitude which condones the casual use of drugs to one that recognizes the appropriate use of drugs for medical purposes and condemns the inappropriate and harmful abuse of drugs.

In 1986, Reagan makes a passing mention of the fight against ‘pornography, drugs and lawlessness’  and in 1988 he applauds Nancy’s Just Say No efforts. In 1989, with George Bush Snr’s address, the tone of the debate changes significantly. He states that 23 mn Americans used drugs in the previous year, and talks of babies being born with AIDS because they were born to addicted mothers. He requests $1bn for the ‘war on drugs’ and the death penalty for drug king-pins.

In 1994, Clinton makes a passing reference to drugs and gangs, outlining plans for boot-camps for young offenders. In 1997, he promises, “the largest anti-drug effort ever.” In 1998 he promises to crack down on gangs, guns and drugs, and in 1999 he tells drug offenders, “”If you stay on drugs, you have to stay behind bars.” And to those on parole, “If you want to keep your freedom, you must stay free of drugs.”

In 2002, Dubya promises that as a result of increased investment in homeland security, “stricter border enforcement will help combat illegal drugs”. In 2003 he promises $600bn investment in treatment, and in 2004 he proposes drug-testing in schools.

It’s fascinating to see how the language has changed over 100 years.  This time a century ago, Taft was just introducing the beginnings of an international framework.  Now  between 150mn and 250mn people use some form of illegal drug every year, the global trade in illicit drugs is estimated at around $400bn.  Each president promises to do more and more to ‘break the cycle of drugs and crime’ and we’re still not rethinking our approach.

Source for all SOTU addresses: State of the Union