How Heroin Addiction’s Rural Spread Changed the War on Drugs

From time to time over the past 40 years, efforts were made to treat heroin addiction as a public health instead of a crime problem. But they were not successful.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, America’s inner cities were wracked by an epidemic of heroin addiction and the crime that went with it. New York State responded with harsh drug laws, including mandatory minimum sentences up to life in prison for selling just one ounce of heroin. Soon, other states and the federal government adopted similar laws, and the nation’s prisons filled up with non-violent drug offenders, mostly young black men.

From time to time over the past 40 years, efforts were made to treat heroin addiction as a public health instead of a crime problem. But they were not successful.

Related: Heroin, Survivor of War on Drugs, Returns With New Face by Clyde Haberman

For teachers
  • Producer: Jill Rosenbaum
  • Editor: Kenneth Levis
  • Reporter: Sarah Weiser

For Educators


This 14-minute video provides students with historical context that explains how the United States committed to a multi-decade war on drugs that resulted in mass incarceration and racially unequal outcomes in the criminal justice system. State and federal governments responded to a heroin epidemic in the late 1960s with a punitive response to drug addiction that disproportionately affected racial minorities. That approach has grown increasingly unpopular as more white Americans have become addicted to opioids. Useful for lessons focused on racial equality and criminal justice reform in recent history, the video sets up an engaging class discussion on how historical context affects our perceptions of race and crime.

Background reading

In the late 1960s, America’s inner cities were hit by a wave of crime triggered by heroin users seeking drug money, leading politicians to get tough.

In New York, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller backed some of the harshest laws in the nation. They mandated incarceration up to life for anyone caught selling more than an ounce of heroin.

The so-called Rockefeller drug laws were adopted in states across the nation, sending the clear message that the growing drug problems were best handled with more police, more prisons and longer sentences.

The message was echoed through President Richard M. Nixon’s war on drugs, and grew louder under President Ronald Reagan, as crack cocaine use surged.

But while the jails and prisons were filling up, proposed solutions that treated addiction as a public health problem were ignored, despite some promising results.

That only began to change in the 2010s, after heroin addiction surged again as a consequence of widely available and addictive prescription opioids. Overdose deaths quadrupled from 1999 to 2015.

Suddenly the typical heroin user was white, young, middle class and often from a rural area, where the opioid crisis had hit hardest.

As the profile of heroin users changed, so too did addiction treatment. Illicit drug use was no longer viewed as a crime but an illness that could be treated with medications like Vivitrol.

Lesson Plan 1: The War on Drugs: The New Face of Heroin

Students will learn the origin and racial context of America’s multi-decade war on drugs, and the impact the changing demographics of heroin users have had on the debate and public policy.

  • How heroin use in the late 60s and early 70s led many politicians to call for a war on drugs that focused on punishment.
  • How the war on drugs led to mass incarceration and racially unequal outcomes in the criminal justice system.
  • How the widespread misuse of prescription drugs among white Americans led to a reconsideration of treatment-oriented approaches to managing drug abuse.
Essential questions
  • In the early 1970s, what were the different approaches taken by New York and Washington to control heroin? In the decades that followed, which of these approaches did the United States pursue?
  • How did the public’s perception that heroin was an inner-city problem affect the way politicians and voters chose to respond to problems created by heroin use?
  • By 1990, what category of criminal offenders constituted the largest portion of inmates?
  • How did the widespread misuse of prescription drugs change the demographics of heroin abuse, and also change the government’s approach to the war on drugs?
  • What effect does the prescription drug Vivitrol have on opioid dependence?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RI.11-12.3:Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RH.11-12.7:Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.His.14.9-12.Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.
    • D2.Civ.13.9-12.Evaluate public policies in terms of intended and unintended outcomes, and related consequences.
  • AP U.S. History
    • Topic 9.1: Contextualizing Period 9

      Skill 4.B: Explain how a specific historical development or process is situated within a broader historical context.

      Theme 5: Politics and Power (PCE).

  • AP Psychology
    • Unit 8: Clinical Psychology
    • Unit 2: Biological Bases of Behavior