In an episode of “Stories from the Collection” by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Museum, museum historian Kasey Sease, Ph.D., admitted that racially discriminatory drug laws, in part, led to the agency’s founding.
“Increased non-medical use – as well as racial, ethnic, and class prejudice – affected public opinion. What had been a medical condition became deviant or criminal. This shift led to a wave of laws against heroin, marijuana and cocaine.” — Sease, “Stories from the Collection: Opium Order Form”
In 1914, prior to the Marihuana Tax Act or the formation of the DEA, Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Act which required narcotics manufacturers, sellers, and distributors to register with the Bureau of Internal Revenue.
The first drug law enforcement agency, the Bureau of Narcotics, was authorized by Congress in 1930 and is the predecessor to the modern DEA.
In 2016, a 1994 quote from John Ehrlichman, then-President Richard Nixon’s chief domestic policy advisor, resurfaced and made it clear that the Nixon administration’s reason for criminalizing drug use was purely to throw into disarray Black communities and the anti-war movement.
“‘You want to know what this was really all about?’ he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect,” Dan Baum quoted Ehrlichman as saying. “‘The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.’”
In June, the DEA reported 6,606 federal cannabis arrests in 2021, an increase from 3,992 in 2020.
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