A 1994 quote from a former Nixon aide makes it crystal clear that the administration’s reason for criminalizing drug use was purely to throw into disarray Black communities and the anti-war movement.
John Ehrlichman was serving as President Nixon’s chief domestic policy advisor when Nixon announced the roll-out of the War on Drugs. In seeking a massive expansion of federal drug agencies, the Nixon administration cited the pernicious impacts of drugs on social welfare.
The drug war has had ruinous economic and social consequences for the United States, Mexico, and Latin American countries, consequences which are especially pronounced for racial minorities.
Reporter Dan Baum spoke with Ehrlichman in 1994 while doing research for a book on drug prohibition. Ehrlichman, who served 18 months in prison for his involvement in the Watergate scandal, was frank about the Nixon administration’s motives in inaugurating the drug war. Baum writes in Harper’s cover story this April:
‘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. ‘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.’
Criminalizing drug use had nothing to do with ensuring social welfare. The racist and paranoid Nixon administration wanted desperately to dismantle two populations: the Black community and the anti-war movement. The easiest way to do so was to criminalize behaviors common to them both.
Baum didn’t include this quote in his 1996 book, Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure, which contains no authorial interviews, but he did put it in the Harper’s cover story, “Legalize It All,” which puts forward a case for drug legalization.
The fact that the drug war was fabricated with malicious intent might not surprise everyone. We hope, though, that the news will sway prohibitionists to adopt a more rational stance.
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