Nixon Official: Real Reason For Drug War Was To Criminalize Black People And Hippies
Criminal justice advocates and civil libertarians have long said that all the “War on Drugs” has done has turned a generation of kids, mostly black, into criminals. Now, there’s some confirmation of that theory from one of its architects.
In 1994 Dan Baum was writing a book about drug policy and spoke to Richard Nixon’s domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman about policy nuance. Ehrlichman stopped Baum and told him the true motivation behind the drug war, and that it all had to do with politics.
Now, for what it’s worth, Ehrlichman has long been critical of Nixon since serving 18 months in prison for crimes committed while in his employ. He resented the only American president to resign office for not pardoning him before he did so.
At the time, I was writing a book about the politics of drug prohibition. I started to ask Ehrlichman a series of earnest, wonky questions that he impatiently waved away. “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.”
I must have looked shocked. Ehrlichman just shrugged. Then he looked at his watch, handed me a signed copy of his steamy spy novel, The Company, and led me to the door.
Nixon’s invention of the war on drugs as a political tool was cynical, but every president since — Democrat and Republican alike — has found it equally useful for one reason or another. Meanwhile, the growing cost of the drug war is now impossible to ignore: billions of dollars wasted, bloodshed in Latin America and on the streets of our own cities, and millions of lives destroyed by draconian punishment that doesn’t end at the prison gate; one of every eight black men has been disenfranchised because of a felony conviction.