In 1994, a former Nixon policy adviser admitted the War on Drugs was waged not to keep Americans safe, but to crush dissent. According to John Ehrlichman, who served time in prison for his involvement in the Watergate scandal, the Drug War was intended to disempower anti-war and black rights movements in the 1970s.
Author Dan Baum wrote in the April edition of Harper’s Magazine that in 1994, he spoke with now-deceased Ehrlichman, who frankly explained why President Nixon pushed prohibition:
“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.”
This approach was, in fact, not new in American government. Henry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics — a precursor to the DEA — saw drugs and marijuana as a race-based threat. He often perpetuated bigoted notions not about about African-Americans and heroin, but weed:
“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others,” he famously said. He also claimed “[r]eefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.” With regard to war, Anslinger insisted marijuana “leads to pacifism and communist brainwashing.” Though Anslinger was found to be dishonest — his department was caught fabricating figures in an attempt to prove prohibition stopped drug use and to prove marijuana was unhealthy — his basic prejudiced notions persisted for decades.
Whereas Anslinger reigned from the 1930s to the early 1960s pushing racist, anti-marijuana propaganda, the modern drug war, launched in 1971, was all but certainly a pointed attempt to quell popular uprisings. With the baby boomer generation actively opposing the war in Vietnam (along with behemoth figures in the civil rights movement like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X speaking out against it), the government needed an avenue to neutralize that dissent.
Intense African American rioting in cities across the country, first over institutionalized racism and then over the assassination of King in the spring of 1968, drew the iron fist of police forces and the National Guard. Shortly after, the United States government acted swiftly to crush the uprising: it passed the 1968 Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, which both ramped up police presence in the United States and instituted gun control; many rioters had brought guns to protest, often against police brutality. The ‘anti-crime’ bill was passed two months before tens of thousands of anti-war protesters descended upon the Democratic National Convention.
The War on Drugs, as Ehrlichman admitted, was a thinly-veiled effort to clamp down on the inherently anti-authoritarian features of both anti-war and black movements. Only three years after the federal government cracked down on riots, Richard Nixon declared his war on drugs — and it proved effective at attaining the goals Ehrlichman shared with Baum in 1994.
As Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, has explained:
“People are swept into the criminal justice system — particularly in poor communities of color — at very early ages … typically for fairly minor, nonviolent crimes. [The young black males are] shuttled into prisons, branded as criminals and felons, and then when they’re released, they’re relegated to a permanent second-class status, stripped of the very rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement … Many of the old forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind during the Jim Crow era are suddenly legal again, once you’ve been branded a felon.”
The federal government did not need to make as great as an effort to associate marijuana with the anti-war movement. Anslinger had already declared that marijuana turned people into pacifists, a reality that appeared to parallel the burgeoning anti-war movement. As the Washington Post has noted, by 1969, “marijuana…was a symbol of the anti-Vietnam War movement and the hippie counterculture.”
As Dessa K. Bergen-Cico wrote in War and Drugs: The Role of Military Conflict in the Development of Substance:
“Viewpoints for and against the [Vietnam] war tended to coincide with viewpoints on the use of drugs. Therefore, I came of age when smoking marijuana and hash was inextricably linked to the anti-war movement, and drug use was in an of itself a political, anti-authoritarian statement.”
And therein lies one of the most powerful, lesser-known reasons for prohibition: it is a heavy-handed tactic to silence dissent.
Whether the government’s effort was a pointed strategy to demonize counterculture and anti-authoritarian thought itself — or simply to suppress the movements that harbored them — is unclear. Regardless, Ehrlichman’s admission clarifies the increasingly evident reality that the Drug War was never about keeping people safe.
Rather, it has cost the United States and the world in both money and blood, enforcing the control and state power the policy apparently sought. According to Drugsense.org, “the U.S. federal government spent over $15 billion dollars in 2010 on the War on Drugs, at a rate of about $500 per second.” The United States also has the largest prison population in the world. The prohibition on drugs has spurned the growth of cartels, drug-related violence, and aggressive police tactics.
Though the perspectives of historical figures like Richard Nixon and John Ehrlichman still color drug policy — marijuana is still classified in the same category as heroin and cocaine, for example — the conversation is undeniably shifting. Baum’s article, itself, is an argument in favor of legalizing all drugs. A United States federal official recently discussed the possibility of decriminalizing drugs. A majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana. And while the justice system still perpetuates racism through the Drug War, it is evident that at least some relics of past authoritarianism are now slowly disintegrating — and that, thankfully, they failed to fully achieve their intended results of ‘criminalizing’ and ‘disrupting’ dissent.