jump to example.com

The racist and politically motivated origins of the War on Drugs

police | Support this author on Patreon

In the cover story of this month’s Harper’s Magazine, author Dan Baum recounts a conversation he had with former Nixon domestic affairs adviser and convicted Watergate co-conspirator John Ehrlichman. Baum states that in 1994, Ehrlichman told him that the Nixon Administration started the War on Drugs as an attack on black Americans and anti-war protesters.

Baum quotes Erlichman “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people… …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.

He specifically mentioned noted that under such policies “We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.” Erlichman may be referring to the no-knock searches permitted under the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, which allowed law enforcement to search homes unannounced. On a related note another former Nixon aid, Roger Ailes continues the demonization of black and young people “night after night” on his network Fox News.

Three additional Nixon aides have denied that Erlichman would have said such things and have instead suggested that Baum had misunderstood Ehrlichman’s use of sarcasm. Even if their allegations are correct, Baum’s overall point that the Nixon administration pursued policies that encouraged intrusive searches, arrests and stigmatization of its political opponents, still stands. Nixon’s use of enemies lists, wiretaps and other “dirty tricks” is well established. Such tricks included COINTELPRO tactics, which involved federal agents infiltrating anti-war and black power groups, creating infighting and getting the leaders addicted to drugs. Against this backdrop it is hard to believe the War on Drugs was not politically motivated.

Motives aside, the real consequence of such policies has been to disrupt and greatly harm black and young people, just as Baum depicts Erhlichman as suggesting. Sadly the general trend for subsequent presidents has been to continue and the drug war to the extent that it has now become the classic example of a failed policy, not unlike the prohibition of alcohol during the 1920s. Drug prohibition has created violent drug cartels, gang violence, a massive prison population and millions of wasted tax payer money, not to mention the wealth that would be generated if the drug trade were legal.

A better approach would be stop punishing people for so-called “crimes” that in no way harm another person. We should have the full freedom to use our bodies as we please provided we do not hurt others in the process. After fifty years we should no longer be embracing Nixonian policies, with their legacy of dishonesty, racism and violence. Nor do we need puritanical politicians and authoritarian moral guardians telling us how to live our lives. Countries like Portugal have benefited from ending their drug wars, while US states are moving away from Marijuana prohibition. The decriminalization of more drugs will inevitably follow. Let’s make the end of prohibition come sooner rather than latter. It’s not a war on drugs, its a war on personal freedom.

  • foodforthought

    My thanks to the Augusta Free Press for the chance to comment on this subject.

    No one should promote the canard that marijuana is dangerous, like pharmaceutical drugs. Or even that it is a ‘drug’, except in Merriam-Webster’s third and broadest definition, as something which alters the mind. By that definition, religion and television (‘the plug-in drug’) should also be included. In truth marijuana is a medicinal herb, cultivated, bred, and evolved in service to human beings over thousands of years.

    Prohibition of marijuana is a premise built on a tissue of lies: Concern For Public Safety. Our new laws save hundreds of lives every year, on our highways alone. In November of 2011, a study at the University of Colorado found that in the thirteen states that decriminalized marijuana between 1990 and 2009, traffic fatalities have dropped by nearly nine percent—now nearly ten percent in Michigan—more than the national average, while sales of beer went flat by five percent. No wonder Big Alcohol opposes it. Ambitious, unprincipled, profit-driven undertakers might be tempted too.

    In 2012 a study released by 4AutoinsuranceQuote revealed that marijuana users are safer drivers than non-marijuana users, as “the only significant effect that marijuana has on operating a motor vehicle is slower driving”, which “is arguably a positive thing”. Despite occasional accidents, eagerly reported by police-blotter ‘journalists’ as ‘marijuana-related’, a mix of substances was often involved. Alcohol, most likely, and/or prescription drugs, nicotine, caffeine, meth, cocaine, heroin, and a trace of the marijuana passed at a party ten days ago. However, on the whole, as revealed in big-time, insurance-industry stats, within the broad swath of mature, experienced consumers, slower and more cautious driving shows up in significant numbers. A recent Federal study has reached the same conclusion. And legalization should improve those numbers further.

    No one has ever died from an overdose of marijuana. It’s the most benign ‘substance’ in history. Most people—and particularly patients who medicate with marijuana–use it in place of prescription drugs or alcohol.

    Marijuana has many benefits, most of which are under-reported or never mentioned in American newspapers. Research at the University of Saskatchewan indicates that, unlike alcohol, cocaine, heroin, or Nancy (“Just say, ‘No!’”) Reagan’s beloved nicotine, marijuana is a neuroprotectant that actually encourages brain-cell growth. Researchers in Spain (the Guzman study) and other countries have discovered that it also has tumor-shrinking, anti-carcinogenic properties. These were confirmed by the 30-year Tashkin population study at UCLA.

    Drugs are man-made, cooked up in labs, for the sake of patents and the profits gained by them. Often useful, but typically burdened with cautionary notes and lists of side effects as long as one’s arm. ‘The works of Man are flawed.’

    Marijuana is a medicinal herb, the most benign and versatile in history. “Cannabis” in Latin, and “kanah bosm” in the old Hebrew scrolls, quite literally the Biblical Tree of Life, used by early Christians to treat everything from skin diseases to deep pain and despair. Why despair? Consider the current medical term for cannabis sativa: a “mood elevator”. . . as opposed to antidepressants, which ‘flatten out’ emotions, leaving patients numb to both depression and joy.

    The very name, “Christ” translates as “the anointed one”. Well then, anointed with what? It’s a fair question. And it wasn’t holy water, friends. Holy water came into wide use in the Middle Ages. In Biblical times, it was used by a few tribes of Greek pagans. And Christ was neither Greek nor pagan.

    Medicinal oil, for the Prince of Peace. A formula from the Biblical era has been rediscovered. It specifies a strong dose of oil from kanah bosom, ‘the fragrant cane’ of a dozen uses: ink, paper, rope, nutrition. . . . It was clothing on their backs and incense in their temples. And a ‘skinful’ of medicinal oil could certainly calm one’s nerves, imparting a sense of benevolence and connection with all living things. No wonder that the ‘anointed one’ could gain a spark, an insight, a sense of the divine, and the confidence to convey those feelings to friends and neighbors.

    I am appalled at the number of ‘Christian’ politicians, prosecutors, and police who pose on church steps or kneeling in prayer on their campaign trails, but cannot or will not face the scientific or the historical truths about cannabis, Medicinal Herb Number One, safe and effective for thousands of years, and celebrated as sacraments by most of the world’s major religions.