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The racist and politically motivated origins of the War on Drugs

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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.



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