The shocking story behind Richard Nixon’s ‘War on Drugs’ that targeted blacks and anti-war activists

Scholar @Mark_J_Perry   June 14, 2018

This Sunday, June 17 will mark the 47th anniversary of a shameful day in US history — it’s when President Richard Nixon’s declared what has been the US government’s longest and costliest war — the epic failure known as the War on Drugs. At a press conference on that day in 1971, Nixon identified drug abuse as “public enemy number one in the United States” and launched a failed, costly and inhumane federal war on Americans that continues to today. Early the following year, Nixon created the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement (ODALE) in January 1972 to wage a government war on otherwise peaceful and innocent Americans who voluntarily chose to ingest plants, weeds, and intoxicants proscribed by the government. In July 1973, ODALE was consolidated, along with several other federal drug agencies, into the newly established Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as a new “super agency” to handle all aspects of the War on Drugs Otherwise Peaceful Americans.

But as John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s counsel and Assistant for Domestic Affairs, revealed in 1994, the real public enemy in 1971 wasn’t really drugs or drug abuse. Rather the real enemies of the Nixon administration were the anti-war left and blacks, and the War on Drugs was designed as an evil, deceptive and sinister policy to wage a war on those two groups. In an article in the April 2016 issue of The Atlantic (“Legalize It All: How to win the war on drugs“) author and reporter Dan Baum explains how “John Ehrlichman, the Watergate co-conspirator, unlocked for me one of the great mysteries of modern American history: How did the United States entangle itself in a policy of drug prohibition that has yielded so much misery and so few good results?” As Baum discovered, here’s the dirty and disgusting secret to that great mystery of what must be the most expensive, shameful, and reprehensible failed government policy in US history.

Americans have been criminalizing psychoactive substances since San Francisco’s anti-opium law of 1875, but it was Ehrlichman’s boss, Richard Nixon, who declared the first “War on Drugs” in 1971 and set the country on the wildly punitive and counterproductive path it still pursues. I’d tracked Ehrlichman, who had been Nixon’s domestic-policy adviser, to an engineering firm in Atlanta, where he was working on minority recruitment. 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 blacks, 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.”

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.

MP: As much as Prohibition (The War on Alcohol) was also an expensive, epic and misguided failure of government policy, it didn’t have its origins in any type of equivalent sinister and evil plot like the War on Drugs to destroy enemies of the Woodrow Wilson administration in 1919. In fact, President Wilson vetoed the Volstead Act, the popular name for the National Prohibition Act, but the House and Senate both voted quickly to override the veto and America started the War on Alchohol Otherwise Peaceful Americans Who Voluntarily Chose to Ingest Beer, Wine, and Spirits in 1920.

If the real goal of the War on Drugs was to target, convict and incarcerate subversive anti-war “hippies” and black Americans, as Ehrlichman describes it, it sure worked as the chart above of the male incarceration rate in the US shows. During the nearly 50-year period between 1925 and the early 1970s, the male incarceration rate was remarkably stable at about 200 men per 100,000 population, or 1 US male per 500, according to data from Bureau of Justice Statistics. By 1986, about a decade after the War on Drugs started locking up drug users and dealers in cages, the male incarceration rate doubled to 400 per 100,000 population. Then within another decade, the male incarceration rate doubled again to more than 800 by 1996 before reaching a historic peak of 956 in 2008 (about one in 100) that was almost five times higher than the stable rate before the War on Drugs. The arrest and incarceration data show that the War on Drugs had a significantly much greater negative effect on blacks and Hispanics than whites, making the Drug War even more shameful for its devastating and disproportionate adverse effects on America’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged populations.

Since the 2008 peak, the male incarceration rate has been gradually declining in each of the last seven years of available data through 2016, possibly because of three trends: a) decriminalization of weeds at the city and state level, b) the legalization of medical weeds at the state level, and c) now legalization of recreational weeds at the city and state levels.

While there could have been other factors that contributed to the nearly five-fold increase in the male incarceration rate between the early 1970s and the peak in 2008, research clearly shows that the War on Drugs, along with mandatory minimum sentencing in the 1980s and the disparate treatment of powdered cocaine and “crack cocaine” (powdered cocaine processed with baking soda into smokable rocks) were all significant contributing factors to the unprecedented rate of incarcerating Americans. Here are some conclusions from the 2014 book The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences (my emphasis):

  1. The states’ combined incarceration rates increased across all crime categories between 1980 and 2010 (see chart above). Most striking, however, is the dramatic increase in the incarceration rate for drug-related crimes. In 1980, imprisonment for drug offenses was rare, with a combined state incarceration rate of 15 per 100,000 population. By 2010, the drug incarceration rate had increased nearly 10-fold to 143 per 100,000. Indeed, the rate of incarceration for the single category of drug-related offenses, excluding local jails and federal prisons, by itself exceeds by 50% the average incarceration rate for all crimes of Western European countries and is twice the average incarceration rate for all crimes of a significant number of European countries.
  2. Arrest rates for federal drug offenses climbed in the 1970s, and mandatory prison time for these offenses became more common in the 1980s. Mandatory prison sentences, intensified enforcement of drug laws, and long sentences contributed not only to overall high rates of incarceration but also especially to extraordinary rates of incarceration in black and Latino communities. Intensified enforcement of drug laws subjected blacks, more than whites, to new mandatory minimum sentences—despite lower levels of drug use and no higher demonstrated levels of trafficking among the black than the white population.
  3. As a result of the lengthening of sentences and greatly expanded drug law enforcement and imprisonment for drug offenses, criminal defendants became more likely to be sentenced to prison and remained there significantly longer than in the past. The policy shifts that propelled the growth in incarceration had disproportionately large effects on African Americans and Latinos. Indeed, serving time in prison has become a normal life event among recent birth cohorts of African American men who have not completed high school.

Bottom Line: Even without the nefarious, vile, and veiled origins revealed by Ehrlichman in 1994, the War on Drugs Otherwise Peaceful Americans Who Voluntarily Choose To Ingest or Sell Intoxicants Currently Proscribed by the Government, Which Will Lock Up Users or Sellers in Cages if Caught would represent one of the most shameful chapters in America’s history. But with its intention to destroy the black community and anti-war peace activists, which has certainly been “successfully” achieved for the black community, the shamefulness of the War on Drugs is elevated to a much higher level of despicable, evil immorality.

Mark J. Perry

Mark J. Perry

Scholar

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