It Was Deliberate

We know that the American “War on Drugs” disproportionately affects minorities. We know that, despite the fact that white people and black people use drugs at approximately the same rates, black people are arrested far more often. However, I have often encountered skepticism about whether or not this was an intended repercussion of this so called “war”. Was is just a bungle? Was it a genuine attempt to attack the problem of drugs in the States, which then became a tool to undermine African American and Hispanic communities by racist police departments?

A recent article in Vox makes me think that their intentions were clear. As Nixon’s domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman put it, many years later:

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 pronouncement was made in 1994. I’m only finding out about it now, though I don’t know if it’s because I have been blissfully unaware of it, or because it actually hasn’t seeped into the discussion about the war on drugs.

Have you heard about this before? And, if so, why does this not come up far more often when debating whether or not to continue this failure of a policy?


  1. Devocate says

    I don’t know how you can say this is a failure of a policy. Sounds to me like it is working as intended.

  2. says

    Have you heard about this before?


    Reminds me of the time I got to tell a Vietnam vet that the Gulf of Tonkin incident was a friendly fire/imaginary attack. He sat there for a minute then shook his head, “figures.” was all he could manage.

    That was basically my reaction.

  3. lakitha tolbert says

    I have heard about this before., from Black people. I’ve never seen the above quote before though. It’s infuriating to me that we’ve been saying this for decades, to anyone who would listen, and always had our claims dismissed.

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      I’ve definitely heard the concept before, surely, but I’ve always heard of it presented as a theory, not a theory supported by some pretty damning straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth kind of evidence. Floating an idea is one thing, backing it up with this sort of quote is another.

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      Keep in mind that criminalization of marijuana happened at a very different historical time than the initiation of the war on drugs. There is some truth to what you say when it was first made illegal, but that was decades before the Nixon Administration decided to make a giant criminal persecution out of it.

  4. Golgafrinchan Captain says

    Nope, I’ve never heard a horse’s mouth admission either.

    Thankfully, the iron grip seems to finally be losing its strength, at least for marijuana. In Canada, our biggest issue now is that legalization will conflict with some international treaties.

    Drug use/abuse should be a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue. It does get murkier with harder drugs but I’m of the opinion that prohibition causes far more problems than it solves (an opinion shared by many in law enforcement, which they can only share once they’re retired).

  5. lanir says

    My impressions about the war on drugs had been that it was such a blatantly failed policy that no one who had anything to do with it had anything good to say about it. But because of how the laws work it continues for the same reason accusations of witchcraft and heresy were common in the middle ages; first you point the finger, then you waltz in and legally steal everything the accused owns. The only real difference is back then the accuser was paid a portion, now the state gets it all. Which is why police are incentivized to make crime about drugs.

    I gather meaningful change would be messy to implement. On top of backing away from failed “tough on crime” politics, there’s also probably a need to replace some of the revenue stream. Kind of a hard sell when significant chunks of the population got indoctrinated with the idea of drugs as a boogeyman while they were kids in school.

  6. lorn says

    For me, old enough to clearly remember Richard Milhous Nixon, and his enemies list, and his twisted grim witty manner of merrily fucking over those who did not go along, the greatest proof that this assertion is true is that it is twisted and calculated, playing both sides against he middle, and so very much like something Nixon would do.

    The Southern Strategy, in rough form, existed long before Nixon. It just took time for a president twisted and cynical enough to deploy such a heinous thing to roll around. The War on Drugs and the Southern Strategy were made for cynical self-hating man like Nixon.

    Of course, Nixon came by it honestly, he was raised on John Birch and as a junior senator learned the art of the dirty trick from no less than ‘Tailgunner Joe’ McCarthy himself.

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