Critics of the war on drugs have long made the case that it disproportionately targets and harms people of color. But now there’s concrete proof that the war on drugs was designed from the very beginning to do just that. In a groundbreaking interview, writer Dan Baum spoke with a former aide to President Nixon about the war on drugs.
Back in the late 1960s and early ’70s, John Ehrlichman was Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs under President Nixon.
In that position, he helped launch the anti-drug campaign that came to be known as the “war on drugs.”
The laws and policies created by Nixon, Ehrlichman, and the rest of the Administration continue to dictate how the nation enforces its drug laws today.
Given Ehrlichman’s insider status, if there’s anyone who would know what motivated the development of the war on drugs, he would be the guy.
When Baum asked Ehrlichman about why the Nixon Administration put so much effort into launching such an intense focus on cracking down on drugs, here’s what he said:
You want to know what this was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people.
He went on to say that the war on drugs became Nixon’s technique for going after antiwar protestors 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.
We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.
Let that sink in for a minute.
Nixon and his Administration purposely created the war on drugs so they could go after protestors and black people. According to Ehrlichman, it had nothing to do with safety, health, or security.
The entire war on drugs was created as a front to allow the government and the police to target and harass certain people.
And just in case there’s any confusion, Ehrlichman summarized the whole thing by saying this:
Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
The U.S. has a long history of using drug prohibition laws to criminalize minorities.
The first anti-drug laws were opium bans designed to give cops a reason to go after Chinese immigrants. And at different times throughout the 20th century, public leaders began a similar campaign to vilify cannabis.
One of the ways they did this was by stirring up racist fears.
Here are a couple quotes from Harry J. Anslinger, a federal law enforcement official who played a key role in creating anti-marijuana laws.
“Colored students at the Univ. of Minn. partying with (white) female students, smoking and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result: pregnancy.”
“Two Negroes took a girl fourteen years old and kept her for two days under the influence of hemp. Upon recovery she was found to be suffering from syphilis.”
Now that the Ehrlichman quotes have surfaced, it seems that we can add yet another chapter to the U.S.’s racist history of anti-drug laws.