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by Peter Moskos

November 24, 2015

What the War on Drugs was really about: "We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black"

Dan Baum writes about what the Drug War was really about:
In 1993, I was researching my first book, Smoke and Mirrors, which is the tale, starting in the 1968 Nixon presidential campaign, of how drugs were turned into a political weapon. I tracked down as many people as I could who had been involved in drug policy in the Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and brand-new Clinton administrations. Among the first I found was John Ehrlichman, who was at the time doing minority recruitment for an engineering firm in Atlanta. He looked nothing then like he had when he’d been a principal Watergate villain in the early 1970s and an evil god in the bad-guy pantheon of my youth. By 1993, he was fat, and wore an Old Testament beard that extended far below the knot of his necktie. He impatiently waved away my earnest, wonky questions about drug policy.

“You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the world-weary air 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 anti-war 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.”


Concerned citizen said...

With regard to the real roots of the 70's drug laws, who do we believe?

Dan Baum, who blames Nixon and his thuggish advisors, even though Nixon left office--powerless and disgraced-- in 1974...prior to the enactment of the 70's drug laws?


Michael Javen Fortner, who contends that black anti-crime activists in the 60's and 70's paved the way for the 70's drug laws?

Alex Elkins said...

Fortner's thesis is far from ironclad. He himself says in the introduction that black get-tough leadership was "not decisive" to the passage of punitive drug laws. Ignore the press around the book. The book tells a more nuanced tale. Black support for get-tough punishment gave Rockefeller an out; he could point to black support (which was very nominal and isolated to six Harlem ministers) to dismiss charges of racism. Not a single black elected official supported Rockefeller's drug laws. You don't see major black legislative support for tough drug laws until the crack epidemic of the 1980s.

So it's not an either/or. That framing is too political. The history is messier. (Also white law-and-orderism had way more political power than black law-and-orderism in the late 60s/early 70s.)

Concerned citizen said...

A basic timeline contradicts the notion that Nixon and his hoodlums--driven from office in 1974-- were major players in the War on Drugs.

A prime metric for war is casualties. For the War on Drugs, the "casualties" are drug inmates.

A graph of drug inmates in U.S. prisons and jails shows a flat line from 1972 to 1980; then a slight slope upward until 1984; then it starts to take off.

If Nixon et al were highly responsible for the War on Drugs, then why did it take until 10 years after their departure for casualties to occur?


Concerned citizen said...

My goodness, I can't believe I'm defending Richard Nixon....

FWIW, PBS Frontline published online a chronology, "Thirty Years of America's Drug War."

For June 17, 1971, they state the following (please note the final sentence):

Nixon declares war on drugs.
At a press conference Nixon names drug abuse as "public enemy number one in the United States." He announces the creation of the Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention (SAODAP), to be headed by Dr. Jerome Jaffe, a leading methadone treatment specialist. During the Nixon era, for the only time in the history of the war on drugs, the majority of funding goes towards treatment, rather than law enforcement

Peter Moskos said...

There were lots of later offenders. And the war on drugs escalated, but Nixon *started* it.

Before Nixon, all you had was what's his name railing against marijuana.

(Concerned citizen loves Richard Nixon! Concerned citizen loves Richard Nixon! If you love Nixon so much, why don't you marry him?!)

bacchys said...

The first Federal law outlawing a drug was passed in 1909. The Marihuana Tax Act was enacted in 1935.

There's a lot of points that could claim to be the beginning of this War on the American People. Nixon's callous use of it to further his own political ambitions and increase the power of the Federal government is just one of them.

Peter Moskos said...

(Aslinger, of course.)

Plus the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914.

But none of this got us into the mess of the post-Nixon War on Drugs and mass incarceration.