Did Richard Nixon create the war on drugs as a political tool to attack African-Americans and dissidents? A Nixon aide claimed as much, and it would not be surprising.
Nixon’s paranoia was well known, even before he left office in disgrace in 1974. He divided the world between friends and enemies. Blacks and left-wing war protesters were clearly in the latter camp.
An article about the war on drugs in this month’s Harper’s magazine cites a 1994 interview the writer conducted with John Ehrlichman, the former Nixon domestic policy chief, who characterized the administration’s policies as an intentional assault on people. “By getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin … and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” said Ehrlichman, who died in 1999.
Nixon launched the war on drugs in 1969. He appeared to understand that his policies against illicit drugs were really a war against people.
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Whether or not Nixon intended to target specific groups, African-Americans, along with young and poor people in general, have borne a disproportionate share of the casualties in the war on drugs.
In 1971, Nixon called drug abuse “Public Enemy No. 1.” He signed new laws that cracked down on users and created the Drug Enforcement Administration.
By 1973, hundreds of thousands of drug users, most of them African-American, were arrested under the new laws.
The war on drugs also contributed mightily to raising the U.S. prison population more than eightfold. Since the Nixon years, the tab for the war on drugs has run up to an estimated $1.5 trillion. Yet addiction rates are higher today than in 1969.
Fortunately, today’s epidemic of opioid and heroin addiction has marked a dramatic shift in public attitudes and policies on drugs. Both liberals and conservatives understand that drug addiction is a disease that must be treated.
Forty years after Richard Nixon, Americans are beginning to outgrow the metaphor of war. They have discovered treatment. A lot of people have suffered in the meantime.