The Modern War on Drugs Began as Nixon's Racist Assault on Black People

The "War on Drugs" is a war on people of color, as a lost quotation from Nixon adviser John Ehrlichman now reveals.

The "War on Drugs" is a war on people of color, as a lost quotation from Nixon adviser John Ehrlichman now reveals.

Originally Posted in March, 2016


Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman, in a 2015 commentary in Free Press, rightfully charged that the ruinous "war on drugs" had its origins in a nefarious motive that had little to do with concern about harmful drug use:

The Drug War was officially born June 17, 1971, when Richard Nixon pronounced drugs to be “public enemy number one.” In a nation wracked by poverty, racial tension, injustice, civil strife, ecological disaster, corporate domination, a hated Vietnam War and much more, drugs seemed an odd choice.

In fact, the Drug War’s primary target[s were] Black[s] and young voters.

As the Vietnam War ended -- and massive youth political protest subsided -- the war on drugs rapidly took a two-tier track: incarceration for even the most minor drug "offenses" for people of color, while whites of means were generally treated leniently by the legal system for drug use. The war on drugs became embedded in the post-Civil Rights era society as a gruesome and destructive re-emergence of Jim Crow policy. It was supported in full force by the national, state, county and city police and court systems, as a means of suppressing and punishing Blacks for having survived slavery -- and a means of continuing to systematically exploit them, long after official slavery had been outlawed. 

When the constitutional amendments that abolished slavery were passed, along with the enfranchisement of formerly enslaved men, widespread racism nevertheless persisted, even among most Northerners. During the brief period of Reconstruction, when the South was essentially occupied by Union forces, the goal of equal rights for Black people in the US was pursued, to some extent -- but it didn't last long. 

The Reconstruction itself was short-lived, ending with a corrupt 1876 presidential election: The presidency was stolen from winner Samuel Tilden and awarded to Rutherford B. Hayes. What allowed the theft? Largely, the South was promised that federal troops would be withdrawn from the former states of the Confederacy, and the former slave-holding states would be allowed to brutalize and kill Blacks, take away voting rights, and establish blatant segregation.

When the Civil Rights era emerged, and activists achieved the victories of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 -- and the end of legal segregation -- there was a white backlash. 

Thus we arrive at 1971, when Nixon, who was blatantly racist, decided to declare an official "war" on drugs. Why did the Nixon administration usher in this very high-profile and devastating public policy?

Based on a recently unearthed 1994 interview with John Ehrlichman, who had served as Nixon's domestic policy advisor, the answer is once again confirmed: racism (along with, initially, an effort to neutralize anti-Vietnam War protesters).

In an article in this month's Harper's Magazine, author Dan Baum reveals that in reviewing notes of his conversation with Ehrlichman (who died in 1999) from 20 years ago, Baum came across a bombshell admission from Nixon's senior adviser. Ehrlichman conceded that, in his own words:

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.

As mentioned earlier, once the Vietnam war was over, the "war on drugs" focused on destroying the lives of people of color and poor whites. Whites of means were put in the "take a pass" lane when it came to drug use. The anti-Vietnam War generation -- take the Clintons, for example -- eventually became part of the ruling elites expanding the racial injustices of the "war on drugs." In addition, the US increased its deadly and costly militarization internationally, in a battle that is as ill-conceived and corrupt as it is unwinnable.

Michelle Alexander, author of the trenchant The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, told the Drug Policy Alliance: "It's not enough to end the drug war. We must also repair the harms caused by it." After all, domestically, we have created a widespread system of racist policing and mass incarceration that devastates lives and communities. As was Nixon's aim, the primary focus of this engine of destruction is still disproportionately people of color, and particularly Black people.

In an insightful commentary on Truthout in 2013, Levi LaChappelle observes that the "war on drugs" has succeeded in one area only:

The war on drugs was designed as a tool to win votes. It was never about drugs, but about the exploitation of racial resentment and fear for political power. As such, it has succeeded more than any other political scheme of the last half of the twentieth century.

In the past two years, there has been a modicum of reconsideration of the drug war, and of the draconian punishments meted out to people of color. However, the overall human damage caused by a corrupt, cynical and predatory policy has not even begun to be addressed.

Nixon declared drugs as "public enemy number one." Our real enemy, however, is the decimation caused by the drug war. Drugs have simply been the props to excuse a war against people of color -- and the expansion of mass incarceration and US military interventionism.

Mark KarlinComment