(2016-03-30) Was Nixon's War On Drugs A Racially Motivated Crusade? It's A Bit More Complicated

Was Richard Nixon's war on drugs a racially motivated crusade? It's a bit more complicated. Last week, the internet exploded with a fairly shocking allegation: President Richard Nixon began America's war on drugs to criminalize black people and hippies, according to a newly revealed 1994 quote from Nixon domestic policy adviser John Ehrlichman.

"The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people," Ehrlichman told journalist Dan Baum in 1994. "You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, 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."

But Ehrlichman's claim is likely an oversimplification, according to historians who have studied the period and Nixon's drug policies in particular. There's no doubt Nixon was racist, and historians told me that race could have played one role in Nixon's drug war. But there are also signs that Nixon wasn't solely motivated by politics or race: For one, he personally despised drugs — to the point that it's not surprising he would want to rid the world of them. And there's evidence that Ehrlichman felt bitter and betrayed by Nixon after he spent time in prison over the Watergate scandal, so he may have lied.

Nixon's drug war was largely a public health crusade — one that would be reshaped into the modern, punitive drug war we know today by later administrations, particularly President Ronald Reagan.

the lessons of Nixon's drug policies may not be so much that he was a racist, power-hungry politician — although, again, he was — but rather that even well-meaning policies can have big, terrible unintended consequences.

Enforcement must be coupled with a rational approach to the reclamation of the drug user himself," Nixon told Congress in 1971. "We must rehabilitate the drug user if we are to eliminate drug abuse and all the antisocial activities that flow from drug abuse."

The numbers back this up. According to the federal government's budget numbers for anti-drug programs, the "demand" side of the war on drugs (treatment, education, and prevention) consistently got more funding during Nixon's time in office (1969 to 1974) than the "supply" side (law enforcement and interdiction).

the person tapped to become the nation's first drug czar and oversee federal drug policies was Jerome Jaffe, a doctor who at the time was working on improving drug addiction treatments in Chicago. Jaffe embraced the position, worrying that it was only a matter of time until the war on drugs became more punitive.

There was an urgency to get as much done as we could," Jaffe told me. "The thrust of American history from the 1920s on was on law enforcement. And I thought, in a sense, Nixon's emphasis on treatment expansion was kind of an aberration."

Nixon would, however, shift to a greater focus on the law enforcement side of the war on drugs over time. Why that shift happened may help explain Ehrlichman's quote. Nixon did escalate the law enforcement side of the war on drugs due to political motivations

In 1972, for instance, Nixon's reelection bid sought to capture longstanding concerns about black crime and drug use among white Southerners — in what's now called the "Southern strategy." To do this, Nixon shifted to the right on drugs with a tough-on-crime platform.

As the allegations in the Watergate scandal grew in 1973, Nixon once again put emphasis on the law enforcement side.

From this point, the war on drugs would slowly get more punitive. Under the Reagan administration in the 1980s, the true war on drugs began

The drug war had been building for decades prior to Nixon," Kathleen Frydl, a drug policy historian and author of The Drug Wars in America, 1940-1973, told me. "The shift from regulation to punishment was something that was underway for two decades prior to Nixon taking office.

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