Nixon's Drug War - Re-Inventing Jim Crow, Targeting The Counter Culture

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"Look, we understood we couldn't make it illegal to be young or poor or black in the United States, but we could criminalize their common pleasure. We understood that drugs were not the health problem we were making them out to be, but it was such a perfect issue...that we couldn't resist it."

- John Ehrlichman, White House counsel to President Nixon on the rationale of the War on Drugs.

"[Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks" Haldeman, his Chief of Staff wrote, "The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to."

And then he came up with the War On Drugs and the Southern Strategy.

(THE ATLANTIC) The War on Drugs: How President Nixon Tied Addiction to Crime
By Emily Dufton
Mar 26 2012, 12:04 PM ET 1

By shifting public perception, and making us believe that drug users were dangerous and a threat to America, Nixon justified his actions.

On December 5, 1969, President Richard Nixon appointed Stephen Hess to the position of National Chairman of the White House Conference for Children and Youth. Hess's task was to "listen well to the voices of young Americans -- in the universities, on the farms, the assembly lines, the street corners," in the hopes of uncovering their opinions on America's domestic and international affairs. After two years of intensive planning, Hess and 1,486 delegates from across the country met in Estes Park, Colorado, and, from April 18 to 22, 1971, discussed ten areas that most concerned the youth of America. These issues included, not surprisingly, the draft and the war in Vietnam, the economy and employment, education, the environment, poverty, and, most notably for Points readers, drugs.

The task force on drugs, composed of eight youths and four adults, forcefully argued for addressing the root causes of drug abuse, advocating therapy for addicts rather than incarceration or punishment. "We acknowledge that drug abuse is largely a symptom of the individual's inability to cope with his immediate personal environment," they conceded. "However, it must be understood that deep societal ills increase the individual's sense of personal alienation.
Specifically, our society has permitted the perpetuation of the Indochina War, of institutional and personal racism, of the pollution of our environment, and of the urban crises.... If the administration is sincere in its concern with drug abuse, it must deal aggressively with the root causes as well as implement the recommendations contained herein."

At this point, it might have been easier if Nixon had just told his Conference delegates that they couldn't have their "root causes" cake (even with its concessionary 'individual inability to cope' icing) and eat it too: There was only so much federal funding to go around. Just three months after the Youth Conference met, Nixon launched a drug war that framed drug users not as alienated youths whose addiction was caused by inhabiting a fundamentally inequitable society, but as criminals attacking the moral fiber of the nation, people who deserved only incarceration and punishment.

Long before William Bennett wrote that the root cause of crime was moral poverty (and well after Richmond Hobson called drug users the vampires of society), Nixon was chewing on the same meaty ideas, privileging the view that drug abusers were criminals and decreasing social welfare funding would therefore attack the root causes of drug abuse. This criminalization of drug users launched a trend; Nixon's was one of the last administrations to spend more on prevention and treatment than law enforcement and nearly every administration since (with the exception of Jimmy Carter's) worked to increase the division between prevention and enforcement spending.

This division has become the core of our modern war on drugs. After all, why finance a war on poverty when there's a politically popular war against crime to fund? This tension has a long and complex history. As any scholar of addiction or drug history knows, Nixon wasn't the first president (let alone the first person) to ponder the question of whether drug abusers were victims of their environment or of their own personal vice. David Courtwright, Arthur Benavie, James Inciardi, David Musto, and Caroline Acker and Sarah Tracy, among many others, have traced America's two-century quest to figure out what lies behind a person's abuse of chemical substances. These scholars have written excellent texts showing how, historically, the pendulum has repeatedly swung between these two poles. They've also shown how, through the ages, the specter of drug abuse has been a presented as a cause (or a whipping boy) for the ills of the era. It was Nixon's drug war in the early 1970s, however, where the drug-user-as-culpable-source-of-crime exploded into view. Since this image has come to underscore the drug policies that Republican presidential contenders are currently debating right now, and given that it informs much of our current era of drug law confusion, we must attempt to understand the origins of this debate.

In Nixon's eyes, drug use was rampant in 1971 not because of grand social pressures that society had a duty to correct, but because drug users were law-breaking hedonists who deserved only discipline and punishment. After all, this was the same man who argued in "What Happened to America?" (published in Reader's Digest in 1967) that, when it came to punishing rioters in Detroit and Newark, "our opinion-makers have gone too far in promoting the doctrine that when the law is broken, society, not the criminal is to blame." This view appealed to Nixon's "Silent Majority," his core constituency of voters who had grown tired of shouldering the blame as drug use grew rampant and violence tore inner cities apart.


To be fair, drugs clearly were a problem in 1971 (I mean, did you see Panic in Needle Park?), even if the Nixon administration distorted the numbers that tied drug addiction to instances of crime. Shifting the conversation away from eradicating the causes of crime and focusing solely on punishing the criminal, the 'Law and Order' President was able to do two things: First, Nixon exonerated the white middle class from responsibility for the drug-related violence ravaging the inner cities. Second, he transformed the public image of the drug user into one of a dangerous and anarchic threat to American civilization. Shifting public perception in this way ultimately served to reinforce the 'necessity' of Nixon's drug war. Once addicts were no longer seen as sick victims of a society that systematically excluded them, no one would mind when they were simply locked up. In fact, incarceration was for the nation's own good.

In some ways, one can understand this shift in social terms. The issue of drug addiction has long straddled the line between being framed as a medical, political, or moral issue. Richard Nixon simply presented his stance in terms that appealed specifically to his conservative base. Andrew Hacker, in his 1973 article "On Original Sin and Conservatives," summed up the "'personal culpability" argument succinctly when he claimed that conservatives believe that "man is infected by the virus of Original Sin," and that we are all "prone to perversity; that the best-intentioned plans will have self-defeating consequences; that no society can ever attain consensus." Worse still, "to assume that we know enough to diagnose causes (derelict housing, bad schools, unemployment) or to bring about cures (jobs, slum clearance, better education) is a monumental delusion. The conservative prescription is to bring criminality under control."

This is precisely the ideology that underscored all of Nixon's drug war policies and allowed him to present himself as the moral solution to failed liberal initiatives. It was a delusion, as Hacker points out, to assume that we could cure social problems that are, at root, lapses in moral judgment and the mark of original sin. The addict doesn't need to be cured. Rather, he needs to be contained before he can do any additional harm. Launching a war that emphasizes forfeiture and "no-knock" drug busts over rehabilitation or treatment is the most logical outcome of this reasoning, one that we've endured since 1971.

lawanddisorder-org.jpg In the early 1970s, the battle against drug abuse touched upon all of the nine realms that troubled the delegates at the Youth Conference. Poverty, the economy, jobs, Vietnam, and education -- all were deeply tied up in Nixon's war on drugs, even though the answers the delegates arrived at found cold reception from the administration itself. It was here, in the late 1960s and early '70s, when drug use became a visibly powerful post-war political trope, an element of Nixon's southern strategy and an epidemic that served as an excuse to overturn a decade of social welfare spending and replace it with increased law enforcement and police surveillance. And it was during Nixon's administration-and-a-half where the believers in "personal culpability" were distinctly sundered (and, in Nixon's case, privileged) from those liberal progressive supporters of "root causes," bringing to a close the Great Society's desire to eradicate the causes of crime rather than just the criminal himself.

While not all conservatives have consistently adhered to this view (after all, the National Review published an opinion piece in 1996 that claimed decisively that the "war on drugs is lost" and, as we all know, Ron Paul defies all stereotypes), this dichotomy perpetually exists and has influenced our drug and culture wars from Nixon's administration to today.

Since historicizing current conundrums never did anyone any harm, I hope you'll hang out with me for the next few days as we explore the myriad origins of one of drug policy's most meaningful debates. In my next post we'll explore the role religious anti-drug activism in the immediate post-war era played in this ongoing discourse. And we'll also answer the fascinating question, What do David Wilkerson, Paul Goodman, and Pat Boone all have in common? The answer is awesome!

This article originally appeared on Points, an Atlantic partner site.

Roger Casement's picture
Roger Casement
Nov. 22, 2011 11:07 am


40 Years Ago: The Beginning of Nixon’s Drug War in His Own Words
By "Radical" Russ Belville on June 17, 2011

The Nixon tapes (text and audio), courtesy of NORML.

Learn all the facts about Nixon’s War on Marijuana – Pre-Order NORML’s Big Book of Marijuana Facts today!

Transcripts by Common Sense for Drug Policy

May 13, 1971, between 10:30am and 12:30pm — Oval Office Conversation 498-5– meeting with Nixon, Haldeman and Ehrlichman

Transcript from the Center for Sensible Drug Policy:
Richard Nixon on the 'stepping stone theory':

RN: “Well, let me tell you one thing that just happened here because it probably wasn’t, I’m sure it wasn’t in the press here, I had a press conference in California which was not televised, but, I was asked about marijuana because a study is being made by a, group, [unintelligible] the government. Now, my position is flat-out on that. I am against legalizing marijuana. Now I’m against legalizing marijuana because, I know all the arguments about, well, marijuana is no worse than whiskey, or etc. etc. etc. But the point is, once you cross that line, from the straight society to the drug society — marijuana, then speed, then it’s LSD, then it’s heroin, etc. then you’re done. But the main point is — well, well we conduct, well this commission will come up with a number of recommendations perhaps with regard to, [unintelligible] the penalties more, because [unintelligible] too far in this respect. As far as legalizing them is concerned, I think we’ve got to take a strong stand, one way or the other, and, uh.”
Roger Casement's picture
Roger Casement
Nov. 22, 2011 11:07 am

From the New York Times, from 1994:

(NEW YORK TIMES) Haldeman Diary Shows Nixon Was Wary of Blacks and Jews
Published: May 18, 1994

The diaries of H. R. Haldeman, President Richard M. Nixon's chief of staff until the Watergate scandal prompted Mr. Nixon to dismiss him, include references to Mr. Nixon's believing that there was "total Jewish domination of the media" and that "the whole problem is really the blacks."

"The Haldeman Diaries," being published today by G. P. Putnam's Sons, are drawn from audio recordings and Mr. Haldeman's daily diary entries.

In one entry, Mr. Haldeman, referring to the President as "P," said:

"P emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to. Pointed out that there has never in history been an adequate black nation, and they are the only race of which this is true. Says Africa is hopeless. The worst there is Liberia, which we built."

In another segment Mr. Haldeman states: "There was considerable discussion of the terrible problem arising from the total Jewish domination of the media and agreement that this is something that would have to be dealt with."

Mr. Haldeman's entry for Feb. 26, 1970, stated that Mr. Nixon "really raged again against United States Jews" and that the President had ordered his chief of staff "not to let any Jews see him about the Middle East." Mr. Haldeman noted that the outburst was in the presence of the national security adviser, Henry A. Kissinger, who is Jewish.

Plot to Impugn Kennedy

In an entry on June 23, 1971, Mr. Haldeman dictated a passage about how to use reports of sexual escapades against Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat whom Mr. Nixon considered a likely rival for the Presidency in 1972. "We need to take advantage of this opportunity and get him in a compromising situation if we can," Mr. Haldeman said.

Mr. Nixon died last month. Mr. Haldeman died last year.

Mr. Haldeman's recollections also indicate that Mr. Nixon had wanted his predecessor, Lyndon B. Johnson, to persuade Democratic senators to halt their Watergate inquiry and had threatened to reveal that Mr. Johnson bugged the Nixon campaign plane in 1968.

Mr. Haldeman recorded that on June 25, 1972, eight days after the Watergate break-in set in motion the events that eventually led Mr. Nixon to resign, the President was concerned about "the Martha Mitchell problem."

Roger Casement's picture
Roger Casement
Nov. 22, 2011 11:07 am

Liberal Republican Nixon was a bad guy. Agreed. But doesn't practically every Democrat at the Federal level support the War on Drugs as vociferously as the Republicans? There is only one person in Congress who favors repeal of all federal drug laws, and he's a Republican!!!

LysanderSpooner's picture
Jul. 31, 2007 4:01 pm

Repealing all federal drug laws in this country at once may be bad medicine. I know other countries have legalized drugs and made drug abuse a medical problem, not a criminal offense, but did they do it all at once or phase it in ? Doing it all at once here may send too much of a shock to our system, especially if it increases the access by teens and younger kids to dangerous drugs like heroin and cocaine.

With budget cutters like Lyin' Ryan taking a hatchet to all social programs they can get their lil hands on, we may not have the money for treatment programs for those who seek help. There is not enough money for those programs now, and there may be even more of a need after drugs are legalized.

I lost about 6 or 7 friends to drugs and alcohol related accidents over about a year and a half following high school in the mid 70's. Whenever I think back to that time, which is fairly often, the memories and the pain have stayed fresh in my mind, as have the young faces of those that were lost.

Here, it may be best to start with marijuana, which then allows industrial hemp again.

This country took a big step forward toward removing some of the racial aspects of the drug war policies when sentencing guidelines were adjusted to penalize cocaine and crack more evenly. Critics had said for years that crack users tended to be more Black than White, with the opposite being true for powdered cocaine.

Jul. 7, 2011 12:13 pm

"If the people knew what we had done,
they would chase us down the street and lynch us."
~ George H.W. Bush to journalist Sarah McClendon

Barney Frank and Dennis Kucinich are against the war on some plants. It's a GOPer war outside of Neocon krats like Klintoon, Biden and Gored. Not even Obama is considered a drug worrier. Compared to Romney Fat Cat’s Reefer Madness. No passion for it. Paul and Johnson are the exceptions, not the rule, and both are more Libertarian than republican. More like Ayn Rand on Drugs It's all just business, profits on the Ganjawar and profits selling synthetics in competition. With bennies to aid Imperialism spreading the message of exploitation around the globe. Not that hard to figure out. Like any of the bastards really cares about the kids...

JIM CROW 2012 thomhartmann

Thank you Miss Rosa
The Racist Ganjawar
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and MMJ Prohibition

“Stop throwing the Constitution in my face!
It's just a god damned piece of paper!”
- George Bush jr

GOP Mogul Behind Drug Rehab 'Torture' Centers
Methinks Thou Dost Protest Too Much
DEAth Merchants

Nixon's lumping Medicinal and Hemp into the mix after the 1937 Marihuana Tax Ax was overturned and kept crude oil, trees, cotton, booze, pesticides, plastic and wars protecting the pillages free to profit, without competition. Just a coincidence? Nixon did what the international banksters and corporate status weird said to do. Nothing about law and order. Law and odor work for big biz the same as the Washington politikons.

Nixon lied to schedule Ganja #1
While Nixon Campaigned, FBI Watched John Lennon
R.I.P. John Lennon

"You're enough of a pro," Nixon tells Shafer, "to know that for you to come out with something that would run counter to what the Congress feels and what the country feels, and what we're planning to do, would make your commission just look bad as hell."
- Richard Milhouse Nixon

"Marijuana does not lead to physical dependency, although some evidence indicates that the heavy, long-term users may develop a psychological dependence on the drug"
The Shafer Commission of 1970

It's just another fascist plot to manipulate the people into paying huge sums of money to a few international banksters and corporatists. High on locally grown Hemp or keep the status weird selling OPEC and pesticides...

Al Capone and Watergate were red herrings
to divert the countries attention from the
Fascist acts of eliminating competition.
Booze/Ethanol or Ganja//Hemp.

DdC's picture
Mar. 22, 2012 1:39 am
"Do you realize the responsibility I carry?
I'm the only person standing between Richard Nixon
and the White House." ~ John F. Kennedy

March 22, 2016
Nixon official: real reason for the drug war was to criminalize black people and hippies
The war on drugs: Is it a genuine public health crusade or an attempt to carry out what author Michelle Alexander characterizes as "the New Jim Crow"?

A new report by Dan Baum for Harper's Magazine suggests the latter. Specifically, Baum refers to a quote from John Ehrlichman, who served as domestic policy chief for President Richard Nixon when the administration declared its war on drugs in 1971. According to Baum, Ehrlichman said in 1994 that the drug war was a ploy to undermine Nixon's political opposition — meaning, black people and critics of the Vietnam War:

Nixon lied to schedule Ganja #1

"You know, it's a funny thing,
every one of the bastards
that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish.
What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob?
~ Richard Nixon

The Racist Ganjawar

“Did we know we were lying about the drugs?
Of course we did.”

Drug War Was Meant To Target Black People
huffingtonpost 03/22/2016
An eye-opening remark from a former aide to President Richard Nixon pulls back the curtain on the true motivation of the United States’ war on drugs.

Legalize it All
by Dan Baum, Harpers Magazine March 23, 2016

“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.
– John Ehrlichman

The World Comes Together,
as The War on Drugs Tears Nations Apart

DdC's picture
Mar. 22, 2012 1:39 am

Can the Presidency Regain Its Integrity After Trump?

Thom plus logo Even those of us old enough to remember have probably forgotten that in the spring of 1979 the Attorney General of the United States appointed a special prosecutor to look into his own president's ownership of his peanut warehouse, to make sure that he wasn't, in any way, making money from his presidency.
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