In his report exploring the many ways in which the the legalization of drugs could ultimately be the way to end the war on drugs for this month's edition of Harper's, Dan Baum details a conversation that he once had with John Ehrlichman, former Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs under Richard Nixon.
Rather than delving into the mental and political gymnastics it took to convince the public that the war on drugs was for its own good, Ehrlichman explained to Baum just what the war actually was: a calculated attack on black people and those against the Vietnam war.
“You want to know what this was really all about," Ehrlichman allegedly asked. “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?"
In case you didn't understand what Ehrlichman was saying, he elaborated in even more frank terms. Not only was the Nixon administration actively lying about drugs, it was willfully crafting a narrative about them that could be used to demonize black people. It's worth noting that Ehrlichman died in 1999, five years after Baum spoke to him. While he never confirmed the Nixon administration's racism so pointedly in any other interviews, his own personal tendency to characterize black people as "sexually degenerate" is well-documented.
"We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black [people], 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," Ehrlichman explained. "We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news."
In the years following the beginning war on drugs, there were a number of changes to domestic policy re: drugs that had the most notable effects on the way that we treated people for possessing, selling, and using drugs. Years after Nixon declared the start of the war on drugs, black people were twice as likely as whites to be arrested for drug possession. By 1988, when the war was in full swing, black people were five times as likely to be in prison for using drugs despite making up a smaller percentage of the drug using population.
Baum correctly points out that subsequent presidents doubled down with the war on drugs to their own political ends, doing little to roll back the impact of the policies that Nixon first put into place. In order to ultimately curtail the damaging impact the war on drugs has had on minority communities, Baum reasons, one of the first things that the U.S. can do now is move toward the widespread legalization of marijuana.
“Without marijuana, the use of drugs is negligible, and you can’t justify the law-enforcement and prison spending on the other drugs. Their use is vanishingly small," Baum argues, quoting former ACLU head Ira Glasser. "I always thought that if you could cut the marijuana head off the beast, the drug war couldn’t be sustained.”