President Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs doesn’t get a lot of play when it comes to discussing America’s history of war. There are plenty of important conflicts in American history, but the War on Drugs has had the sort of staying power and long-term impact that is only really rivaled by the Cold War. This war's history isn’t really history at all, because it is still very much affecting the United States of America in the present.
False historical narratives created by powerful institutions - such as President Nixon's Saturday Night Massacre - are nothing to those well-versed in America’s story, but the idea that drug addiction needed to be warred upon is a particularly effectual one, in part because it feeds into existing stereotypes about substance abuse. President Nixon abused alcohol, but that did not play into his administration's War on Drugs narrative - however, the stigma of cannabis and its users who were Black or anti-war leftists did. He didn't invent policy that demonized minorities and targeted society’s most vulnerable, but he sure made it easy for that sort of thing to become the norm in America.
Black People Were A Primary Target Of The War On Drugs
Nixon's racist personal views became widely known after the discovery of his secret White House tapes, but former aide John Ehrlichman later said the campaign to target Blacks through drug enforcement was even more direct than previously thought.
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people,” Ehrlichman told Harper's magazine. By “getting the public to associate... Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing [them] 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.”
The Anti-War Movement Was Also Singled Out By Nixon's Crusade
John Ehrlichman, Nixon's domestic policy chief who played a massive role in the Watergate scandals, eventually came clean about a number of things, including the motivations behind targeting drug abuse, saying, "We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war... but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana."
In 1972, Attorney General John Mitchell of the Nixon administration named cannabis as a Schedule I drug on the Controlled Substances Act. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Schedule I "drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse."
Nixon fought hard to find scientific evidence supporting this claim. On his presidential tapes from 1971, he said, "Can I get that out of this son-of-a-b*tching, uh, domestic council?... I mean one of marijuana that just tears the ass out of them."
It Built On Associations And Stereotypes That Already Existed
The War on Drugs was not built on actual research or study of drug addiction. “Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did,” said John Ehrlichman, one of Nixon’s closest allies.
Nixon and his White House built on the work of former anti-drug campaigners like Harry J. Anslinger in order to capitalize on existing associations and stereotypes the public already had about drug use.
Most of those stereotypes, coincidentally, targeted minorities and other “undesirables,” and even included an association between drug use and jazz, courtesy of Anslinger. As the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Anslinger made it his aim to associate Black and Latinx people with cannabis and its alleged harmful effects:
There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negros, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and another others... the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.
Nixon's Personal Opinions On Substances Also Fueled The War
While domestic policy advisor John Ehrlichman had no qualms telling the world about Nixon's racially motivated War on Drugs, some investigative journalists believe it was a bit more nuanced than that. Some speculate Ehrilchman was bitter about spending time in jail for Watergate and did not paint the entire picture. These journalists and archivists point to another reason Nixon was so adamant about the War on Drugs: he personally despised them.
"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?" he once said to H.R. Haldeman. "What is the matter with them? I suppose it's because most of them are psychiatrists."
On another occasion, Nixon ranted "Dope? Do you think the Russians allow dope? Hell no. Not if they can catch it. They send them up. You see, homosexuality, dope, uh, immorality in general: These are the enemies of strong societies.That's why the communists and the left-wingers are pushing it. They're trying to destroy us."
Perhaps most telling of all is a quote from a Nixon essay published in Reader's Digest in 1967, about the punishment of rioters: "Our opinion-makers have gone too far in promoting the doctrine that when the law is broken, society, not the criminal is to blame."