The war on drugs explained by a Nixon adviser (or not)

Americans have been criminalizing psychoactive substances since San Francisco’s anti-opium law of 1875, but it was Ehrlichman’s boss, Richard Nixon, who declared the first “war on drugs” and set the country on the wildly punitive and counterproductive path it still pursues. I’d tracked Ehrlichman, who had been Nixon’s domestic-policy adviser, to an engineering firm in Atlanta, where he was working on minority recruitment. I barely recognized him. He was much heavier than he’d been at the time of the Watergate scandal two decades earlier, and he wore a mountain-man beard that extended to the middle of his chest.

At the time, I was writing a book about the politics of drug prohibition. I started to ask Ehrlichman a series of earnest, wonky questions that he impatiently waved away. “You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “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.”

I must have looked shocked. Ehrlichman just shrugged. Then he looked at his watch, handed me a signed copy of his steamy spy novel, The Company, and led me to the door.

Full story by Dan Baum in Harpers.

Update: Several people pointed me to this counterpoint by Justin Sherin:

anyone with a basic knowledge of the tapes knows that Nixon’s War on Drugs was an earnest, if catastrophic, personal failing.

The basic point is that Nixon was too out of touch to understand and come to terms with casual drug use. It’s not the strongest or best-evidenced analysis, but to say “Ehrlichman is grossly exaggerating and rationalizing the anti-Black anti-left motive” is plausible.

67 thoughts on “The war on drugs explained by a Nixon adviser (or not)

  1. The entire article was excellent. Well thought out and fair about how difficult making reasonable changes will be. Unfortunately horrible policies like the “war on drugs” take on a life of their own. Both big money and egos are involved in it. But in time a constituency that profits from decriminalization will grow and a tipping point will be reached. But please don’t ever expect doing “what is right” to be a willing argument. Nixon was just more openly cynical than the rest.

  2. Like @SEASolicitorCJS, I’m skeptical. But HuffPo explains it thus:

    Baum explained to The Huffington Post why he didn’t include the quote in his 1996 book, Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure.

    “There are no authorial interviews in [Smoke and Mirrors] at all; it’s written to put the reader in the room as events transpire,” Baum said in an email. “Therefore, the quote didn’t fit. It did change all the reporting I did for the book, though, and changed the way I worked thereafter.”

    The quote does, however, appear in the 2012 book The Moment, a collection of “life-changing stories” from writers and artists.

    Baum also talked to HuffPost about why Ehrlichman would confess such a thing in such blunt terms.

    “It taught me that people are often eager to unburden themselves, once they no longer have a dog in the fight,” Baum said. “The interviewer needs to be patient sometimes, and needs to ask the right way. But people will often be incredibly honest if given the chance.”