We all know the so-called War on Drugs has been disastrous for Black folks in America, ballooning the prison population and locking up African Americans for drug crimes at much high rates than white folks even though both groups use drug at similar rates. And while conspiracy theories about the government pumping in illegal drugs in communities of color have persisted for decades, in a recent interview with Harper’s (here’s a cached version), a top advisor to former president Richard Nixon admitted the War on Drugs was just an excuse to criminalize Black folks and anti-war protesters.
In the article, John Ehrlichman, a Watergate co-conspirator, casually discusses the catalyst for the manufactured “war.”
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.
Given Nixon’s blatant racism, it’s not hard to believe his administration concocted a reason to imprison Black activists and communities, but he wasn’t the only president who used tough drug policies to criminalize communities of color.
Writer Dan Baum explains:
Nixon’s invention of the war on drugs as a political tool was cynical, but every president since — Democrat and Republican alike — has found it equally useful for one reason or another. Meanwhile, the growing cost of the drug war is now impossible to ignore: billions of dollars wasted, bloodshed in Latin America and on the streets of our own cities, and millions of lives destroyed by draconian punishment that doesn’t end at the prison gate; one of every eight black men has been disenfranchised because of a felony conviction.
President Obama has tried to turn the page, calling the War on Drugs “counterproductive.”
“I am a very strong believer that the path we have taken in the United States in the so-called war on drugs has been so heavy in emphasizing incarceration that it has been counterproductive,” the president said last year. “You have young people who did not engage in violence who get very long penalties, who get placed in prison and then are rendered economically unemployable, are almost pushed into the underground economy, learn crime more effectively in prison — families are devastated. So it’s been very unproductive.”
The Obama Administration has worked to end drug sentencing disparities, and the Justice Department has promised to release 6,000 drug offenders. Still, it’s hard to understate the devastating effects Nixon’s War on Drugs has had on the Black community.