The dirty origin of the war on drugs

Paul Danish/Sue France

Twenty years ago (in 1995 probably) I was sitting in on a panel discussion at the University of Colorado Boulder on the drug war when one of the participants made a jaw-dropping claim.

The speaker was Dan Baum, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who was working on a book about the war on drugs, which had been started during the Nixon Administration and had been continued and expanded during the Reagan Administration and the administrations of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Baum said he had interviewed John Ehrlichman, who had served as Nixon’s domestic policy advisor and had gone to prison as a result of his role in the Watergate scandal, about the origins of the drug war. He said Ehrlichman flatly stated that the Nixon administration began the war on drugs as a way of attacking his enemies in the counter-culture — specifically blacks and the young — and not out of any concern about the harmful effects of drugs. He also said that Ehrlichman told him they knew drugs weren’t as harmful as they were portraying them, but that public response to the drug war was so overwhelming that they couldn’t have stopped it if they wanted to — which they didn’t.

Baum included the incident in his 1996 book, Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure, but it has never received the national attention it deserves. Until now, that is.
Baum, who is now a freelance journalist living in Boulder, had a big article on drug legalization in the April issue of Harper’s. He used his encounter with Ehrlichman as the lede:

“In 1994, John Ehrlichman, the Watergate co-conspirator, unlocked for me one of the great mysteries of modern American history: How did the United States entangle itself in a policy of drug prohibition that has yielded so much misery and so few good results…? 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,” Baum said. “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.”
From 1969 — the first year of the Nixon Administration — to the present, there were approximately 25 million marijuana arrests in the United States. In addition, there were a similar number of arrests for hard drugs.

In other words, 50 million Americans were arrested for political reasons, not because the United States had a drug problem but because Richard Nixon had a problem with the anti-Vietnam War young Americans and blacks.

New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan titled his monumental 1988 biography/memoir of John Vann and the Vietnam War, A Bright Shining Lie.

The phrase perfectly describes the war on drugs generally and the war on marijuana in particular.