We have known for years that the war on drugs is a war on Black people, their families and their communities. Books such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow have made a compelling case that through the machinations of the criminal justice system, a new caste system has been created in the U.S., and African-Americans have become the raw materials for mass incarceration. Now, there is evidence that going after Black people was all by design, that this is how the Nixon administration had intended it all in the first place.
In “Legalize It All,” the April cover story of Harper’s magazine, journalist Dan Baum — author of Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure — discusses his 1994 interview with John Ehrlichman. Ehrlichman, who died in 1999, was Nixon’s chief domestic adviser who had spent 18 months behind bars for conspiracy to obstruct justice and perjury as a result of the Watergate cover-up.
In the 1994 interview, Ehrlichman shared with Baum the impetus behind Nixon’s drug war:
“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.”
On June 17, 1971, Nixon announced to Congress his war on drugs, citing the rise in narcotics deaths in New York and other cities across the nation, and the effects of drugs on society as grounds for a greater federal role in drug control.
“Narcotic addiction is a major contributor to crime. The cost of supplying a narcotic habit can run from $30 a day to $100 a day. This is $210 to $700 a week, or $10,000 a year to over $36,000 a year,” Nixon said, according to the American Presidency Project at the University of California Santa Barbara. “Untreated narcotic addicts do not ordinarily hold jobs. Instead, they often turn to shoplifting, mugging, burglary, armed robbery, and so on. They also support themselves by starting other people — young people — on drugs,” he added.
“We must now candidly recognize that the deliberate procedures embodied in present efforts to control drug abuse are not sufficient in themselves. The problem has assumed the dimensions of a national emergency. I intend to take every step necessary to deal with this emergency,” Nixon declared. “The magnitude of the problem, the national and international implications of the problem, and the limited capacities of States and cities to deal with the problem all reinforce the conclusion that coordination of this effort must take place at the highest levels of the Federal Government.”
As Baum noted in Harper’s, while Nixon manufactured the war on drugs as a cynical political tool, every administration since that time has exploited it for its own purposes. For example, while Nancy Reagan told kids to “Just Say No” to drugs, Ronald Reagan ushered in the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act in 1986, which led to zero-tolerance policies and police in the schools, and the arrest of children of color. And Bill Clinton signed the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill into law, which allowed for the expansion of the incarceration state. This, as billions of dollars have gone down the drain, countless lives have been lost to drug-related killings in Latin America, including 100,000 in Mexico alone. And the U.S. has emerged as the world’s largest prison population, with 5 percent of the people in the world but one quarter of the prisoners.
Meanwhile, communities of color have been destroyed and criminalized by design. One in three Black males and one in six Latino males can expect to go to prison in their lifetime — and we know this was no accident, and not by happenstance or the result of immoral people making bad choices in their personal life. Rather, the war on drugs was about devious people in high places choosing to wage a multi-generational assault on Black America. And we are reminded of the quote from mobster Giuseppe Zaluchi in The Godfather, who said of the drug trade, “In my city, we would keep the traffic in the dark people, the coloreds. They’re animals anyway, so let them lose their souls.” Although that was the work of fiction, we know that real-life gangsters operating in government plotted in eerily similar ways.
“The war on drugs has always been more about war than about drugs,” Baum told Atlanta Blackstar. When asked about the origins of the war on drugs, and his insights into the consequences of such policies on people of color, the author offered that such measures were in play even long before Nixon.
“Going back to the early 20th century, when state legislators would thunder about Mexican ‘beet peons’ smoking marijuana, Chinese ‘opium-stupefied drones,’ and ‘cocainized negroes’ threatening white womanhood, criminalizing and vilifying ethnic groups by associating them with drugs has been a shameful American tradition that hasn’t entirely gone away,” Baum said.
Nevertheless, the question that remains is, given all we know about the damage of the drug war — the lost lives and livelihoods, the shattered dreams and broken families, and those who have profited from Black pain and suffering — how do we go about repairing the damage that was created by this deliberate campaign? How does a government begin to make amends for going to war against a segment of its population, and how does society make them whole?