The Drug War was officially declared on June 17, 1971 when President Nixon claimed drugs to be “Public Enemy Number One.” But was that really the case? Could there have been another far deeper, carefully calculated plan that had nothing to do with marijuana?
It was a different time. Or perhaps not. In a nation struggling with civil strife, poverty, racial inequality/tension, corporate domination, ecological disasters, and a hated, highly protested Vietnam War—sharing a little marijuana among friends hardly qualified as a heavily punishable federal offense, much less “public enemy number one.” Beginning in the 50’s, smoking marijuana was popularized by peace-loving, mostly white “hippies.” But with this proclamation, marijuana possession became illegal.
And if the President declared it to be so in a television message, it must be so. There were no Internet or cell phone videos, no “Google” instant searches– the public relied on TV and newspapers for information.
Walter Cronkite was “the most trusted man in America” on the CBS Evening News.
For centuries, cannabis had been used medicinally for a wide variety of conditions. Ancient Chinese doctors reduced the seeds to powder and mixed it with wine as an anesthetic before surgery. Egyptians used it for glaucoma, cataracts, hemorrhoids, and vaginal bleeding. In ancient India it was used for insomnia, headaches, G.I. disorders, and pain relief. It was even used for treating cancer. Imagine that! But no one ever heard about it on the evening news. Except when it was vilified as the enemy.
Somewhere Don Henley was singing “Dirty Laundry.”
“We got the bubble-headed-bleach-blonde
Who comes on at five
She can tell you ‘bout the plane crash
with a gleam in her eye.
It’s interesting when people die
Give us dirty laundry.”
Years before in the 1930’s, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal social programs attracted black voters to the Democratic Party. John Kennedy supported civil and voting rights legislation, and along with the 24th Amendment (ending the poll tax) brought many blacks to the Democratic Party. The Democrats push toward civil rights angered southern whites. Cue Nixon’s “Southern Strategy”—welcoming the segregationist south to the party of Lincoln. Part one was about securing the white vote.
According to Wikipedia:
“In American politics, the Southern Strategy was a Republican Party electoral strategy to increase political support among white voters in the South by appealing to racism against African Americans.”
By the 1970’s, racist language was no longer acceptable. Nixon found a way to open the door to the former Confederates by appealing to angry southern whites. The problem was that in many southern states, more than 40% of potential voters were black. If they were now allowed to vote, and their votes were actually counted—the Democratic Party would hold the south with just a moderate amount of white support.
Cue the War on Drugs. Though reliable national arrest numbers from the seventies and beyond are difficult to obtain, Michelle Alexander does so with credible evidence from multiple academic studies and numerous legal decisions that she presents in her compelling and transformative book, The New Jim Crow (listed below in the resources). Her strength is in her research and ability to weave hundreds of references into one persuasive analytical argument about race in America.
More than 31 million Americans were arrested for drugs between 1980 and 2007. Additionally, between 2008 and 2014, another 9 million plus were arrested for drug possession. Justice Department statistics show that more than half of those were for simple possession of marijuana. 20 million African-American men have been sent to prison for non-violent crimes in the past 40 years.
Other than the KKK, nothing worked better to accomplish the primary political goal of suppressing the black vote and decimating the African-American community than the so-called war on drugs. By eliminating voter eligibility and suppressing black turnout, the drug war helped the GOP take control of the south. It also created a multi-billion-dollar-industry in prison construction and management—creating jobs for lawyers, prison guards, judges, etc. and creating enormous wealth for investors. Prisons are big business.
Government policies that target African Americans (and other minorities) are often made on the premise of Nixon’s national War on Drugs. Ronald Reagan signed an inmate Bill of Rights and pushed for prisoner rehabilitation when he was Governor of California—but changed his mind after the War on Drugs was declared. Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which stopped funding for 100,000 new police officers and 125,000 new cells in state prisons. During the Clinton administration, the ratio of African American to white inmates in federal penitentiaries doubled from 3:1 to 6:1.
Richard Nixon’s racism is well documented and recorded. If you were around during the Watergate scandal, you would remember that John Ehrlichman (Nixon’s domestic policy advisor) played a key role in the events leading up to the actual Watergate break-in. He was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury and spent a year and a half in prison, while Nixon managed to negotiate an immunity deal. Ehrlichman gave an interview to Dan Baum of Harper’s Magazine in 1994 (resource below) that pretty much sums up Nixon’s war on drugs:
“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.”
“You don’t really need to find out what’s going on
You don’t really want to know just how far it’s gone
Just leave well enough alone
Eat your dirty laundry”
It’s time to wake up.