“‘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.’” — former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman in 2016
It’s a reality that many had already known. The Drug War began as a way for the Nixon administration to fight its enemies. And who were its enemies? “The antiwar left and black people,” revealed former Nixon staffer and Watergate co-conspirator John Ehrlichman, 45 years after Nixon implemented his war on drugs.
“America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive,” said Nixon while announcing the appointment of Dr. Jerome H. Jaffe, special consultant to the President for Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. He spoke from the White House Briefing Room on June 17, 1971. Nixon was not only appointing Jaffe, but he was expanding the reach of the federal government. Worse, he had damned nearly half of the civil liberties found in the Bill of Rights.
From there, Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). It was designed to consolidate various drug agencies. Though Nixon resigned shortly after, the Drug War was far from over.
Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
President Gerald Ford’s administration, brief as it was, released The White Paper in 1975. The drug abuse report had named marijuana a low-priority drug. It was considered under “non-dependence-producing drugs.” Ford’s administration made a note of the difference. Well, sort of:
* A great deal of controversy exists about marihuana policy. On the one hand, recent research indicates that marihuana is far from harmless, and that chronic use can produce adverse psychological and physiological effects. Therefore, its use should be strongly discouraged as a matter of national policy.
However, in light of the widespread recreational use — and the relatively low social cost associated with this type of use — the Federal Government has been deemphasizing simple possession and use of marihuana in its law enforcement efforts for several years. For example, very few persons are arrested by Federal agents for simple possession and use; those who are charged with this offense normally are also being charged with some other, more serious offense as well. However, vigorous law enforcement aimed at major traffickers has been and should continue to be undertaken at the Federal level.
The task force endorses this moderate view and expects the lower priority that has been established for marihuana will also be reflected in our demand reduction efforts by the elimination of many non-compulsive marihuana users now in our treatment system.
There was another brief period where the hysteria, at least where marijuana was concerned, appeared to have subsided. President Jimmy Carter campaigned on decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of the drug. He took his campaign promise to Congress in a 1977 speech. “Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself,” Carter declared. His speech questioned the efficacy of law enforcement’s role as there appeared to be no significant changes in marijuana use.
Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself.
Carter desired to curtail drug use, but he believed that decriminalization (to a certain extent) was a better way. He expressed the need to improve drug treatment facilities. He even wrote in 2011 that he recommended the federal government experiment with the legalization and regulation of various drugs. Carter still made significant contributions to the problem, like proposing that the possible value of drug violators’ property that could be seized by the federal government be raised to four times the previous amount.
Carter’s idealism quickly grew faint as the country shocked itself back into hysteria.
President Ronald Reagan assumed office in 1981. He prioritized the Drug War. With that came first lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign. This came at the same time the nation was adopting Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE), a program started by Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates — Gates will go down in history for saying that “casual drug users should be taken out and shot.” There was no proof that the program was effective at curbing drug abuse.
President George H.W. Bush’s relationship was morphed into the time, his domestic contribution shaped by more spending for the Drug War. President Bill Clinton was no different. Having once advocated for treatment, he eventually passed “tough on crime legislation.” The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 introduced the controversial “three strikes law.” The idea was simple enough: three violent felonies on one’s record would result in automatic life in prison. But it not only haunted the American criminal justice system, causing mass incarceration rates to summit, it also tainted Hillary Clinton’s image with minority voters in 2016.
The Clintons have since tried to apologize.
After Clinton came President George W. Bush, and with him a hasty increase in the militarization of the Drug War. Police began to be outfitted as though they were in an actual war. American streets began to look like real battlefields. As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) put it:
Across the country, heavily armed Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams are forcing their way into people’s homes in the middle of the night, often deploying explosive devices such as flashbang grenades to temporarily blind and deafen residents, simply to serve a search warrant on the suspicion that someone may be in possession of a small amount of drugs.
Then it was President Barack Obama’s turn.
Information found on The Drug Policy Alliance’s website contributed to this timeline.
This is part two of our series “Pardon,” examining the state of nonviolent criminal justice reform as the Obama presidency comes to a close.