Former Nixon Aide Claims War on Drugs Was Invented To 'Vilify' Black People

By Zachary Siegel 03/23/16

The extreme racial profiling of the War on Drugs wasn't a side effect—it was the point. 

Former Nixon Aide Claims War on Drugs Was Invented To 'Vilify' Black People
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In 1996, veteran reporter Dan Baum published his seminal bookSmoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure. More recently, he wrote a long, incisive feature for Harper’s Magazine on how to end the drug war once and for all: “Legalize it all.”

Before rolling out his argument as to why the drug war is a massive failure, Baum begins his story by attacking the racist assumptions on which the war itself is premised. He does this with what might be the most truthful, yet damning quote from one John Ehrlichman, an aide to the beleaguered Nixon Administration, who served 18 months in prison for his role in the Watergate scandal. 

“At the time, I was writing a book about the politics of drug prohibition,” Baum writes in Harper's. “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?’ [Ehrlichman] asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect.”

Ehrlichman lays out the drug war logic in startling language: “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?" Ehrlichman continued. "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."

Baum was later asked by the Huffington Post why the former Nixon aide would confess to such a thing in such blunt terms, to which he replied: “It taught me that people are often eager to unburden themselves, once they no longer have a dog in the fight. The interviewer needs to be patient sometimes, and needs to ask the right way. But people will often be incredibly honest if given the chance.”

Baum isn’t the only writer to report on what is slowly seeping into mainstream thinking—that Black Americans have historically been disproportionately arrested for illicit drugs, though in general they are less likely to use, abuse, and sell drugs than white Americans. Civil rights and drug policy reform activists have been saying this for years.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.