By Douglas Capraro
There have long been discussions about the racial undertones of the War on Drugs, and there is even evidence to suggest that the majority of American drug laws are rooted in racial bias. However, a former aide for Richard Nixon, the president who originally declared the War on Drugs in 1971, has already revealed the blunt truth about how African Americans were targeted under US drug policy.
This information comes from Harper’s Magazine’s April cover story, Legalize It All, where writer Dan Baum makes a convincing case for drug legalization in the US. In the opening segment of this piece, Baum tracks down John Ehrlichman in 1994, five years before his death, to interview him for a book about the War on Drugs. Ehrlichman was an aide to Richard Nixon who also served 18 months in prison for his involvement in the Watergate Scandal.
Working at an engineering firm in Atlanta at the time of this interview, he was asked a number of reportedly “earnest, wonky questions” before finally opening up. The article describes the conversation as follows:
“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.”
Ehrlichman’s frank revelation may come as a shock, but it also confirms the suspicions that many people have held for a long time about the War on Drugs.
“This is a frightening confirmation of what many of us have been saying for years. That this was a real attempt by government to demonize and criminalize a race of people,” Sharpton told the Daily News in response to Ehrlichman’s comments. “And when we would raise the questions over that targeting, we were accused of all kind of things, from harboring criminality to being un-American and trying to politicize a legitimate concern.”
To better understand the racial implications of the War on Drugs though, look no further than the treatment of our current drug epidemic. With the number of heroin-related deaths having quadrupled in 2013 since the dawn of the millenium, people have called for more compassionate measures to fight the current drug epidemic. President Obama himself even proposed a $133 million proposal to expand access for drug treatment and prevention programs.
While this is not at all a step in the wrong direction, it does help confirm some of Ehrlichman’s claims about racism and the War on Drugs. This is mainly because the current heroin epidemic is centered around a predominantly caucasian demographic in New England states like Vermont. If we look at the last major drug epidemic in American history, the 1980s crack epidemic, it’s not hard to see a clear connection between the way we treat the problem and the demographic it effects.
As a stark contrast to the heroin epidemic today, the communities that were effected by the 80s crack epidemic were poor minorities living in inner cities. The treatment and public perception of these individuals were much different than that of today’s addiction suffers, and it was fed largely by inaccurate and sensationalized news headlines.
The Washington Post, for instance, ran 1,565 stories about crack between 1988 and 1989 alone. And even though the Scientific American compared the addictive properties of crack to potato chips in 1983, Newsweek declared it “the most addictive drug known to man.” As a result, crack users were perceived as a criminal threat and were treated as such. Mandatory minimum drug sentences were instituted in 1986 and parole was not offered as an alternative to long sentences. The crackdown on this epidemic also contributed to a meteoric rise in incarceration rates, which saw the number of people behind bars rise from 50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 in 1997.
Many of us may be wondering why writer Dan Baum would choose to drop a bombshell like that of Ehrlichman’s claim about racism and the War on Drugs so long after the interview was conducted. According to him though, the interview with Ehrlichman did not fit into the scheme of the book that he was originally conducting the interview for. The book in question, Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure, was meant to put the reader in the middle of events as they occur. Therefore, he says, “the quote didn’t fit. It did change all the reporting I did for the book, though, and changed the way I worked thereafter.”
Strangely enough, the conversation was eventually published in the 2012 book The Moment, a collection of “life-changing stories” from writers and artists. The media, however, did not pick up on it at the time.