An eye-opening remark from a former aide to President Richard Nixon pulls back the curtain on the true motivation of the United States’ war on drugs.
John Ehrlichman, who served 18 months in prison for his central role in the Watergate scandal, was Nixon’s chief domestic advisor when the president announced the “war on drugs” in 1971. The administration cited a high death toll and the negative social impacts of drugs to justify expanding federal drug control agencies. Doing so set the scene for decades of socially and economically disastrous policies.
Journalist Dan Baum wrote in the April cover story of Harper’s about how he interviewed Ehrlichman in 1994 while working on a book about drug prohibition. Ehrlichman provided some shockingly honest insight into the motives behind the drug war. From Harper’s:
“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.”
In other words, the intense racial targeting that’s become synonymous with the drug war wasn’t an unintended side effect ― it was the whole point.
The quote kicks off Baum’s “Legalize It All,” the cover story for Harper’s April 2016 issue. Read the whole article, which is a comprehensive argument for drug legalization, here.
Baum explained to The Huffington Post why he didn’t include the quote in his 1996 book, Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure.
“There are no authorial interviews in [Smoke and Mirrors] at all; it’s written to put the reader in the room as events transpire,” Baum said in an email. “Therefore, the quote didn’t fit. It did change all the reporting I did for the book, though, and changed the way I worked thereafter.”
The quote does, however, appear in the 2012 book The Moment, a collection of “life-changing stories” from writers and artists.
Baum also talked to HuffPost about why Ehrlichman would confess such a thing in such blunt terms.
“It taught me that people are often eager to unburden themselves, once they no longer have a dog in the fight,” Baum said. “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.”
UPDATE: 3/25 ― Three of John Ehrlichman’s former colleagues have disavowed the quote attributed to him, questioning whether he said it and suggesting that if he did, he may have been making a sarcastic comment. They also disputed the idea that the war on drugs was racially motivated. Read their whole response here.