President Richard Nixon and his administration invented the war on drugs to vilify and unjustly punish African Americans and anti-war hippies, according to a just-published interview with Nixon’s late domestic-policy adviser John Ehrlichman.
The interview with Ehrlichman — published in Harper’s April issue — is so alarmingly dastardly that it’s hard to imagine how Colorado-based journalist Dan Baum (mostly) kept it to himself for all these years.
“You want to know what this was really all about?” Ehrlichman asked Baum in 1994, five years before Ehrlichman died of complications from diabetes. “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.”
Baum said Ehrlichman spoke “with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect.” Ehrlichman was, of course, a key figure in the presidency-defining Watergate scandal and served 18 months in federal prison after being convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, perjury and other charges.
Assuming Ehrlichman’s confession is true — which we are, because Baum is a serious, legitimate journalist — it confirms what many have long assumed of the United States’ fruitless War on Drugs. As Baum wrote for the April Harper’s:
Nixon’s invention of the war on drugs as a political tool was cynical, but every president since — Democrat and Republican alike — has found it equally useful for one reason or another. Meanwhile, the growing cost of the drug war is now impossible to ignore: billions of dollars wasted, bloodshed in Latin America and on the streets of our own cities, and millions of lives destroyed by draconian punishment that doesn’t end at the prison gate; one of every eight black men has been disenfranchised because of a felony conviction.
“It taught me that people are often eager to unburden themselves, once they no longer have a dog in the fight,” Baum told HuffPo. “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.”