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The Cultural Impact of Nixon’s War On Drugs Campaign

For young people, the war on drugs has been a constant. People born after 1980 have no concept of a world where the federal government doesn’t shovel billions of dollars into militarized police forces. They can only imagine what it would be like to live in a society that doesn’t lock people in cages for struggling with addiction or consuming a certain type of plant. 

In that regard, the war on drugs is not unlike the actual wars the United States waged in the Middle East. It is perpetual, unwinnable, and anyone under forty doesn’t remember how we got there in the first place. 

Who Started The War On Drugs? 

It’s a phrase we’ve all heard politicians prattle off numerous times, but how exactly did the War on Drugs begin?

Today, the phrase gets used internationally, but we can trace the origins back to one American President—Richard Nixon. In 1971, Tricky Dick claimed that drug use in the country had become so perilous to the American people that it constituted a national emergency, and he petitioned Congress for the enormous initial sum of 84 million dollars to wage a war on drugs themselves, declaring drugs to be “public enemy number one.” 

Why Did The War On Drugs Begin? 

So what prompted the Nixon administration to take such a hardline stance on what’s generally considered to be a victimless crime? If you really wanted to help addicts, would you completely torpedo their lives by sending them into a criminal justice system with one of the highest recidivism rates in the world? Could there be another motive behind this strategy? 

According to John Ehrlichman, a top Nixon aide and a key figure in the Watergate scandal, the administration’s drug policy had a much more nefarious basis. In an interview with Harper’s Magazine, Ehrlichman boldly stated,

“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.”

Racial Motivations Behind The War On Drugs

It wouldn’t be unheard of for the Federal Government to use drug laws to target specific minority groups. In fact, the United States has a rich tradition of doing just that. In the 19th century, we used anti-opium laws to criminalize Chinese immigrants. Some 50 years later, the country would pass the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, one of the nation’s first pieces of cannabis legislation, targeted Mexicans and African-American jazz musicians. 

These aren’t just products of a bygone era; this kind of profiling continues today. According to the ACLU, African-Americans are four times more likely to face criminal charges for marijuana-related offenses than their white counterparts, despite both groups reporting similar usage. 

Intended Or Unintended Consequences Of The War On Drugs 

Despite all the money we spend, the war on drugs has done very little to stop addiction or recreational drug use.

Today, America has a larger prison population than any other nation on the planet. Our jails are overcrowded, underfunded, and filled to the brim with non-violent criminals who enter the system due to simple drug charges. Meanwhile, Purdue Pharma sold more opiates to the American public than any underground drug kingpin could ever dream of. 

Local police departments, which now more closely resemble a navy seal battalion than Andy Griffith and Barney Fife, have become completely militarized thanks to the War on Drugs. They’re equipped with tanks, armored vehicles, and chemical weapons, which they consistently use to squash lawful protests and injure journalists.  

The war effort isn’t cheap either. We’ve spent an estimated trillion dollars funding the War on Drugs since it started. The federal government spends around 9 million dollars daily just to house inmates convicted of drug-related offenses. 

Most of that money goes into the pockets of for-profit prison companies, who squeeze every ounce of profit out of their institutions to the detriment of the prison’s actual living conditions. Not to mention the almost free labor derived from prison work companies which many criminal justice reform activists refer to as a continuation of chattel slavery. Those profits get channeled into lobbying groups who tirelessly work to keep the failed drug policies that keep their prisons stocked with bodies in place, creating a self-perpetuating cycle. 

The Future Of The War On Drugs

The vast majority of Americans support ending the war on drugs. The whole concept of a war on drugs seems ludicrous in retrospect, inspiring such mockery like the name of the Philly-based rock band The War On Drugs or memes congratulating drugs for winning the war on drugs.

The future of these failed policies will depend on the integrity of our politicians. Will they listen to the will of the people, or will they continue to bow to the interests of lobbyists?