In a brief 1994 interview, former White House aide and co-conspirator to Richard Nixon, John Ehrilichman, admitted that the Nixon administration manufactured the war on drugs as a political tool to control way more than just illegal substances. Most political decisions seem extraordinarily complex but the reasoning behind this one now seems quite simple: to further oppress black people and other minority groups for their own political gain.
In this month’s issue of Harper’s Magazine, journalist Dan Baum (author of Smoke and Mirrors: the War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure) recounts the details of this interview. He writes:
“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.”
Of course, Ehrlichman is only confirming what we sadly already know to be true. The war on drugs is just one example of systemic racism still alive in our country, and its effects are still being felt. Although the U.S. is home to less than 5% of the world’s population, it houses over 20% of the world’s prisoners–and of those prisoners, a disproportionate amount are black. In fact, black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts.
Black individuals make up only 14% of regular drug users, yet 37% of all people arrested for drug-related offenses, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. These inequalities do not mean that people of color interact with drugs more than their white counterparts. Instead, they reflect the institutionalization of that belief. Blacks are also disproportionately sentenced for these offenses. One in 3 black men is likely to serve life in prison, compared to 1 in 17 white men, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (via the Sentencing Project).
Check out the Drug Policy Alliance’s Activist Toolkit to learn more, get involved, and urge your representatives to eradicate the failed policies of Nixon’s drug war.