A new piece from Harper’s Magazine, released today (March 22), unearths a quote from a former policy advisor for President Richard Nixon that clears the air on pretty much everything we already thought about the War on Drugs.
The quote comes from a piece by Dan Baum that argues for legalizing banned narcotics and ending the War on Drugs—a costly, decades-long assault on impoverished communities of color, countries struggling under neo-imperialism and leftist political resistance. Baum writes about a 1994 interview with Nixon advisor John Ehrlichman, who spent a year and a half in federal prison for his role in the Watergate scandal. He offers the following exchange:
At the time, I was writing a book about the politics of drug prohibition. I started to ask Ehrlichman a series of earnest, wonky questions that he impatiently waved away. “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.”
Baum’s piece extensively lays out the case for how drug legalization in America could work (drawing from models used in Portugal and the Netherlands), noting that given shifts in public opinion and policy in the last decade, “it’s time to shift the conversation from why to how.”