Last week, the internet exploded with a fairly shocking allegation: President Richard Nixon began America's war on drugs to criminalize black people and hippies, according to a newly revealed 1994 quote from Nixon domestic policy adviser John Ehrlichman.
"The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people," Ehrlichman told journalist Dan Baum in 1994. "You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, 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."
The accusation was shocking, characterizing the war on drugs as a racist, politically motivated crusade.
But Ehrlichman's claim is likely an oversimplification, according to historians who have studied the period and Nixon's drug policies in particular. There's no doubt Nixon was racist, and historians told me that race could have played one role in Nixon's drug war. But there are also signs that Nixon wasn't solely motivated by politics or race: For one, he personally despised drugs — to the point that it's not surprising he would want to rid the world of them. And there's evidence that Ehrlichman felt bitter and betrayed by Nixon after he spent time in prison over the Watergate scandal, so he may have lied.
More importantly, Nixon's drug policies did not focus on the kind of criminalization that Ehrlichman described. Instead, Nixon's drug war was largely a public health crusade — one that would be reshaped into the modern, punitive drug war we know today by later administrations, particularly President Ronald Reagan.
None of that means that the drug war hasn't disproportionately hurt black Americans. It clearly has. But the lessons of Nixon's drug policies may not be so much that he was a racist, power-hungry politician — although, again, he was — but rather that even well-meaning policies can have big, terrible unintended consequences.
Nixon's drug war focused mostly on public health
Let's start with what Nixon actually sought to do when he launched his war on drugs. The speech that started the formal war on drugs in 1971 did not focus solely on criminalization. Instead, Nixon dedicated much of his time to talking up initiatives that would increase prevention and treatment for drug abuse.
"Enforcement must be coupled with a rational approach to the reclamation of the drug user himself," Nixon told Congress in 1971. "We must rehabilitate the drug user if we are to eliminate drug abuse and all the antisocial activities that flow from drug abuse."
The numbers back this up. According to the federal government's budget numbers for anti-drug programs, the "demand" side of the war on drugs (treatment, education, and prevention) consistently got more funding during Nixon's time in office (1969 to 1974) than the "supply" side (law enforcement and interdiction).
Historically, this is a commitment for treating drugs as a public health issue that the federal government has not replicated since the 1970s. (Although President Barack Obama's budget proposal would, for the first time in decades, put a majority of anti-drug spending on the demand side once again.)
Drug policy historians say this was intentional. Nixon poured money into public health initiatives, such as medication-assisted treatments like methadone clinics, education campaigns that sought to prevent teens from trying drugs, and more research on drug abuse. In fact, the Controlled Substances Act — the basis for so much of modern drug policy — actually reduced penalties on marijuana possession in 1970, when Nixon was in office.
"Nixon was really worried about kids and drugs," David Courtwright, a drug policy historian at the University of North Florida, told me. "He saw illicit drug use by young people as a form of social rot, and it's something that weakens America."
Indeed, the person tapped to become the nation's first drug czar and oversee federal drug policies was Jerome Jaffe, a doctor who at the time was working on improving drug addiction treatments in Chicago. Jaffe embraced the position, worrying that it was only a matter of time until the war on drugs became more punitive.
Nixon "saw illicit drug use by young people as a form of social rot, and it's something that weakens America"
"There was an urgency to get as much done as we could," Jaffe told me. "The thrust of American history from the 1920s on was on law enforcement. And I thought, in a sense, Nixon's emphasis on treatment expansion was kind of an aberration."
(As Jaffe suggested, even though Nixon is credited with starting the modern war on drugs, the drug war had been fought for decades before that — since at least 1914 — although more through taxes and regulations than explicit prohibition.)
To some extent, Nixon's hand was forced: One of his big concerns at the time was heroin addiction among Vietnam War soldiers, of whom 15 to 20 percent had drug problems. "A big driver of this in the early 1970s was crime and drug use among soldiers," Courtwright said. "They were really the catalysts. … The attitude toward these people was different, socially: They were sent to a place where there were a lot of drugs in very stressful conditions, so shouldn't we try to treat that problem?"
Nixon would, however, shift to a greater focus on the law enforcement side of the war on drugs over time. Why that shift happened may help explain Ehrlichman's quote.
Nixon did escalate the law enforcement side of the war on drugs due to political motivations
Over time, Nixon did shift more toward the law enforcement side of the war on drugs, particularly when it became politically convenient. But Nixon's personal motives aside, it's entirely plausible that he was tapping into a broader movement instead of creating his own just to criminalize constituents and people of certain races whom he disliked.
In 1972, for instance, Nixon's reelection bid sought to capture longstanding concerns about black crime and drug use among white Southerners — in what's now called the "Southern strategy." To do this, Nixon shifted to the right on drugs with a tough-on-crime platform.
That year, for example, Nixon announced the creation of the Office for Drug Abuse Law Enforcement, a precursor to the Drug Enforcement Administration. The office's goal, as Nixon explained, was to put greater emphasis on fighting drugs through the criminal justice system. "Today our balanced, comprehensive attack on drug abuse moves forward in yet another critical area as we institute a major new program to drive drug traffickers and drug pushers off the streets of America," Nixon said in 1972.
"These are very harsh measures. … But circumstances warrant such provisions"
But it didn't stop with the 1972 campaign. As the allegations in the Watergate scandal grew in 1973, Nixon once again put emphasis on the law enforcement side.
In January 1973, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller proposed harsher prison sentences, including mandatory minimums, for drug trafficking. At the time, Nixon quipped to his staff, "Rocky can ride this thing for all it's worth" — suggesting he knew the political value in Rockefeller's move.
Nixon followed Rockefeller's plan with his own proposal: In March 1973, he outlined a plan to step up prison sentences, including mandatory minimums, for drugs. Nixon was very clear in his intent: "These are very harsh measures, to be applied within very rigid guidelines and providing only a minimum of sentencing discretion to judges. But circumstances warrant such provisions." The plan, however, was swallowed in the chaos of the Watergate scandal.
From this point, the war on drugs would slowly get more punitive. Under the Reagan administration in the 1980s, the true war on drugs began: Prison sentences for drugs went way up, especially through mandatory minimums. And more funding went to the law enforcement and interdiction side of the drug war than prevention and treatment.
To some degree, it might seem like Nixon began a movement that led to the harsh war on drugs we know today. But there's another way to look at it: Nixon simply rode the longstanding sentiment in America to get tough on crime and drugs. After all, Nixon actually followed Rockefeller's lead in proposing tougher prison sentences for drugs. And the administrations that followed Nixon seemed politically compelled to continue the drug war, leading to its big escalation in the 1980s and 1990s through the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations.
"The drug war had been building for decades prior to Nixon," Kathleen Frydl, a drug policy historian and author of The Drug Wars in America, 1940-1973, told me. "The shift from regulation to punishment was something that was underway for two decades prior to Nixon taking office. And it's something that endured long beyond just the campaign against counterculture."
Still, it's possible that Nixon also saw the kind of political benefit Ehrlichman claimed: A focus on law enforcement could disproportionately hurt black Americans, a voting bloc that had generally opposed Nixon. And it's certainly true that the war on drugs has hit black Americans the hardest.
Regardless of Nixon's motives, the war on drugs has hurt black people the most
The statistics bear out Ehrlichman's claim: Although black Americans aren't significantly more likely to use or sell drugs, they're much more likely to be arrested for them. And when black people are convicted of drug charges, they generally face longer prison sentences for the same crimes, according to a 2012 report from the US Sentencing Commission.
These are the statistics tens of thousands of people likely thought of when they shared the 1994 quote all across their social media feeds. The quote seemed to confirm what a lot of people suspected all along.
Historians are very skeptical. Nixon's personal hatred for drugs likely played a big role, regardless of his feelings about race and hippies. And so much of anti-drug efforts at the time went to public health measures, suggesting criminalization of any group was not the sole goal of Nixon's drug war.
"It's certainly true that Nixon didn't like blacks and didn't like hippies," Courtwright said. "But to assign his entire drug policy to his dislike of these two groups is just ridiculous."
Frydl echoed the sentiment: "I don't want to dissuade people from thinking that the drug war has allowed the state to execute what's been largely a racialized agenda. That is definitely true. … But this particular quote is a superficial assessment."
Nixon didn't have to be explicitly racist for the drug war to end up disproportionately hurting black people
But here's the thing: Nixon didn't have to be explicitly racist for the drug war to end up disproportionately hurting black people. In fact, time and time again, the story of racism in America in the past few decades has been that black people are hurt by policies that appear race-neutral because people, including law enforcement, carry all sorts of subconscious biases against minority Americans. These biases are then further compounded with longstanding systemic disparities in housing and the workplace.
This is crucial to understanding America's remaining struggles with systemic racism. It's not so much that lawmakers are publicly and explicitly racist, as they were in the past. Instead, individuals' underlying racial biases and existing systemic issues have corrupted many policies that in theory should have never led to racist results.
The reform-minded Sentencing Project stated as much in a 2015 report about Black Lives Matter: "Myriad criminal justice policies that appear to be race-neutral collide with broader socioeconomic patterns to create a disparate racial impact. Policing policies and sentencing laws are two key sources of racial inequality."
So we don't need to think Ehrlichman's claim is true to worry about the drug war's racial disparities. We know the disparities are real. The question, then, isn't necessarily figuring out the motive behind the policies, but how we can reorient those policies to prevent more disparities in America's criminal justice system. And, surprisingly, treating drugs much like Nixon did at first — as primarily a public health issue — could provide part of the answer by preventing so many disproportionate arrests for simple drug use.