President Richard Nixon famously employed a “Southern strategy” that brought Democrats furious at the Civil Rights Act into the Republican party. Still, as most historians know, the bounds of his race-based strategies did not stop here, even spilling over into cannabis prohibition.
In a Harper’s magazine story published this week, journalist Dan Baum recalled an interview he did with Nixon aide and Watergate conspirator John Ehrlichman in 1994. Ehrlichman, who was Nixon’s chief domestic advisor when he announced the Drug War in 1971, admitted the war was really on African-Americans and the anti-war left.
When Baum asked about the Drug War, the former Nixon Aide (who went to jail for his key role in the Watergate break-in) said, “You want to know what this was really all about? 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.”
Nixon, who described African-Americans as “just out of the trees” in a 1971 conversation with Donald Rumsfeld, fully instituted cannabis prohibition with the Controlled Substances Act (making the plant a wholly prohibited Schedule I substance) in 1970 and supercharged the lockups by establishing the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1973. Nixon utilized the anti-cannabis laws to go after hippies and African-Americans, who traditionally voted for the other political party. When John Lennon started campaigning against the Vietnam War and Nixon’s reelection, the president even initiated deportation proceedings based a cannabis-possession arrest that occurred in England years earlier. The deportation idea itself came from Strom Thurmond, the Civil Rights-filibustering Senator who ran for president as a third-party candidate on a racial segregation platform.
Racism was part of the Nixon Administration’s Drug War, but he certainly was not the first person to employ racist tactics in implementing and enforcing cannabis prohibition. Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger popularized the word “marijuana” by using the little-known Spanish slang in his efforts to pass the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. The Great Depression and waves of immigrants coming across the border during the Mexican Revolution created racial tension in the U.S., and while cannabis was the common vernacular, Anslinger adopted the Spanish term to make the plant sound foreign and exploit the growing racism.
Cannabis prohibition is rooted in racism, but decades later, the racist tactics continue. In some parts of the country, cannabis-related arrest rates are up to eight times higher for African-Americans than for whites, despite similar consumption rates. Likewise, former DEA agent Matthew Fogg recently went on record saying agency policy was to leave rich kids alone: “[They told me], ‘You know, if we go out there and start messing with those folks, they know judges, they know lawyers, they know politicians. You start locking their kids up; somebody’s going to jerk our chain…. They’re going to call us on it, and before you know it, they’re going to shut us down, and there goes your overtime.’”
Cannabis prohibition was racist then and racist now, which is why repeal is long overdue. It’s high time for the prohibitionist politicians to stop being a bunch of Dicks.
Slider images by Shepard Fairey