Prohibition’s Racist Roots

By David Jenison

Prohibition’s Racist Roots

President Nixon famously employed a “Southern strategy” that brought racist Democrats furious at the Civil Rights Act into the Republican party. Still, recorded transcripts released by the Nixon Presidential Library in 2010 showed that Tricky Dick was an even bigger racist that most people realized. Among the many quotes that would make Trump blush, Nixon said that African-Americans needed 500 years of inbreeding to benefit the U.S., the Irish cannot hold their liquor, Italians don’t have their heads screwed on tight and Jews are “aggressive and abrasive and obnoxious.” Asked about a potential second holocaust, Nixon even said, “If they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern.” In a 1971 conversation with Donald Rumsfeld, Nixon even said, “Black Americans aren’t as good as black Africans—most of them, basically, are just out of the trees.”

In addition to being an unapologetic racist, Tricky Dick stands out as the premiere White House prohibitionist, and it ends up the two are not unrelated. In a Harper’s magazine story published in March 2016, journalist Dan Baum recalled an interview he made 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 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. 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.”

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.


Richard Nixon's Drug War

Nixon vs. Shafer Commission

Nixon vs. Lennon

Cannabis and the CSA

The Substance Schedules

The Start of Cannabis Prohibition

Wacky Wiley

The Muckrakers!

The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906

Scheduling Conflicts

The Controlled Substances Act

Timothy Leary vs. Marihuana Tax Act

What About Farmer Bob?

Was Harry Anslinger a Racist?

The Anslinger Gore Files