Richard Nixon's Drug War Turns 48

By David Jenison

Richard Nixon—derogatorily nicknamed Tricky Dick for his dirty campaign tactics as a senatorial candidate—served as U.S. President from 1969 to 1974 when a scandal forced him to resign. Under his administration, the government declared war on drugs (June 17 or 18, 1971, reports differ), solidified cannabis prohibition in the Controlled Substances Act and amped up enforcement by establishing the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Even compared to the Reagan Administration, Nixon is considered the Supreme Leader of the Drug War championing cannabis prohibition based on political and racist motivations. He even tried to deport former Beatle legend John Lennon due to a cannabis possession arrest years earlier in England. When it comes to presidential prohibitionists, Nixon truly is the biggest Dick of all. 

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.

Nixon vs. Lennon

Richard Nixon, it can be assumed, was not a fan of John Lennon. In the late 1960s, the former Beatle actively campaigned against the Vietnam War, cannabis prohibition and Nixon himself. During the Nixon Administration, the FBI spied on Lennon for an entire year, denied his visa renewal and started deportation proceedings. Ironically, the basis for the deportation was a questionable 1968 conviction for cannabis possession in England at the hands of Sergeant Norman Pilcher, a headline-chasing drug crusader who arguably planted evidence and ultimately ended up in jail himself. Pilcher arrests also included Ringo Starr, Donovan and members of the Rolling Stones, among others.

Lennon, whose political plans included a demonstration outside the Republican National Convention, ultimately had to bow out of his activism and deal with the deportation threat. Historian Jon Wiener, author of Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files, said, “What this really is saying here is that the Immigration Service and the FBI have succeeded in pressuring Lennon to cancel his plans for this national concert tour and to withdraw from anti-war activity. His lawyers told him that his case for fighting deportation was a pretty weak one. In fact, they’d never seen anyone win a case under these terms, and therefore, the legal advice was [to not] do anything more that would further provoke the Nixon administration. He really wanted to stay in the United States. Yoko was involved, at that point, in a custody dispute over her daughter from a previous marriage—her daughter Kyoko. So John, if he had been deported, Yoko would’ve stayed behind. He didn’t want to be separated from Yoko, so he cancelled the plans for the concert tour. He dropped out of movement activity and the FBI is reporting that they have accomplished their job.”

The deportation fight continued after Nixon’s landslide re-election, but Lennon’s attorney Leon Wildes fought back with force. He filed lawsuits against the Attorney General John Mitchell (originator of the Controlled Substances Act) and other government officials claiming the deportation was a politically motivated conspiracy. Wildes’ investigation uncovered the first evidence that confirmed this (much more would follow), and the Watergate scandal became a larger issue for the President. His resignation in 1974 ended his fight against Lennon, and a year later, the New York State Supreme Court overturned the deportation order condemning the Nixon Administration for “selective deportation based upon secret political grounds.”

Nixon vs. Shafer Commission

When the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) became law in 1970, Congress established five Schedules with specific regulations and oversight and then determined the placement of prescription and illicit drugs into the five classifications. Schedule I was reserved for wholly prohibited drugs that were dangerous and addictive with no medical value. The CSA established a commission to study cannabis and propose placement, but during this research period, Assistant Secretary of Health Roger Egeberg suggested that Congress temporarily make cannabis a Schedule I drug.

The National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, more commonly called the Shafer Commission after its chairman, led the research. Participants included Republican Governor Raymond Shafer, Republican Congressman Tim Lee Carter of Kentucky, Republican Senator Jacob Javits, Democratic Senator Harold Hughes of Iowa and various medical doctors, college presidents, attorneys and psychiatrists. Their findings? Cannabis was plagued by ludicrous propaganda, and Congress should end its constitutionally questionable prohibition. Chairman Shafer, who titled the report "Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding," even seemed to endorse responsible recreational use.

Shafer knew this was not the conclusion that Nixon wanted, and he met with the President in the Oval Office before presenting the report. According to public transcripts, Nixon said those who fight prohibition are “not good people,” and he warned the former Governor against presenting an honest account of the commission’s findings. “You're enough of a pro to know that for you to come out with something that would run counter to what the Congress feels and what the country feels, and what we're planning to do, would make your commission just look bad as hell,” said Nixon.

Shafer, to his credit, delivered the report and called for an end to prohibition, yet cannabis remained a Schedule I drug and a historic racist led a congressional subcommittee that sought to refute the commission two years later. Nixon reportedly ramped up cannabis prohibition for political and racist reasons, and Mississippi Senator James Eastland, who headed up the refutal, is a segregationist who called on the public to defy the Supreme Court ruling that desegregated schools. This rich plantation owner-turned-senator seemed happy to demonize cannabis and support its prohibition.

Prohibition’s Racist Roots

Nixon vs. Shafer Commission

Nixon vs. Lennon

Cannabis and the CSA

The Substance Schedules

Scheduling Conflicts

The Controlled Substances Act

Timothy Leary vs. Marihuana Tax Act

What About Farmer Bob?

The Start of Cannabis Prohibition

Wacky Wiley

The Muckrakers!

The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906

Election Upset: Denver Decriminalizes Magic Mushrooms!

Bridging the Gap: How the Church and Cannabis Can Help Communities