Nixon’s Reefer Madness

Written by Brian Pietrus February 27, 2019
The History
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people….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.” 

-John Ehrlichman (1994), Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs 1969-1973

In an era of daily presidential lies, it’s a little shocking to hear a retired White House official speak so bluntly and so candidly about an administration’s misdeeds. But decades after Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign and a generation of D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) classes, it only reinforces what most cannabis consumers already knew: the War on Drugs was an elaborate lie. The government has been lying to the American public in order to control a sizable segment of the population, and, unfortunately, the lion’s share of the resulting incarcerations and legal battles have been endured by the Black community.

Drugs have a long history of legal, generally acceptable usage in the United States. As recently as the 1890s, drugs like cocaine were readily available for purchase without any prescription. Researchers estimate that upwards of two million Civil War veterans used morphine, with many civilians developing their own morphine and laudanum addictions in the years after the war ended. Opium was widely consumed until a 1909 law prohibited smoking the drug but not the use of opium and morphine in over-the-counter medicines and other “cure all” tonics. Many of these drug laws were designed to target specific racial and ethnic communities.

Most medical experts today agree that opiates and cocaine pose a real threat to the health and safety of users. But how do these assessments shape the way the system views cannabis?

The Roots of Cannabis Prohibition

Cannabis was one of the last drugs to be criminalized in the US. A handful of states banned its use earlier in the twentieth century, but it wasn’t outlawed by the federal government until Harry Anslinger pushed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 into law. That law has been widely criticized as a blatantly racist means of targeting Black and Latinx citizens, as Anslinger himself used disgusting racial slurs and hateful fear-mongering campaigns in his efforts to sway the American public against cannabis.

By the 1960s, public opinion about cannabis had started to shift. Cannabis was increasingly used across the country by students, political activists, musicians, and artists. More and more young people knew someone who smoked cannabis, and, as they saw their friends or siblings have fun without turning into “reefer addicts,” they felt comfortable and emboldened to do their own experimenting with drugs.

Nixon's War on Drugs

Everything changed when Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968. With discontent growing over his domestic and foreign policies, an increasingly paranoid Nixon saw an opportunity to target virtually anyone simply by linking his political enemies with something widely used but still illegal: cannabis.

Nixon initiated what he called a new War on Drugs. But as his own former domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman bluntly admitted, it was never about public safety or curbing addiction in America; it was always about criminalizing Americans who spoke out against the ongoing Vietnam War and the country’s horrific racial prejudices.

It’s no secret that Nixon held deeply problematic, blatantly racist opinions—his Oval Office tapes are available online, and they are truly shocking. But, surprisingly, his administration also spearheaded several socially liberal initiatives that are worth examining, as they are still relevant to this day.

Tricky Dick's Complicated Legacy

Despite Nixon’s racism (which no one is debating) and his trumped-up War on Drugs, his presidency was paradoxically progressive at times when it came to drug policy—at least in his first term. In an effort to reduce heroin addiction and heroin-related crimes, he oversaw a groundbreaking anti-addiction treatment program that was expanded across Washington, D.C..

The man Nixon tapped to serve as his drug tsar, Dr. Jerome Jaffe, advocated for treating drug addiction with rehab and health services as an alternative to prison sentencing. At Jaffe’s recommendation, Nixon also changed the Code of Military Justice, which had previously stated that a positive drug test was a court-martial offense. Because of this policy shift, many Vietnam veterans who had used drugs while serving overseas were able to have their dishonorable discharges retroactively reversed. And at a time when nearly 20% of Vietnam veterans returning to the United States were addicted to heroin, Jaffe and Nixon set up detox and rehab facilities in Vietnam. Returning troops were required to submit a urine sample, and anyone who tested positive for heroin was put in mandatory rehab before they could return home.

Remarkably, the early years of Nixon’s presidency actually saw a financial emphasis on drug education and treatment that vastly outspent anti-drug law enforcement budgets, a move that has not been matched by any president before or after Nixon.

So what changed during Nixon’s time in the Oval Office? Why did the president waiver from this prevention-and-treatment policy and move to a ramped-up war on cannabis fought by well-funded police forces against Black communities across America? Many historians argue that it was Nixon’s bid for reelection that brought out the worst in him and solidified his place in history as a racist and a fearmonger.

Courting the Southern Vote

In addition to controlling civilians he considered “radicals,” Nixon was desperate to win the votes of white southerners. The incumbent president walked back many of the more progressive policies that he had implemented during his first term. He campaigned on issues that would appeal to racist southern whites, including issues like welfare reduction and harsher drug sentencing that were seen as tools to further control poor Black southerners.

After initially supporting probation and treatment over incarceration for first-time offenders, Nixon eventually authorized no-knock warrants and mandatory minimums in drug sentencing.

Because of Nixon, many Republicans (especially in the South) still campaign on socially conservative and often downright racist agendas to this day, building platforms around fear, misinformation, and the “othering” of vulnerable populations.

A Legacy of Ignorance

Unfortunately, the Nixon-era strategy of targeting Black communities is still in full force. Even in a typically progressive state like California, nearly one-quarter of cannabis-only defendants in court are Black despite the fact that Black citizens make up just 6% of the state’s total population.

We know that cannabis use is comparable across all racial demographics, yet drug arrest rates are still astronomically stacked against Black communities.

Despite state-level success in many parts of the country, it’s clear that our drug policies haven’t moved far since the days of Nixon. With national elections approaching next year, it remains to be seen whether politicians—and US voters—will continue this shameful legacy of prejudice and pat-downs or finally make social justice a pillar of the campaign.

Disclaimer: Keep out of reach of children. For use only by adults 21 years of age and older.