Coates & Davenport, P.C.

Has the 'War on Drugs' ever really been about drugs?

The "War on Drugs" famously began under President Richard Nixon, and marked a clear shift in the way that Americans viewed drugs and the prosecution of drug crimes. Authorities were afforded more power and more resources. Drugs crimes appeared highly illegal and scandalous to the general public. Arrest numbers began to climb.

This shift in policy and public perception allowed the war on drugs to continue to this day. However, in recent years, there has been push-back with some states taking steps to legalize recreational marijuana. However, even legal sales of pot are highly regulated and arrests can happen if proper procedures aren't followed. 

If you grew up in the United States between the Nixon presidency and now, you likely assumed, as most people did, that the war on drugs was about the drugs themselves. But is this true? Was it ever really true? 

The Ehrlichman interview

John Ehrlichman, who is now deceased, was an aide to Nixon and went to jail — briefly — after the Watergate scandal. Years later, he gave an interview about the drug war, which Harper's ran in 2016.

According to Ehrlichman, Nixon considered his main two "enemies" to be African Americans and people who were against the Vietnam War. Ehrlichman said that they understood that they "couldn't make it illegal" to be African American or to be against a foreign war.

Their tactic, instead, was to convince the public that African Americans used heroin and that anti-war protestors used marijuana. They could then make each of those drugs heavily criminal, giving them an excuse to raid homes, arrest leaders and break up gatherings.

They could also put those individuals on the evening news and cast them in an incredibly negative light to the rest of America, thus influencing public opinion. The public would soon associate drug use and lawlessness with both groups, thereby discouraging protests when people in either group were arrested. Ehrlichman says this is how Nixon and his administration were able to make the arrests they really wanted to make.

"Did we know we were lying about the drugs?" he added. "Of course we did."

The ramifications

While the Vietnam War ended and the Nixon presidency ended, the so-called war on drugs has not ended. Today, law enforcement authorities continue to heavily criminalize drug use and arrest individuals for low-level and nonviolent drug offenses. For individuals who are arrested for drug possession, it is very important to understand your rights and options. 

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