Dan Baum, an author and journalist, just dropped a shocking statement about the origins of the War on Drugs, as depicted in a 1994 interview with former Nixon adviser, John Ehrlichman.
“‘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.'" This sectional statement, confirms the fears and anxieties of the opponents of the War on Drugs. When one hears that America’s drug enforcement policy was born of blatant racism and paltry politics, not out of a need or want of efficacy. While those who have studied the Nixon administration and its politics, have begun to push back against Ehrlichman’s claim.
Nevertheless, since the drug war began it has changed the foundation of the Western Hemisphere, not just America. Many of Ehrlichman’s predications have become known and are truthful: “We've put lots and lots and lots of people in jail — and too many of them are black.” Since the drug war began, the rate of imprisonment has increased from nearly 110 per 100,000 people in the early 1970s to around 707 per 100,000 people in 2012. That is an increase of over 500%. Between the years of 1993 and 2009, drug crimes were the principal reason for new admissions to prison, states a Brookings Institution report.
In 2010, black Americans, were six times more likely to be jailed than white Americans, which is an increase over the previous fifty years, not only before the drug war, but before the civil rights movement as well.
“We've incited bloodshed in Latin America.” Despite America having harsh penalities for drug use and sales, the United States continues to be the world’s largest cornerstone for the drug market. While this market is largely supplied by Latin American drug cartels, the attempts to combat such cartels have taken a destructive force on their countries of origin. For nearly fifty years, Colombia’s drug war has raged on. Mexico’s conflicts against cartels have raised the death toll to over 150,000 since 2007. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have all been plagued by the violence that surrounds gang related drug trades – which, in return has led to an out flux of migrants and refugees in years that are more recent.
“We've disenfranchised thousands of mostly black and other non-white voters in states across the U.S.” In 2010, a study found that the number of convicted felons who are disqualified to vote under the guidance of state laws at nearly 6 million – this group is imbalanced as it contains more African-American – and many of the convictions are for drug or drug-related crimes. Many criminal justice researchers consider barriers such as, housing and job discrimination, alongside the ineligibility to vote, prevents former prisoners from recuperating and reintegrating into society positively. This disintegration and separation leads them to commit future crimes.
What has the War on Drugs changed? Nothing really, people are still dying from drug abuse. As America continues to attempt to work its way out of the drug problem, the law enforcement-first method has done little if nothing to lessen the opioid and heroin epidemics that have led to a 500% increase in deaths between the years 2001 and 2014. In order to make a difference, America needs to change its tactics and how drug use and addiction are addressed.
Baum persuasively argues, in his Harper’s Magazine piece, for full legalization; however, this legalization has to be done methodically, pragmatically, and carefully, by expanding access to social services and treatment first – much like Portugal did, back in 2001, when it legalized drugs, although mixed results came of it. More importantly, Baum suggests the formation of state monopolies over the circulation of cocaine, heroin, and harder drugs, to help discourage the means of consumption by eliminating the sales profit as a motive.
Maybe the solution is simpler than that. Perhaps it is a matter of the public supporting legislators who back bipartisan criminal justice reform and decriminalization efforts. In addition, even simpler solution might be having law enforcement officials to emphasize treatment for users over incarcerating them. Such a program, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, is already seeing positive results.
However, Ehrlichman was incorrect about one fundamental point: The War on Drugs is not a problem just for black people and hippies – although, a majority of the people who bear the brunt of the consequences are blacks. The exponentially increasing deaths, staggering prison population, and insurgent cartel conflicts, make it clear – this is an issue for all of us.