Must-read: German Lopez: John Ehrlichman: “Real Reason for the Drug War Was to Criminalize Black People and Hippies”

Must-Read: Is this plausible? In my experience, when X quotes Y saying that Y and his posse are mustachio-twirling villains, it is usually either:

  1. X is misquoting Y.
  2. Y has had a major change of heart and is trying to shock his posse into recognition that, however well-intentioned they had been, their course of action had been disastrous.

But it is rarely the case that Y and his posse actually were the conscious and malevolent mustachio-twirling villains that Y’s quote says they were.

Of course, for Richard Nixon one does have to make exceptions:

German Lopez: [Nixon Official John Ehrlichman: Real Reason for the Drug War Was to Criminalize Black People and Hippies: “A new report by Dan Baum for Harper’s Magazine

… John Ehrlichman, who served as domestic policy chief for President Richard Nixon when the administration declared its war on drugs in 1971. According to Baum, Ehrlichman said in 1994 that the drug war was a ploy to undermine Nixon’s political opposition–meaning, black people and critics of the Vietnam War:

At the time, I was writing a book about the politics of drug prohibition. I started to ask Ehrlichman a series of earnest, wonky questions that he impatiently waved away. ‘You want to know what this was really all about?’ he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect:

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 is an incredibly blunt, shocking response — one with troubling implications for the 45-year-old war on drugs. But it’s not implausible. Although black Americans aren’t more likely to use or sell drugs, they’re much more likely to be arrested for them. And when black people are convicted of drug charges, they generally face longer prison sentences for the same crimes, according to a 2012 report from the US Sentencing Commission. Ehrlichman claimed this was a goal of the drug war, not an unintended consequence. And Baum cites this as one of many reasons to end the drug war once and for all.

March 22, 2016


Brad DeLong
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