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Was The War On Drugs Racist From The Beginning?

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has repeatedly criticized the War on Drugs as an unjust policy that has ruined the lives of millions of Americans - especially Hispanics and African Americans. Black Americans are three times likelier to be charged and convicted of crimes involving cannabis or other drugs than white people, even though neither race uses drugs at a higher rate than the other.

And that might have been part of President Nixon's plan when he launched America's drug war in 1971. In a report that will be published in next month's issue of Harper's, Dan Baum includes a quote alleging that the Nixon Administration designed the War on Drugs to target blacks and hippies. The quote comes from Baum's 1994 interview with John Ehrlichman, former domestic policy chief for President Nixon.

"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.' "

Just in case you skimmed over that last line, here it is again:

"Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did," said John Ehrlichman, former domestic policy chief for President Richard Nixon.

Now for a grain of salt. As German Lopez of Vox notes, Ehrlichman may have offered a distorted version of the past due to bitterness toward Nixon after spending time in prison for the Watergate scandal.

That said, the idea that a government would prosecute a drug war for racist reasons is plausible given the origins of American marijuana prohibition that many consider racist. Either way, you're going to want to check out Baum's article, "Legalize It All," in Harper's next month.

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