Who Started the War on Drugs?

As President, he dramatically reduced federal criminal penalties for marijuana possession and launched the largest expansion of drug addiction treatment in U.S. history. I refer of course to Richard M. Nixon, who is today widely remembered as the President who launched the “war on drugs”. Why are his well-documented progressive drug policies almost completely forgotten today, leaving us with a collective memory of Nixon as the original snarling drug warrior?

In part, the mythology is unsurprising in that all aspects of our political history are subject to stereotype, forgetting and distortion. Why should drug policy history be immune? To cite another choice example, Dr. Jonathan Caulkins points out that if we wanted to get back to the rate of incarceration the U.S. had under the “tough lock ‘em policies of the Reagan administration”, we would have to release about 75% of the people who are currently behind bars.

The misremembering of Richard Nixon also stems from the “war on drugs” increasingly becoming a term that is used to mean almost anything and therefore means almost nothing. To some the “war on drugs” means the violence in Mexico, to others it means no knock raids and other aggressive policing tactics, to still others it means even applying the usual medical regulations to those pharmaceuticals than can be addictive (e.g., painkillers). If we can’t agree on what the war on drugs is, then we can’t of course figure out who started it.

But if one accepts what is probably the most common definition of the “war on drugs” — making certain drugs illegal and sending federal agents out to enforce those laws — that started decades before Nixon took office. And the penalties were tough: the mandatory minimum sentence in a federal prison for marijuana possession was 2-10 years until Nixon slashed it to 1 year with a judicial option to waive even that sentence. No federal mandatory drug sentence would be rolled back again for 40 years (in the Obama Administration).

I have been fortunate over the years to discuss the distorted memory of Nixon’s drug policies with almost all of his key advisors as well as with historians. Their consensus is that because he was dramatically expanding the U.S. treatment system (by 350% in just 18 months!) and cutting criminal penalties, he had to reassure his right wing that he hadn’t gone soft. So he laid on some of the toughest anti-drug rhetoric in history, including making a White House speech declaring a “war on drugs” and calling drugs “public enemy number one”. It worked so well as cover that many people remember that “tough” press event and forget that what Nixon did at it was introduce not a general or a cop or a preacher to be his drug policy chief but…a medical doctor (Jerry Jaffe, a sweet, bookish man who had longish hair and sideburns and often wore the Mickey Mouse tie his kids had given him).

Broadly speaking, Nixon’s political strategy worked. He implemented one of the most progressive drug policies in U.S. history while casting it as draconian and heartless. And 40 years on, he’s still got us fooled. Okay, he was a crook…but, wow, what a skilled politician.