You Can’t Kick Nixon Around For Pot Crackdowns and Mass Incarceration

At the Atlantic, David Graham has written one of countless articles accusing Richard Nixon of starting the war on marijuana:

Though pot was still legal as the 1970s dawned, Nixon cracked down on the drug.

It is hard to be completely wrong, but this statement is up to the challenge. The federal government started turning the screws on marijuana before Nixon had even graduated law school. The sanctions got progressively tougher over time until the tide was reversed by…Richard Nixon. As President, Nixon dramatically reduced (yes, reduced) federal mandatory minimum penalties for marijuana possession from 2-10 years of hard time to 1 year with an option even for that sentence to be waived by a judge. Not incidentally, Nixon’s drug czar was a physician and two thirds of the administration’s drug control spending went toward treatment.

Nixon drug policy also frequently takes the rap for mass incarceration. Here is one of a number of charts that floats around the Internet and is used to support this claim.


Reality I am afraid must intrude here as well (With added demerits to this chart’s designer for deceptively using the number of prisoners rather than the incarceration rate as a metric). Since 1930, there has been only one stretch in U.S. history when the incarceration rate was below 100 per 100,000 people: Nixon’s presidency. The incarceration rate didn’t begin to rise until after he left office, and it continued to do so under the next six presidents and 18 congresses, who should be held responsible for their own policy decisions.

Richard Nixon broke the law, did lasting damage to our political culture and resigned in disgrace. That does not however mean that every complaint about current public policy can be laid without evidence at his feet.

One of Richard Nixon’s Many Faults

Nixon even cheated at bowling

Megan McArdle related a funny Richard Nixon story last week, concerning his creation of a White House Palace Guard. The palace guard episode is silly at any level and also reveals something of Nixon’s character. Let me start off your August weekend with a similar anecdote.

BowlingIf you tunnel deep down under The West Wing, you will find a maze of poorly lit, unpainted hallways with exposed pipes and wires (no OSHA rules apply underneath The White House, apparently). If you stumble about the labyrinth for awhile you will come to a nondescript door that, quite surprisingly, opens onto a two-lane bowling alley which was built for President Truman.

Here I am showing fantastic form therein. I bowled 300. It took me about 50 frames, but I did it. I can’t bowl at all really. But I am very good at looking like I know what I am doing when in fact I don’t — an essential Washington D.C. survival skill.

Anyhoo, almost every President since Truman has gone down at least once to the White House bowling alley and posed for a photo, bowling ball in hand. Most never return. But Richard Nixon actually liked to bowl and did so frequently. Study his left foot in the photo below and ask yourself: “Was there anything at which this guy wouldn’t cheat?”


Quote of the Day

The Nixon tapes reveal the President endorsing methadone maintenance for heroin addicted patients

Moving someone from heroin to methadone — that’s a wonderful move.

–President Nixon, in an oval office conversation with Mayor Daley during which he tried to persuade Daley to expand methadone maintenance for heroin addicted people in Chicago

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 bookish man with longish hair and sideburns and sometimes 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.