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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

20 thoughts on “Who Started the War on Drugs?”

  1. Yes, but Nixon’s rhetoric outlived his policies, and is doing damage to this very day.

    He invented drug-policy-as-culture-war, and the idea that drug policy was a struggle between the pure-minded Republicans and the druggie Democrats, the party of “acid, amnesty, and abortion.” In pursuit of making drug policy a political football, he double-crossed a fellow Republican, Gov. William Scranton Ray Shafer, by appointing him to head a commission on marijuana policy and then publicly repudiating its rather dovish conclusions. Nixon’s other great contribution was the idea of blaming Mexico for U.S. drug problems, leading to policies such as “Operation Intercept.”

    Nixon is remembered as a nasty SOB because he was a nasty SOB, no matter how much good work he let Jerry Jaffe and Bob DuPont do under the radar.

  2. From Rick Perlstein’s delightful recent MoJo article, seemingly apropos:

    Even conservatives who were not allied with the White House had learned to think like Watergate conspirators. To them, the takeaway from the scandal was that Nixon had been willing to bend the rules for the cause. The New Right pioneer M. Stanton Evans once told me, “I didn’t like Nixon until Watergate.”

  3. Nixon’s Shafer commission did a great job of analyzing the social situation of cannabis, too. They reasoned that the best way to minimize its problems, both as a health issue and as a political one, was to stop making such a big deal out of it. But Nixon couldn’t, or wouldn’t, listen to them; he rejected the recommendation of decriminalization, thus adding to the ignoble tendency of the DEA and the ONDCP in decades since to ignore even government-internal policy analysis when it deviates from the mantra.

  4. In addition, looking at the laws on the books isn’t necessarily the best way of understanding what the situation on the ground might have been. Draconian law with minimal enforcement can be less punitive (although also more arbitrary and corrupt) than facially more lenient law with more enforcement. (Consider how many bread thieves actually got hanged in 19th-century england.)

  5. What Kleiman said, and also Matthew Meyer. WRT the Shafer commission, Nixon made it clear before they even issued their report that he didn’t care what it said, pot prohibition was going to remain in effect.

    Nixon was also responsible for the first drug law exceptions to the 4th Amendment. And, I think, the first to use the Presidential podium to publish hysterical nonsense about drug users (I’m thinking of the claim that heroin addicts by themselves were stealing more $$ per year than the total crime losses from all sources, though doubtless one could find other examples as well).

    Historically-informed people date the drug war from 1914 (with escalations in 1937, 1951, and 1956) but Nixon made the policies that took it out of the backwaters of American life.

  6. Professor Kleiman, if you’re going to get pedantic about your history, you need to get your facts right.

    The Republican who headed what came to be known as the Shafer Commission was Raymond Shamer, not William Scranton.

  7. Fallibilist, Scranton did serve on a Nixon commission, but a different one:
    “After the Kent State shootings in 1970 Scranton was asked to chair the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest to investigate this and other incidents of campus violence and protest. The committee’s conclusions came to be known as the “Scranton Report”.” (Wikipedia)

    I hope Mark will explain what he was talking about, he writes with such authority that I’d hate to find out he’s wrong with the same gusto as he’s right.

  8. Tom, as a Californian I’m reminded of the old saying: in New York they say “f-you” but they mean “hello”; in LA, they say “hello,” but mean “f-you.” Though the comparison might be too kind to Nixon.

  9. Nixon certainly wasn’t as big a hypocrite as Obama. I think Nixon really believed pot was dangerous, but Obama clearly knows that isn’t the case and yet the Department of Justice continues to raid medical marijuana stores. How craven can you be?

  10. Nixon is responsible for the Schedule I status of Cannabis. That crime against humanity is adequate condemnation on its own.

  11. What amazes me is that Joe Biden gets away without a mention. As a senator, he pushed through the creation of the Drug Czar’s office because he thought Reagan wasn’t being tough enough with drug policy. He later was the lead sponsor of the RAVE Act. Now he’s one heartbeat away from being president.

  12. Thumbs down on the article. Nixon can of course be rightly blamed, but let’s not forget it is WE who are responsible for getting it changed today.

  13. Having been there ‘from the beginning’ it is so very clear that Nixon was the first and only President to take the time to support the research that established the relationship of drugs and crime and to put funding behind a policy that no one should have to commit a crime because he/she did not have ready access to treatment.. Everyone since has talked the talk about demand reduction but none has walked the walk with funding.

    The real crime is that we know what works and no one is willing to fund the large scale availability of cost-effective treatment to effectivity reduce the harmful health, social and economic costs of drug use.

  14. Mark, I do appreciate your returning and correcting the name of Raymond Shafer. Not just because he deserves the credit for the commission, but also because it shows that you are not always so aloof that you drop pearls of wisdom but don’t deign to respond to the masses.

  15. Nixon is certainly to blame for the biggest government assault on individual freedom in the history of the US but the blueprint for this tyranny disguised as a "War on Drugs" began at least ten years earlier in the UN which tied drug laws to international treaties making it much more difficult to get rid of these illegal and immoral policies.

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