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.

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.