Pubdate: Sat, 26 Mar 2016
Source: Times-Picayune, The (New Orleans, LA)
Copyright: 2016 The Times-Picayune
Author: Jarvis DeBerry


In a series of speeches in 1971 President Richard Nixon called drug 
abuse "America's public enemy number one in the United States." In 
remarks from the White House on June 17, 1971, Nixon said, "In order 
to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, 
all-out offensive." This, as best anybody can tell, is the opening 
salvo in America's War on Drugs.

You'd think that if something really were public enemy number one 
that people would know to be afraid of it without prompting.

But not in this case. Opinion polls from the 1970s indicate that drug 
abuse was either low, super low or not even on the totem pole of 
Americans' worries. In "Making Crime Pay: Law and Order in 
Contemporary American Politics," Katherine Beckett writes that "the 
percentage of poll respondents identifying drug abuse as the nation's 
most important problem had dropped from 20% in 1973 to 2% in 1974 and 
hovered between 0% and 2% until 1982."

So there we have it: a public enemy number one that next to nobody 
ranked as a top concern.

So why did Nixon say what he said?

In an essay in Harper's Magazine that argues for the legalization of 
drugs, journalist Dan Baum says one of Nixon's most notorious 
lieutenants answered that question.

Baum says he interviewed John Ehrlichman, Nixon's domestic affairs 
advisor and Watergate co-conspirator, in 1994. Baum says Ehrlichman 
waved off his "earnest" and "wonky" questions about Nixon's drug 
policy and said, "You want to know what this was really all about?" 
Nixon, Ehrlichman said, "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."

Ehrlichman's statement can't be surprising to anybody familiar with 
Michelle Alexander's book "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In 
the Age of Colorblidness." The "law and order" agenda pushed by so 
many conservatives, Alexander writes, was, at its core, a push back 
against the civil rights movement.

For example, in his 1963 "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" Martin 
Luther King Jr. writes of the "moral responsibility to disobey unjust 
laws." In 1966 when Nixon was vice president, he wrote an essay for 
U.S. News and World Report called "If Mob Rule Takes Hold in the 
U.S." Increased crime, he insisted, "can be traced directly to the 
spread of the corrosive doctrine that every citizen possess an 
inherent right to decide for himself which laws to obey and when to 
disobey them."

Alexander uses the aforementioned public-opinion polls to make her 
case that the United States government manufactured outrage over drug 
abuse. But such outrage could not have happened without the media's 
complicity. According to The American Presidency Project, a database 
that includes our presidents' speeches and remarks, it was on a 
Thursday in the White House Briefing Room that Nixon said drug abuse 
required "an all-out offensive." That Friday he was in Rochester, New 
York, pitching media executives.

"So we ask for your help in this," Nixon said. "We are going to be 
sending a lot of materials out. Please don't treat it as boiler 
plate. It is, in my view, as I have indicated, drug traffic is public 
enemy number one domestically in the United States today, and we must 
wage a total offensive, worldwide, nationwide, government wide, and 
if, I might say so, media-wide."

If Nixon intended the drug war to go after black people - and there's 
plenty of evidence that he did - he was a master at disguising his 
motivations. For example, in his pitch to media executives, Nixon 
said that drug addiction was not "a ghetto problem" and that "whites 
have now substantially passed blacks in terms of the use of drugs." 
Did Nixon wink when he said that? What else explains the media 
association of drugs and black people?

What else explains the drug war's disproportionate focus on black people?

In January, New Orleans Councilwoman Susan Guidry said she wanted to 
"make application of marijuana laws more fair and just across ethnic 
and economic backgrounds." On March 17, the council gave New Orleans 
police permission to ticket - and not jail - those caught with 
marijuana. Kudos to all of them for that.

But it's past time we admit that the unfair application of laws 
wasn't a flaw in the war on drugs.

The unfairness was the point.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom