Blog Post

Glare on Nixon's Motivations: The Drug War Was (And Still Is!) A Racist Policy Tool to Disrupt and Neutralize Black Communities

Melissa Franqui

Earlier this week, the drug policy field was set ablaze with Harper’s Magazine cover page story, “Legalize It All: How to win the war on drugs,” a cutting narration of U.S. drug policies, past and present, and a call for reform to legalize drugs.

Up front and center was a previously overlooked quotation from former top Nixon advisor John D. Ehrlichman, who died in 1999, but admitted in an interview in 1994 that the administration’s "War on Drugs" was actually a reprehensible scheme to target anti-war protesters and African Americans.

He says, “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, 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.”

Although this is startling news for some, the Drug Policy Alliance, partners and allies have been working for decades to increase public awareness of the disproportionate application of drug laws and the inhumane mass incarceration of Black and Brown communities, to push for criminal justice reform on multiple fronts, to recount the current racial disparities in marijuana prohibition and enforcement, like New York City, and cases of justification for police brutality like that of Ramarley Graham, but also noting that arrest disparities still exist in legalization states like Colorado.

This is all very telling that institutional racism is stitched into the fabric of the drug war and beyond, and its damaging influence has outlived Nixon’s appalling legacy.  The Harper’s story goes on to say, “Nixon’s invention of the war on drugs as a political tool was cynical, but every president since — Democrat and Republican alike — has found it equally useful for one reason or another. Meanwhile, the growing cost of the drug war is now impossible to ignore: billions of dollars wasted, bloodshed in Latin America and on the streets of our own cities, and millions of lives destroyed by draconian punishment that doesn’t end at the prison gate; one of every eight black men has been disenfranchised because of a felony conviction.”

The Drug Policy Alliance and our allies in the movement to end the drug war have long known that U.S. drug policies have been inherently racist and discriminatory. Last year, DPA gathered our allies in a Black Lives Matter National Town Hall to work on drug policy with a clear understanding of not only the racist history of the drug war, but that work in racial equity must be a key tenet in dismantling it.

On April 17, the eve of the UN General Assembly’s Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS), scholars and activists will participate in a one-day symposium and strategy session that highlights the connection between the global drug war and racial injustice.

Brought together by the Drug Policy Alliance, and Columbia University’s Center for Justice and Center on African American Politics and Society, we are inviting our local, national and international allies to join Dr. Carl Hart, Erica Garner, Mayor Svante Myrick, Deborah Small, Ethan Nadelmann and hundreds of the nation’s leading advocates from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. for this unprecedented collaboration. It is free and open to the public. Those wishing to attend, can register here.

45 years ago, Nixon launched the war on drugs, but really, it is a war on people. It’s time to end it, and start repairing the harm done to millions of families and communities.

Melissa Franqui is communications coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance (

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