Brief History of the War on Cannabis: Nixon Era War on Drugs

10 months ago   •   3 min read

By Juana Know Staff

Richard Nixon is a noteworthy American president for many reasons. As the only president ever made to resign rather than face criminal charges, his administration serves as an asterisk on American history. While many people are aware of his high crimes and misdemeanors, less is popularly known about the Nixon drug policy and the effects it had on people of color. The Nixon drug policy can only serve as a warning about the consequences of racist government decisions.

President Nixon was elected by a large margin on a promise of supposed law and order. Americans, in his opinion and those serving under this president, felt Americans wanted a war. Not content with fighting a war in Vietnam that would kill thousands, the president looked a lot closer to home. This one was on the American public.

Deliberate Action

The first group of people that Nixon looked to single out were those opposing his war in Vietnam. Anti-war activists became a target of his governmental policies about marijuana. The second group Nixon decided to make the victims of his policies on drugs were African-Americans. Nixon actively funded the war on drugs. His administration also set up racist policies that would ruin lives in communities of color and create a problem that did not exist.

Federal drug agencies were given an infusion of cash by his officials and wide leeway when it came to enforcing petty drug laws. They were also given the go-ahead to violate the constitution and established legal procedures. John Ehrlichman, one of his officials who would serve time for his role in the Watergate scandal, openly admitted he wanted the public to associate the anti-war movement with marijuana.

He also wanted the public to think of heroin when they thought about African-Americans even though many African-Americans did not use the drug. During the Nixon administration, marijuana users came even more under scrutiny. Nixon went so far as to move marijuana to the most seriously penalized form of drugs despite there being no science to back up his stance. His government also deliberately placed a ready supply of heroin in African-American communities, to equally devastating effect.

Under the Nixon presidency, African-Americans and Latinos were far more likely to be arrested for drug use. They were also far more likely to serve prison terms and face large fines for amounts that would have merited no more than a shrug if they were white.

These policies would change when Carter assumed office on a platform of undoing Nixon's policies on marijuana. By the time Nixon left office, nearly a dozen states chose to decriminalize marijuana possession. Despite these efforts, parents and others in the community were concerned about this issue once again. The election of President Reagan would signal yet another turn towards more punitive measures.

History Repeats Itself

Ronald Reagan held the highest office in the land for eight years. Under his tenure, Nixon's "war on drugs" began again. While his wife Nancy on with her Just Say No campaign, her husband was busy imposing policies that would lead to millions of needless arrests and ruin the lives of Americans everywhere. Unfortunately, all too many Americans bought it. Harsh laws meant policies that punished entire communities for harmless activities.

When Bill Clinton assumed the presidency, he emphasized treatment as well as incarceration. Yet, he too would rapidly wind up putting more Americans behind bars for drug use. Those in favor of sensible and sane policies on drug use would finally speak up. President Obama was able to use his power to reach across the aisle and find allies. Conservatives and liberals alike were finally willing to stand up and say such policies were morally wrong. Unlike Clinton's famous meek "I didn't inhale," comment, politicians like President Obama admitted to using drugs and enjoying doing so.

Their openness has hopefully sparked a more lasting and intelligent movement that will surely make a difference in the lives of more Americans.

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