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Why we should remember Richard Nixon's war on drugs

Benjamin T Smith considers the president's declaration of a war on drugs that continues to rage today

A policeman searches an African-American man, 1970s
Published: June 17, 2022 at 3:46 pm
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Fifty years ago, on 17 June 1971, President Richard Nixon declared to the Washington press core that America had a new enemy. For a change it wasn’t the Soviet Union, or China, or even communism more generally: it was narcotics. “America’s public enemy number one is drug abuse,” Nixon claimed. To fight it, it was necessary “to wage a new, all-out offensive”. Within days, US newspapers took up the metaphor. The United States was now engaged in a “war on drugs”.

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Using martial metaphors to describe counter-narcotic efforts was nothing new. Harry Anslinger, America’s long-time drug tsar, had claimed that opium poppy fields held “as much potential disaster as an atom bomb”. And during the early years of the Cold War, he portrayed his agency, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), as the counter-narcotics version of the CIA.

The counter-narcotics force were presented as drug super-cops, stalking the underworld

Yet Nixon’s speech marked the begin- ning of a new era of drug policy. Before 1971, American drug laws had been harsh and oppressive, and they had been used to unfairly target minorities. (Witness the FBN’s vicious hounding of jazz singer Billie Holiday.) But these laws were also rarely applied. Anslinger presented the FBN as drug super-cops, stalking the drug underworld both at home and abroad.

In reality, the organisation was seriously underpowered and chronically corrupt. And those jailed for drug crimes every year rarely reached into the tens of thousands.
Nixon’s announcement sparked a new aggression and intensity in drug policing.

It was spearheaded by a new agency – the Drug Enforcement Administration or DEA, which was 10 times the size of the old FBN. It was launched abroad in drug-producing countries such as Jamaica, Mexico and Colombia, where DEA agents and local military forces descended on drug-growing zones, rounded up suspected traffickers and then hurled them in jail. This aggression was pursued at home, too, as police forces started to use increasingly stringent drug laws to put away non-violent drug offenders for decades.

A group of formerly enslaved African-Americans around the time of the US Civil War

It is a policy that continues to this day, and it is one that still marks the United States. Refined by Nixon’s successors, the war on drugs is the root cause of what we now term “mass incarceration”.

Today there are at least 1.8 million prisoners in the United States. Most are on small-scale narcotics charges. And they are disproportionately African-American.

Benjamin T Smith is a professor of Latin American history at the University of Warwick. His latest book is The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade

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This article first appeared in the June 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine

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