Was Nixon a Drug Warrior or a Reformer?


Everybody seems to be writing about the 40th anniversary of Richard Nixon's war on drugs, so I am too: My column tomorrow notes that few of the critics who decry the disastrous consequences of this war are ready to give peace a chance. But while I am happy to take advantage of any news peg that might give antiprohibitionist arguments more visibility, I recognize this one is pretty arbitrary. On June 17, 1971, Nixon held a press conference where he declared:

America's public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.

I have asked the Congress to provide the legislative authority and the funds to fuel this kind of an offensive. This will be a worldwide offensive dealing with the problems of sources of supply, as well as Americans who may be stationed abroad, wherever they are in the world. It will be government wide, pulling together the nine different fragmented areas within the government in which this problem is now being handled, and it will be nationwide in terms of a new educational program that we trust will result from the discussions that we have had.

That same day, in a special message to Congress, Nixon asked for money to fund this new offensive:

If we cannot destroy the drug menace in America, then it will surely in time destroy us….The problem has assumed the dimensions of a national emergency….Narcotics addiction is a problem which afflicts both the body and the soul of America….. It comes quietly into homes and destroys children, it moves into neighborhoods and breaks the fiber of community. 

And so on. But while this is widely considered the day that Nixon declared his "war on drugs," that phrase does not appear in either statement. The closest he got was describing the weapons necessary for "an effective war against heroin addiction." In a 1973 message about the establishment of the Drug Enforcement Administration, by contrast, he said, "This Administration has declared all-out, global war on the drug menace." Based on that date, Nixon's war on drugs is only 38 years old. Alternatively, if we date it to passage of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 (a milestone that Nixon himself highlighted in his 1971 message), the war is 41 years old. Or, since the phrase was deployed intermittently over the years by New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, the Eisenhower administration, and the press, going back to the beginning of drug prohibition, when the government first started using force to impose its arbitrary pharmacological preferences, one could argue that the focus on Nixon is misplaced.

Indeed, as Law Enforcement Against Prohibition points out in a new report, Nixon, contrary to his reputation, supported a kinder, gentler approach to drug policy that was similar to the recommendations of many contemporary reformers:

While the Nixon administration's public messaging carefully stressed punishment, it directed resources primarily toward public health. Today, the Obama administration's press releases emphasize public health while its funding requests are actually weighted toward punishment.

In his 1971 message, Nixon was not shy about advocating compassion for drug users, whom he portrayed as victims in need of treatment rather than jail:

Enforcement must be coupled with a rational approach to the reclamation of the drug user himself….We are taking steps under the Comprehensive Drug Act to deal with the supply side of the equation and I am recommending additional steps to be taken now. But we must also deal with demand. We must rehabilitate the drug user if we are to eliminate drug abuse and all the antisocial activities that flow from drug abuse….

Our programs…must be judged by the number of human beings who are brought out of the hell of addiction, and by the number of human beings who are dissuaded from entering that hell….

[Drug abuse] is a problem which demands compassion, and not simply condemnation, for those who become the victims of narcotics and dangerous drugs. We must try to better understand the confusion and disillusion and despair that bring people, particularly young people, to the use of narcotics and dangerous drugs.

Nixon was also a critic of indiscriminately harsh penalties:

[Under the 1970 law,] severe punishments are invoked against the drug pushers and peddlers while more lenient and flexible sanctions are provided for the users….

These new penalties allow judges more discretion, which we feel will restore credibility to the drug control laws and eliminate some of the difficulties prosecutors and judges have had in the past arising out of minimum mandatory penalties for all violators.

At the same time, Nixon saw no contradiction between punishment and public health. He wanted to "tighten the noose around the necks of drug peddlers, and thereby loosen the noose around the necks of drug users." As I argue in my column, this morally incoherent dichotomy continues to influence the thinking of both critics and supporters of the war on drugs.

More commentary on Nixon's drug war from Keith Humphreys, Mark KleimanCharles Blow, Debra Saunders, Jesse Jackson, and Inimai Chettiar.