Drug Policy

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.

NEXT: Go Ahead, Ask a Libertarian! Nick Gillespie & Matt Welch Answer All Questions!

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Reformer or warrior, still an unwarranted busybody.

    1. And racist:

      “Look, we understood we couldn’t make it illegal to be young or poor or black in the United States, but we could criminalize their common pleasure. We understood that drugs were not the health problem we were making them out to be, but it was such a perfect issue…that we couldn’t resist it.” – John Ehrlichman, White House counsel to President Nixon on the rationale of the War on Drugs.

      “[Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks” Haldeman, his Chief of Staff wrote, “The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”

  2. 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.

    1. Indeed. Let’s discuss this over cocktails.

      1. Can you wait just a minute while I slip outside for a smoke?

  3. and all the antisocial activities that flow from drug abuse

    Like all those stoners on Vent playing WOW.

    1. My personal experience was that WoW players were far more likely to be drunk than high. Our raids would usually degenerate into a slurring mess by midnight.

      1. You don’t want to be raiding past midnight anyway.

      2. It seemed to me that the ADHD spazzes who couldn’t grasp fight mechanics or move out of the Defile were the ones who always talked about their chronic while most everyone else went with alcohol or caffeine.

        I went with Dr Pepper in raids and Shiner Bock elsewhere.

  4. Was Nixon a Drug Warrior or a Reformer?

    Neither, he was just an asshole. Kind of like the douche in charge now.

  5. 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….

    This is why it helps to have someone with a substance problem in charge.

  6. 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.

    This kind of statement about drug users, or about the entire universe of “addicts” in general, is just false. And the way in which it is false corrupts the entire debate.

    People who are using drugs aren’t confused. They aren’t disillusioned or trapped in despair.

    They’re having a good time. A hell of a good time, usually.

    They get confused and disillusioned and go into despair when they either run out of money or when their partying lifestyle runs up against some other life reality.

    This is true of drugs, gambling, booze, sex, shopping, or any of the other fake-o “addictions” out there.

    The insistence upon looking at drugs as something that befalls people, rather than something people choose because in the short term (and longer, for people with some coping skills) it’s fun makes it impossible to see the policy choices clearly.

    1. Now now, we can’t have people assuming they’re responsible for their own actions, because that implies the government need not think for us.

    2. I’m curious about this thing called “Fun”.

      Where is it allowed?

    3. You pretty much took the words out of my mouth there. Many things led me to try drugs as a young person, but confusion, disillusion, and despair weren’t any of them. Unless by “confusion” Nixon meant, as drug warriors often do, “thinking differently than I do”.

      1. realizing that “there is a time and place for drugs. it’s called college”, i would suggest that for younger people – they are more likely to use/try drugs for fun/experimentation

        ime, older people are using drugs (such as alcohol- the poor man’s anti-depressant) more often to “escape” their daily horrors/grind, because they are depressed, etc.

        that matches my experience in responding to overdoses (n=scores), and talking to drug users (n=100’s)

        1. Well, based on the number of times you have run into drug users in your job you certainly sound like you have some expertise. As an officer, I am sure you have arrested many African Americans. I was wondering if you could share your expert opinion on them as well?

          1. sorry if actual y’know real world experience upsets your ignorant notions. maybe yer mama can nuke you some hot pcckets and soothe your pain

            1. My point was that your experience with drug users is not normal. You deal with criminals that happen to be drug users, but you draw conclusions as if you have access to a random sample of drug users.

              People rightly recognize the fault in that logic when applied to race which is why i asked that question. For example, when california had prop 19, police were all over tv giving their opinion on drug users. Can you imagine if there was a proposition on the ballot about some racial issue and the media turned to the police chief for an expert opinion on race. It would be absurd.

              1. no, i don’t. i also deal with drug users that happen to be drug users and/or dealers that happen to be drug dealers but are not OTHERWISE criminals, apart from the fact that the WOD makes them so

                in college, many of my friends used all sorts of drugs (you name it, they did it), and post college i spent a long time undercover dealing with users and dealers AS somebody they thought was (primarily) a guy who was buying weapons and drugs, not a cop

                so, again, instead of assuming (falsely) why don’t you ask?

                1. iow, how many heroin users have you HUNG out with? me- dozens? meth users? ditto. cocaine users? ditto. mj users – ditto. most drug users, etc. i deal with aren’t being arrested for anything, etc. drug users can be victims, too – or just talking with them on the street, etc. to get intel on who is doing the burg’s, auto thefts, etc. one of the funniest conversations i ever had was hanging out with a major methcathinone, LSD, etc. dealer and having him tell me how to identify an undercover cop by how they dressed and acted. oh, the irony.

                  1. First, this was not an attack on you personally. I understand that as an LEO have an enlightned opinion on the WOD. It was merely an attack on your logic (and logic that seems to dominate the mainstream drug debate).

                    It’s true I assumed you don’t deal with normal drug users. But it’s a pretty safe assumption given your job. Most police dept.’s will never let you be hired if you have ever used drugs (maybe Marijuana if it was long ago). Therefore if you haven’t used drugs your chances of hanging out on a friendly basis with normal (or casual) users (and knowing it) is slim.

                    Other than your college experience, and some of the crime victims (depends on the crime), the drug users you describe running into are not normal. If you spoke with drug users on the street how’d you identify them? The drug users walking the street that are “obvious” are not normal. That’s like talking to a drunk homeless man and concluding he’s a typical drinker.

                    As someone buying illegal guns, those people you associatd with are real bad people. They had to be. Being undercover you puposely sought out bad people. If among those people, you knew which ones drank, would you have drawn conclusions about normal drinking habits from that population?

                    I’ve used many of the drugs you mentioned, so I have had the chance to hang out with many normal drugs users and use drugs with them. Similar to the way you might have a drink with someone. Not to excess. Not walking the street as a couple of junkies that can be spotted a mile away.

                    Maybe you are lucky enough to have run across a large percentage of normal casual users, but I still feel that’s pretty unlikely given your job.

                    Regardless, you have come to the conclusion that WOD is bad policy and that’s admirable given the prevailing opinion in your profession.

                    1. fair enough. my experience is simply that younger people tend to be more often trying various drugs for “fun”, experimentation, cultural continuity with others (MJ and X fall in here especially), to fit in, and … because they enjoy it.

                      middle ageds etc. are MORE likely (obviously individuals vary greatly) to be using various drugs, to include alcohol, for “relief” from the stresses of life, as poor man’s antidepressant/sleep aid/stress reliever etc.

                      however, I do apologize for being so defensive. my point was that due to longterm undercover work, unlike most cops (deep undercover work is very rare) i have a different insight into the average user/dealer, since i hung with them as “one of them” not as a cop

  7. “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….”

    Eat shit, dead nixon.

  8. 1. Nixon was a PROGRESSIVE Republican. He established relations with China (aka “The Chinks”) and he created the EPA.

    2. Watergate was nothing, it was standard operating procedure, everybody does it but Nixon got punished for it.

    Ayn Rand on Money: Francisco’s Speech.

    1. Hey Greg, shouldn’t you be in the Democratic party with that racism?

    2. Hey Greg, tell us more about how you find me attractive.


  9. drug use is the same as drug abuse, yea right.

  10. The War on Drugs failed Billions of dollars ago! This money could have been used for outreach programs to clean up the bad end of drug abuse by providing free HIV testing, free rehab, and clean needles. Harmless drugs like marijuana could be legalized to help boost our damaged economy. Cannabis can provide hemp for countless natural recourses and the tax revenue from sales alone would pull every state in our country out of the red! Vote Teapot, PASS IT, and legalize it. Voice you opinion with the movement and check out my pro-cannabis art at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot…..-2011.html

  11. I either case, he is still an authoritarian fuck who thinks the government owns you.

  12. “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.

    God damn the marijuana pusher!

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.