“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or drugs, 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.” These are the words of former Nixon Domestic Policy Chief John Ehrlichman according to a 22-year-old interview recently published in Harper’s Magazine. For some time now, critics of the war on drugs and the Nixon Administration as a whole, have had their doubts regarding the motivations behind the former president’s aggressive pursuit of drug offenders; these new comments would seem to confirm at least some of their suspicions.
The Ehrlichman family has voiced their skepticism regarding the veracity of the comments, claiming that they “do not square of what they known of their father”; however, Harper’s writer Dan Bam has characterized Ehrlichman’s comments as atonement for contributing to the administration’s efforts. If the comments were, in fact, true, it would mean that decades worth of policy that sent thousands of people to jail and tore apart countless families were for little more than political gain. It would also thoroughly undermine the legitimacy of the war on drugs; an effort which, to date, has cost billions of dollars and numerous lives.
Though some argue that it was an extension of early-century prohibition policies, the war on drugs was essentially declared in 1970 right around the passing of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, which catalogued controlled substances based on their medicinal value and abuse potential. President Nixon officially declared drug abuse to be public enemy number one less than a year later. For years after, right up until 2011, the official approach to combatting drug addiction was largely enforcement-first. Although the perception of addiction slowly turned from “moral failing” to disease in popular culture, only very recently have we begun to see a real institutional difference.
It’s difficult to quantify exactly what the war on drugs has cost use; however, it is widely accepted that we’ve spent over $1 trillion dollars on this war. We have also accrued one of the largest prison populations of non-violent drug offenders, and to date, we have only seen marginal reform. The Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that there are 85,353 inmates incarcerated for drug-related offenses, representing 46.5 percent of the prison population as a whole. This is more than twice the number of inmates in the next highest category (weapons, explosives and arson at 31,088).
In additional to the financial cost, there has been significant costs to families whose members have gone to prison for disproportionately long sentences for effective minor possession charges. When we discus the initial causes of substance abuse, we often point to the absence of family in the abuser’s life. It can be argued that, for some, the war on drugs merely contributed to the familial cycle of drug abuse and addiction.
As the costs are weighed and the evidence continues to mount, there is increasing opposition to continuing with the enforcement-first approach. In 2011 the Global Commission on Drug Policy released a report asserting: “The war on drugs has failed”. A year later the U.S. Government published an updated version of its Drug Policy. The director of Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) stated simultaneously that this policy is something different from the war on drugs.
We are, however, still committing massive financial resources to enforcement. The 2015 budget allocated to the war on drugs was $26 billion. This is in addition to the $25 billion that is spent at the state and local levels each year. Less than half of this budget was devoted to treatment. Over 50 percent was dedicated supply reduction, including domestic law enforcement.
However well-intentioned supply reduction may be, many argue that concentrating so heavily on it takes away valuable resources from education and treatment efforts. Very little of the federal budget is spent on life-saving harm-reduction services. Despite the country’s incremental gravitation toward a more enlightened approach, many assert that there is still a great deal of work to be done.
Despite Ehrlichman’s alleged comments, and the war on drugs’ massive adverse impact on the economy, the legal system and families all over the country, the effort mobilized many well-intentioned people who legitimately thought they were keeping their communities safe and that they were part of a noble calling to keep their families and friends safe from dangerous narcotics. There was, in fact, a massive heroin problem consuming the country at the war’s inception, just like there is now; and the fact that nothing has changed may be more instructive than we realize. Unfortunately, for all the good the war on drugs purported to do, it also may have solidified the deeply held belief of many that addiction is a choice, and that victims of chemical dependency are less deserving of proper care because they somehow “did this to themselves”.
As history further contextualizes the war on drugs, and as more and more people come to regard addiction as a disease, rather than a choice, there is reason to think that “Treatment First” will become the prevailing rallying cry regarding addiction care. There is no doubt that we still need some measure of enforcement in order to deter trafficking and appropriately punish distributors, but it may be time to allocate the lion’s share of resources toward getting people help. In any event, Ehrlichman’s comments may be the final nail in the coffin of a 40-year-old approach that has yielded little apparent success in its mission.