Harper’s magazine contributor Dan Baum may have blown the lid off of something that has plagued Black America for nearly 50 years.
He revealed in a conversation he once had with John Ehrlichman, President Richard Nixon’s counsel and Assistant for Domestic Affairs that the War on Drugs was essentially a malevolent conspiracy against Black liberation movements and youth counterculture.
“At the time, I was writing a book about the politics of drug prohibition,” Baum wrote. “I started to ask Ehrlichman a series of earnest, wonky questions that he impatiently waved away. ‘You want to know what this was really all about?’ he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. ‘The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, 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. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.’
Taking a look at the heavy costs of the war on drugs, the likely consequences of legalization, and how it affects humanity (particularly the disproportionate number of Blacks that have been bullied by President Richard Nixon’s second worst idea), Baum opens the door to the possibility that civilization will not collapse if drugs are legalized.
Depending on how the issue is framed, legalization of all drugs can appeal to conservatives, who are instinctively suspicious of bloated budgets, excess government authority, and intrusions on individual liberty, as well as to liberals, who are horrified at police overreach, the brutalization of Latin America, and the criminalization of entire generations of black men. It will take some courage to move the conversation beyond marijuana to ending all drug prohibitions, but it will take less, I suspect, than most politicians believe.
But he also goes into how marijuana legalization in four states and the District of Columbia has and has not worked, as well as countries like Portugal and the Netherlands to analyze drug policy there. He also acknowledges that legalization doesn’t mean fixing everything either.
A million choices will arise, and we probably won’t make any good decisions on the first try. Some things will get better; some things will get worse. But we do have experience on which to draw — from the end of Prohibition, in the 1930s, and from our recent history. Ending drug prohibition is a matter of imagination and management, two things on which Americans justifiably pride themselves. We can do this.
Read more at Harper’s Magazine.