Nixon’s War on Drugs Decision
One Explanation Makes Him Larger and One Explanation Makes Him Small
Why did Richard M. Nixon launch the War on Drugs? Despite the immense domestic and international costs from that policy decision, like so much else that issued from our most disastrous presidency, there is no scholarly or popular consensus about his motives. What we know for certain is that drug prohibition had been national public policy in the United States for decades before events during his administration signaled an escalation in such efforts: passage by the U.S. Congress of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act in October 1970, Nixon’s description of drug abuse as “public enemy number one in the United States during a June 1971 press conference, universal urinalysis drug screening for returning U.S. Vietnam War veterans under Operation Golden Flow1 that same month, creation of the Office of the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement (ODALE) in December 1971, and finally, Nixon’s request that the U.S. Congress establish the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in a July 1973 speech. While the national government already had drug prohibition police forces in the form of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD) and the Customs Bureau, the establishment of the DEA signaled a dramatic expansion of the direct role of the national government and scale of government funding and personnel. Prior to 1973, drug prohibition in the United States was still largely the responsibility of state and local governments as part of their constitutional police powers. The massive scale of contemporary drug prohibition enforcement efforts is the result of this nationalization during the Nixon administration.
Despite its importance in increasing national government drug prohibition efforts and changing the distribution of power over policing policy between the national and state governments in the United States, Nixon’s motives have been disputed for decades. Apologists and critics of the War on Drugs disagree. Critics disagree among themselves. This article surveys the narratives offered to explain Nixon’s motives before concluding with a discussion of the thinking of the figure bearing ultimate responsibility.
Nixon Feared Heroin
The ‘GI heroin epidemic’ provides source material for explanations of Nixon’s drug policy decisions. What is certain is that the “discovery” by major newspapers that as much as one-fourth of the U.S. Army personnel serving in Vietnam—the actual figures may have been as much as one-third—had used heroin was reported in a manner likely to generate public alarm. Then as now, much of the American public associated heroin exclusively with intravenous injection and overestimated both the susceptibility to and the intractability of heroin addiction. In reality, most of the American soldiers using the cheap and plentiful heroin in Vietnam were smoking or snorting rather than injecting it, and most stopped using heroin before returning to the United States2. Facts are less important than images in a drug focused moral panic, and the “GI heroin epidemic” offered the public a convincing folk devil in the form of the Vietnam Veteran drug addict. “Domestic addicts, GI addicts, and foreign traffickers and producers played the role of the “other” and needed to be contained or excluded from playing any role in constructing am American identity, one characterized by anti-drug beliefs and practices.”3
There are two versions of the GI heroin epidemic explanation. The first attributes the Nixon administration’s decision to launch its War on Drugs as an effort to prevent a domestic a crime wave in the United States as addicted military veterans committed theft and murder to support their habits. The second attributes the decision to anxiety that heroin addiction among Vietnam veterans would undermine public support for the war. In his portrayal of the Nixon presidency, President Nixon: Alone in the White House, biographer Richard Reeves describes a figure anguished about one clean-cut young men returning from Vietnam to their mothers and hometowns as junkies.4 If Reeves is correct, then it must have been some other Nixon who ordered continuation of ground operations, the one willing to squander so many more lives in a an unwinnable war.
Nixon Feared LSD
Two 2010 popular histories attribute Nixon’s drug policy to prominent rebels in the Counterculture. In telling the story of The Brotherhood of Universal Love, a cannabis production/smuggling/distribution network cum religious sect in Orange Sunshine, Nicholas Schou seems to endorse a connection between the demise of the group with the arrest of leading figure Robert Ackerly, a.k.a. Chris Wheat, in April 22, 1973 and the establishment of the DEA the next month. “Although the notion that the Brotherhood single-handedly led to the creation of the DEA is a vast oversimplification,” he writes, “the timing of the birth of the agency and the so-called war on drugs does coincide with the high-profile demise of the Brotherhood.”5 Schou notes that although Nixon did not specifically name the group in his July 1973 speech, he did describe “an all-out global war” against a “resourceful, elusive, world-wide enemy.”6 In his account the members of the Brotherhood organize importation of massive amounts of Afghan hashish and manufactured domestically massive amounts of LSD. Don Lattin’s The Harvard Psychedelic Club is a group biography of four prominent intellectuals associated with both Harvard University and the popularization of LSD: Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert/ Ram Dass, Huston Smith and Andrew Weil. Among the four intellectuals it was Leary who garnered the lion’s share of public attention at the time by making himself a lightening rod for the cultural anxieties gripping conservative Americans. Lattin repeats the opinion of psychologist Phil Slater that Timothy Leary was responsible for activating conservative anxiety and provoking President Richard Nixon’s decision to launch the war on drugs and the “larger campaign against the sixties counterculture and the New Left.”7 What is certain is that in May 1969 Leary had prevailed in his appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court of his conviction under the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act using a double jeopardy argument. Here was further evidence for conservatives that the U.S. Supreme Court of Chief Justice Earl Warren was “soft on crime” because it was ideologically liberal.
Given the formal and informal powers at his disposal, it is unlikely that Nixon would have been anything more than annoyed by either the Brotherhood or Leary, and annoyance alone seems insufficient as an explanation for the administration’s escalation of drug prohibition enforcement. Instead they may have been more the symptom than the contributing cause. Other students of the period present a darker story about LSD. Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain are unwilling to grant either the cultural rebels or President Nixon much responsibility for the widespread use of LSD in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In their historical narrative, Americans are first exposed to LSD as part of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency program to develop an arsenal drugs useful for the interrogation of prisoners and the psychological disabling of targeted political figures, which prove less effective than anticipated. They interpret the subsequent widespread LSD use among youth and the fragmentation and incompetence of the New Left as the result of CIA efforts to make use of the psychedelic drugs in its arsenal to demobilize challenges to authority.8
Nixon Loved Crime
As an extraordinarily ambitious politician, Nixon was always searching for issues on which he could posture to win popular support. After rising to national prominence as a fervent anti-communist in the 1950s, he and fellow American conservatives focused on the problem of crime as a suitably threatening replacement in the 1960s. Crime rates increased steeply in the United States during the period, though largely as a result of demography rather than the “permissiveness” that conservatives complained about.
Nixon’s law-and-order issue mongering in his 1968 presidential campaign emphasized the sorts of ordinary violent crimes that the public found most threatening—murder, rape, muggings and burglary—despite the fact that prosecuting these offenses was the purview of state and local government.9 He would later emulate New York Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller by emphasizing a connection between those who sell illicit drugs, illicit drug use and such ordinary violent crimes.
Conservatives benefited from the war on drugs for two reasons.10 The first is that it served as a vehicle for symbolically attacking the “permissiveness” that they perceived in society generally and in criminal justice system specifically. Cultural disapproval of challenges to the authority of the state, business, church and family, harsher penalties for violations of drug prohibition and conservative judges willing to impose them, together with expanded police power and reduced protection for civil liberties would deter crime and restore “traditional” social norms thought to have prevailed in earlier decades. Failing that it would at least help elect conservative public officials.
The second was that it offered a means for building moral consensus around an issue other than civil rights after they found themselves on the wrong side of that issue. Conservatives had found themselves out of step with the majority of Americans because overt racial discrimination came to be perceived as morally repugnant. Something was needed to change the subject of public debate. Drugs proved perfect. A majority of Americans were unfamiliar with illicit drugs except for their association with a range of threatening ethnic “folk devils.” Nixon exploited the belief that marijuana and LSD were the cause of rebellion among white youth and that heroin was “driving inner-city blacks to rape and pillage.”11 Given the racial and cultural anxieties of many suburban white Americans during the period, these were very powerful images to deploy in mobilizing electoral support.
Nixon Loved the Coercive Apparatus
Stuart Walton asserts that the desire for intoxication and thus intoxicants is innate, perhaps a part of our biology before modern humans emerged. Humans naturally seek to alter their consciousness with drugs. Against conspiracism like that of Lee and Shlain that the state itself promotes drug use for specifically nefarious ends, he argues that the greatest conspiracy is drug prohibition itself. “The greatest conspiracy ever mounted against the mass of humanity—greatest because so enormously ambitious in its reach—is the effort to close off access to alternative mental states completely.”12
Drug prohibition permits extension of the repressive apparatus of the state, especially the police state tools: surveillance of the entire population, investigation of dissident and minority populations, and provocation of targeted organizations and individuals. “Police and military antinarcotics units can go undercover almost anywhere to investigate—after all, almost anybody might be in the drug business.”13 Escalation of drug prohibition would have appealed to Nixon not only because he personally abhorred illicit drug use but also because it permitted government action that was less restrained by political accountability. “The major obstacles to political accountability are secrecy and practices that shield power holders from public scrutiny. Unfortunately, the structure of drug enforcement puts a high premium on secrecy and creates institutional mechanisms that often allow drug enforcers to operate outside the public view.”14 These characteristics make drug prohibition enforcement an attractive vehicle for political decision-makers seeking to maximize the sort of “bureaucratic rents” more often recognized in defense spending.15
Given the mistrust generated by the assassinations of liberal political leaders and the hostility to U.S. foreign policy expressed in protests against the War in Vietnam, Nixon understood that the legitimacy of the national government had been weakened and that demonstrations of authorized violence against criminals could be successfully exploited for its re-legitimization.16 Drug prohibition enforcement was thus a vehicle for exerting the popular authority of the national government.17 Drug prohibition identifies a massive pool of potential offenders for police and courts.18 “On any given day in any given large metropolitan area, the police can arrest as many drug offenders as they have time and resources to pursue. That is simply not true of property or violent crime…This allows growth [in the prison population] to continue, even if at a slower pace, during cycles when for whatever reason violent crime declines (as it has lately).”19 Arrest rates provide police and elected officials with indicators of apparent policy success. No doubt Nixon grasped the political value of a crime problem that could be modulated so easily, not only for his own political career but also in the interest of the national government. Based on recent experience, restoring its legitimacy was likely to be a recurring problem.
Policy emulation also might have played a role. Nixon would have been keenly aware of the success of Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos in using crime suppression, including an anti-drug campaign that featured the execution by firing squad of an ethnic Chinese drug trafficker that was played to film audiences, in winning popular approval and diverting the attention of the public from official wrongdoing.20 Marcos’s 1972 Declaration of Martial Law, formalizing his dictatorship, was justified in the name of law and order, which included the establishment of a unified militarized national police force. That the interests of Washington carried great weight in Manila long after The Philippines won its independence is obvious. Less obvious is that Manila had long been a proving ground for policing and counter-intelligence policies that were later adopted in the United States.
Nixon Feared Nixon
In his 1972 psychological analysis of Nixon, In Search of Nixon, Bruce Mazlish describes him as having difficulty distinguishing between the United States and himself and strongly motivated by anxiety about dependency.21 Fear of losing the external source of love and protection drove him to seek autonomy of action. Some of his anxiety about illicit drugs may have expressed of the repressed fear of becoming an addict himself, anxieties he superimposed on the rest of the country. Reports from individuals close to Nixon reveal that he presented some of the symptoms of alcoholism.22
Nixon’s motivations were conclusively identified in 2002 with the release of declassified tapes from Nixon’s Oval Office conversations. The same taping system that ultimately helped to bring down his presidency has continued to yield information about the inner workings of one of America’s most catastrophic presidencies. What they reveal is a decision-maker convinced of the moral distinction between licit intoxicant alcohol and illicit intoxicant marijuana, convinced that marijuana was a “gateway drug,” convinced that the promotion of drug use and homosexuality were elements in a leftist plot to destroy the United States. During a May 18, 1971 conversation, Nixon articulated a view of world history in which the imperialist subjugation of the Third World nations is attributed to national weakness caused by tolerance of drug use: “[E]verybody knows what it’s done to the Chinese, the Indians are hopeless anyway, the Burmese. They have different forms of drugs…”23 The same conversations also reveal a figure obsessed with, and clearly threatened by, Jews and “Jewish psychiatrists.” Beyond being tormented by personal demons, Nixon’s mind appears to have been focused on the impending release of the formal report of the Shafer Commission, the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse chaired by former Republican Governor of Pennsylvania, Raymond Shafer.24 Shafer may have been a “drug hawk,”25 a figure committed to drug prohibition, as were several of the physicians on the commission, but its report seemed likely to be much less harsh on marijuana than Nixon wanted. Nixon and his White House advisors were certain that the report would recommend either legalizing or decriminalizing the use of marijuana. As such it would represent a profound challenge to Nixon’s conflated conception of himself and the nation.
There is no small irony in the fact that the drug that has opened so many minds to honest personal introspection and helped them reach a more balanced perspective on life would be fought so tenaciously by a figure whose entire political career was a monument to precisely the opposite. Much of Nixon’s success in mobilizing support among what was then termed the “silent majority” of white middle class Americans lay in his ability to channel their social anxieties. If Nixon had been a less repressed personality, he might have performed that role less effectively.
One of the curious inversions in the cultural history of the War on Drugs is that apologists tend to attribute Nixon’s decision to a response to the behavior of masses while critics tend to attribute it to a response to the behavior of elites. Nixon became a drug warrior, say the apologists, because of the threats of violent crime committed by heroin addicted Vietnam veterans and the breakdown of order caused by youth on drugs. Nixon became a drug warrior, say critics, because he was frightened by the challenge posed by proponents of LSD in the Counterculture, because the association with crime could be cynically exploited to win popular support, and because he was attracted by the prospect of a national government with greater coercive power. Although these no doubt form the context in which the Nixon made his drug policy decisions, the best explanation lies in his troubled psyche.
1No, I am not making that up.
2 Lee N. Burns. “Vietnam Veterans’ Rapid Recovery from Heroin Addiction: A Fluke or Normal Expectation.” Addiction. Vol. 88 (1993): 1041-1054.
3 Daniel Werner. “Drugs-as-a-Disease: Heroin, Metaphors, and Identity in Nixon’s Drug War.” Janus Head. Vol. 6, No. 2 (2003): 260-281, 265.
4 Richard Reeves. 2001. Richard Nixon: Alone in the White House. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 323.
5 Nicholas Schou. 2010. Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love and its Quest to Spread Peace, Love and Acid to the World. New York: Thomas Dunne Books. Pp. 271-272.
6 Schou, Orange Sunshine, p. 272.
7 Don Lattin. 2010. The Harvard Psychedelic Club. New York: HarperCollins. p. 214.
8 Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain. 1985. Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, Sixites, and Beyond. New York: Grove Press. Pp. 282-287.
9 Edward Jay Epstein. 1977. Agency of Fear: Opiates and Political Power in America. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Pp. 58-62.
10 Theodore Caplow and Jonathan Simon, “Understanding Prison Policy and Population Trends.” Crime and Justice: A Review of Research. Vol. 26 (1999): 82-83
11 Mike Gray. 2000. Drug Crazy: How We Got Into This Mess And How We Get Out. New York: Routledge, p. 94.
12 Walton, Stuart. 2001. Out of It: A Cultural History of Intoxication. New York: Harmony Books, 2001, p. 347.
13 Harry G. Levine. “The Secret of Worldwide Drug Prohibition: The Varieties and Uses of Drug Prohibition.” The Independent Review. Vol. 7, No. 2 (Fall 2002): 165-180, 169.
14 Morris J. Blachman and Kenneth E. Sharpe. “The War on Drugs: American Democracy under Assault.” World Policy Journal. Vol. 7, No. 1 (Winter 1989/1990): 135-163, 143.
15 John M. Mbaku. “Military Expenditures and Bureaucratic Competition for Rents.” Public Choice. Vol. 71 (1991): 19-31.
16> Theodore Caplow and Jonathan Simon. “Understanding Prison Policy and Population Trends.” Crime and Justice. Vol. 6 (1999): 63-120, 78
17 Mike Gray. 1998. Drug Crazy, pp. 93-94.
18 Caplow and Simon, “Understanding Prison Policy,” p. 93
19 Caplow and Simon, “Understanding Prison Policy,” p. 72
20 Alfred W. McCoy. 2009. Policing America’s Empire: The United States, The Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press. Pp. 397-400.
21 Bruce Mazlish. 1972. In Search of Nixon.: A Psychohistorical Inquiry. Baltimore, MD: Pelican. Pp. 118-119.
22 Seymour Martin Hersh. 1983. The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House. New York: Summit. p. 88.
23 Nixon White House Oval Office Conversation Transcripts.
24 Kevin Zeese. “Once-Secret “Nixon Tapes” Show Why the U.S. Outlawed Pot.” AlterNet. March 21, 2002.
25 Dan Baum. 1996. Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure. Boston: Back Bay Books. p. 52.