Racism, the War on Drugs and Treating Addiction as a Disease

As public opinion on drug laws and the causes of drug addiction shift, lawmakers are challenged to combat addiction with treatment instead of incarceration.

A recent article in Harper’s magazine claims former Nixon Administration Domestic-Policy Adviser John Ehrlichman told reporter Dan Baum that the war on drugs was born of racism and politics.

In the April issue of Harper’s Magazine, Baum wrote that he’d received a startling response from Ehrlichman during a 1994 interview on the politics of drug prohibition.

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” the late Ehrlichman reportedly told Baum in ’94. “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?” Ehrlichman reportedly concluded. “Of course we did.”

Several members of the Ehrlichman family denounce the authenticity and accuracy of the quote.

“We never saw or heard anything from our dad, John Ehrlichman, that was derogatory about any person of color,” wrote Peter Ehrlichman, Tom Ehrlichman, Jan Ehrlichman, Michael Ehrlichman and Jody Pineda in a statement, according to CNN. “The 1994 alleged ‘quote’ we saw… does not square with what we know of our father. And collectively, that spans over 185 years of time with him.

“We do not subscribe to the alleged racist point of view that this writer now implies 22 years following the so-called interview of John and 16 years following our father’s death, when dad can no longer respond.”

In the article titled “Legalize it All,” Baum argues for a legalization of street drugs in order to end violence and corruption that accompany drug trafficking. However, ensuing media coverage and chatter on social media has focused on the alleged racist origin of the war on drugs.

A Racist War

Respected scholars, established experts and less-than-reputable conspiracy theorists have claimed the federal government’s war on drugs was born of racist motives for decades.

In 2001, Graham Boyd, the founding director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Drug Law Reform Project, wrote that the war on drugs was a modern version of Jim Crow laws.

“Pervasive racial targeting provides another peculiarly U.S. stamp to the drug war. We are incarcerating African-American men at a rate approximately four times the rate of incarceration of black men in South Africa under apartheid,” Boyd wrote, citing a 1998 article published in the Journal of American Psychology.

The war on drugs was a major part of Nixon’s 1968 campaign for presidential election.

After winning the election, the president addressed Congress about the dangers of drugs in 1969. He spoke about the dangers drugs presented to juveniles and college students. He asked Congress to pass legislation that would give law enforcement more resources to combat drug trafficking in order to protect the nation’s youth.

Two years later, Nixon told reporters “America’s public enemy number one in the U.S. is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.”

The Nixon administration shaped public opinion about drugs by using words like enemy, fight, defeat and offensive. Boyd argued such terms change an individual’s opinion about what’s right and wrong.

“A declaration of war, now as at other moments in our national history, allows us to throw out the normal rules of conduct under the imperative of a higher goal assumed to trump all other considerations,” Boyd wrote.

The reasons for the federal government’s statutes and policies on drugs mean little to individuals currently suffering from drug addiction. Today, public opinion largely supports providing treatment for addiction instead of incarceration, according to a 2014 Pew Research poll.

Decriminalization Case Study: Portugal

Portugal decriminalized the possession of all drugs in 2001. The nation had been devastated by the effects of drug abuse for years.

Deaths from drug overdoses had been increasing rapidly, according to the United Kingdom’s nonprofit Transform Drug Policy Foundation.

Other adverse health effects were also climbing, including rates of:

  • Tuberculosis
  • Hepatitis B and C

The country removed major penalties for drug possession. It is illegal to possess drugs, but penalties include fines and community service. National reports indicate most individuals receive no penalty.

The success of the new system has been remarkable.

According to the TDPF:

  • Past-year and past-month drug use has dropped.
  • Overall use among adults slightly dropped.
  • HIV infections have drastically declined.

In 2015, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction released a report finding Portugal had the second-lowest rate of death from drug overdoses in the European Union.

European countries with the lowest rate of drug overdose (per million):

  • Romania: 2.2
  • Portugal: 3.0
  • Bulgaria: 4.3

European countries with the highest rate of drug overdose (per million):

  • Norway: 69.6
  • Sweden: 69.7
  • Estonia: 126.8

However, it would be reckless to claim that decriminalization alone led to such dramatic results.

“It’s very difficult to identify a causal link between decriminalization by itself and the positive tendencies we have seen,” Dr. João Goulão, the creator of Portugal’s drug policy, told the BMJ in 2011. “It’s a total package. The biggest effect has been to allow the stigma of drug addiction to fall, to let people speak clearly and to pursue professional help without fear.”

America’s Drug Policy Today

Public opinion and policy on drugs has shifted drastically in recent years. Lawmakers are confronted with a challenging prescription drug epidemic, weakening opinions on the dangers of marijuana consumption and growing acceptance of the view that addiction is a disease.

In February 2015, President Obama proposed a budget that included $1.1 billion of additional funding to combat opioid abuse and addiction.

“For too long, the stigma of addiction has discouraged too many Americans from seeking and receiving the help they deserve,” Obama wrote in a guest piece on Al.com in February 2016. “With no other disease do we expect people to wait until they’re a danger to themselves or others to self-diagnose and seek treatment.”

Presidential candidates have largely followed his lead on the campaign trail:

  • Hillary Clinton announced a $10 billion plan to strengthen treatment programs and asked states to focus on treatment, not incarceration.
  • Donald Trump has been unclear on his drug policy, but he has said marijuana legalization should be handled by the states. He has also said he plans to build a wall to combat the drug epidemic.
  • Ted Cruz has said support groups, charities and churches should help people recover from addiction, and the federal government should focus on strengthening the U.S.-Mexico border.
  • Bernie Sanders has long advocated for addiction to be treated as a “disease not a criminal activity.”

We may never know for certain if the war on drugs began because of racist beliefs or political opinions. However, we know it has not solved the nation’s problems with drug abuse and addiction.

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