"Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."
Ronald and Nancy Reagan hanging out with Richard and Pat Nixon back in July 1970. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
According to Watergate mastermind and former Richard Nixon aide John Ehrlichman, the then-president launched the notorious (and ongoing) war on drugs in 1971 to disrupt that administration's two greatest perceived threats: black people and antiwar leftists.
The brazen quote surfaced in the April cover story of Harper's magazine that was written by Dan Baum and went online Tuesday. The reporter recalls an interview back in 1994 in which Ehrlichman bluntly explained the whole thing.
"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?" Ehrlichman told Baum. "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."
Ehrlichman's quote serves as additional proof for the already pretty well established idea that President Nixon was racist (he also wasn't a fan of the Jews). But the quote also serves as fresh fodder for reformers determined to capitalize on surging awareness of how drug laws feed mass incarceration rather than protect public safety.
When the Huffington Post asked Baum why Ehrlichman would admit all this some 30 years after the fact, the journalist replied, "People are often eager to unburden themselves, once they no longer have a dog in the fight."