Since the beginning, the War on Drugs has been about controlling political power–by breaking up Black communities and the dissident left.
By Thom Hartmann
If you’ve shopped at a gardening supply store in the last year, and if you happen to live with someone who drinks tea, guess what?
It’s not a far-fetched scenario, in fact it actually happened, here in the US, just three short years ago.
Back in 2012, a Kansas SWAT team raided the home of Robert and Addie Harte and tore their house apart looking for evidence of a major marijuana growing operation.
The investigation began when a state trooper stationed at a gardening supply store (yes, they had the gardening store staked out!) spotted Robert Harte and his son purchasing supplies to grow hydroponic tomatoes.
According to the Washington Post, having seen the Hartes buying hydroponic growing accessories, the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department started investigating the Harte family.
They searched the family’s trash and found “saturated plant material” that supposedly tested positive for THC, the active chemical in marijuana.
But the reality was, Mrs. Harte is a tea drinker, and that wet plant matter was nothing more than used tea leaves, and the SWAT raid turned up nothing.
Just last week, a federal judge dismissed the family’s lawsuit against the police, and said that the sheriffs had probable cause – based on the garden store purchase and old tea leaves.
But the Hartes aren’t the average targets of this kind of drug sting, and one sheriff actually boasted after the raid that the operation was so unusual because they’d shut down a drug operation that was run by an “average family” in a “good neighborhood” – all coded language for “middle class white people.”
Aside from the fact that the Hartes weren’t actually doing ANYTHING illegal, the sheriff unwittingly showed just how exceptional it was that the family was a target at all.
Because the war on drugs has never been about drugs.
No, the war on drugs, since its very beginning, has been about controlling political power – by breaking up Black communities and the dissident left.
And we know that because the people who have been involved, the architects and the leaders in the war on drugs, have admitted it – even bragged about it!
Before he died, Nixon counsel and former assistant to the president, John Ehrlichman, told author Dan Baum that:
“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.”
In other words, Nixon and the GOP used the war on drugs to help politically assassinate community leaders, and to fracture communities by removing individuals from society and throwing them in prison.
The Nixon administration signed the Controlled Substances Act into law in 1970, officially codifying the war on drugs into federal law.
By 1973, more than 300,000 people were being arrested every year under the law, and a disproportionate number of those were African Americans.
The plan went hand in hand with the Republican “Southern Strategy” – just listento former Republican strategist Lee Atwater describing how that worked.
Nixon and his advisers didn’t invent the racist war on drugs though. Using drug enforcement as a way to oppress minority communities already had a 40-year precedent.
In the 1930s, Harry J. Anslinger served as the first commissioner of the US Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which eventually became the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Back then, he reportedly claimed:
“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”
He also he also used explicit racist epithets in his diatribes, saying “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”
Just like Lee Atwater described, the language had changed by 1970, but the ideas were the same.
Nixon wasn’t the first to use drug enforcement as a way to oppress minorities in the US, but he did step up the racist war on drugs and sign it into law – and every president since then has continued and even expanded it.
According to the Justice Policy Institute, approximately 500,000 people were serving time for drug offenses in state and federal prisons and jails in 2008.
Unsurprisingly, the NAACP reports that 38 percent of people arrested for drug offenses are Black, and that 59 percent of drug offenders in state prisons are Black.
The war on drugs is costing us tens of billions in federal and state tax dollars every year, and the only results have been millions of undue criminal convictions that ruin lives, destroy communities and undermine our democracy.
That’s why it’s time to end the racist war on drugs.
It would save us billions every year in enforcement costs, and even more in incarceration costs.
And, most importantly, it would roll back one of Nixon’s most damaging and racist legacies, and it would allow millions of Americans, mostly from minority communities, to fully take part in our democracy once again.
And if we really, truly, want to address drug abuse in the US, we need to follow the advice of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New Jersey Gov. Chris Chistie, and start treating drug abuse as a public health issue, instead of a criminal legal issue.