This story recently appeared claiming that one of Nixon's aids had admitted that the war on drugs was all about targeting specific groups and not really about the harms of drugs.


At the time, I was writing a book about the politics of drug prohibition. 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."

Did Ehrlichman make the claim and, perhaps more importantly, is such a claim credible even in the Nixon administration? Do any other sources validate his claim?


1 Answer 1


The origin of the quote is this article in Harpers (there is an older version in a book, but everyone cuts-and-pastes the one in Harpers). It is used to lead in to a much longer article arguing for an end to the War on Drugs. Reporter Dan Baum states it was something said by Ehrlichman to him in 1994. There were no other witnesses, and there doesn't seem to be any other evidence that he said it. Ehrlichman died in 1999.

This article in a conservative web site implies that the quote was fabricated, and quotes Ehrlichman's children as saying it is inconsistent with the character of their father. However their statements seem to miss the point; they defend Ehrlichman against a charge of racism, but this quote is not actually racist: rather it describes a campaign of dirty tricks that exploited racism in the general population.

Ehrlichman spent 18 months in prison for his role in Watergate, and was subsequently barred from practicing law. He asked Nixon for a pardon, but didn't get one, and seems to have been very resentful about this. So its possible he said this, but it didn't accurately represent the thinking of the Nixon White House.

There doesn't seem to be any other evidence to support the version of events in the Ehrlichman quote. Nixon wasn't shy about what got recorded on his tapes. This article goes through the relevant tape recordings and other evidence. Apart from the Ehrlichman quote, everything points to Nixon having an attitude of "My mind is made up, so don't confuse me with the facts.". Judging by the tapes, his policy was entirely driven by a fixed belief in then-prevalent myths about the danger to America from blacks, homosexuals, drug use and mental damage. Nothing there supports the picture drawn by the Ehrlichman quote that the WoD was deliberately fabricated as a strategy to disrupt political opponents. Instead the Nixonian WoD seems to have been a classic example of policy-based evidence making.

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