You can pretty much bet that any simplistic take on the history of the "war on drugs" is flawed; but pro-drug reformers love repeating them anyway.
Such was my grounds for being suspicious of the internet story doing the rounds last week about Erlichman explaining why Nixon wanted the war.
As this article explains, it's not so simple, and Nixon's approach also encompassed a compassionate approach to funding rehabilitation for the drug addicted:
Let's start with what Nixon actually sought to do when he launched his war on drugs. The speech that started the formal war on drugs in 1971 did not focus solely on criminalization. Instead, Nixon dedicated much of his time to talking up initiatives that would increase prevention and treatment for drug abuse.Interesting. And there's more:
"Enforcement must be coupled with a rational approach to the reclamation of the drug user himself," Nixon told Congress in 1971. "We must rehabilitate the drug user if we are to
eliminate drug abuse and all the antisocial activities that flow from drug abuse."
The numbers back this up. According to the federal government's budget numbers for anti-drug programs, the "demand" side of the war on drugs (treatment, education, and prevention) consistently got more funding during Nixon's time in office (1969 to 1974) than the "supply"
side (law enforcement and interdiction).
Historically, this is a commitment for treating drugs as a public health issue that the federal government has not replicated since the 1970s. (Although President Barack Obama's budget proposal would, for the first time in decades, put a majority of anti-drug spending on the demand side once again.)
Drug policy historians say this was intentional. Nixon poured money into public health initiatives, such as medication-assisted treatments like methadone clinics, education campaigns that sought to prevent teens from trying drugs, and more research on drug abuse. In fact, the Controlled Substances Act — the basis for so much of modern drug policy — actually reduced penalties on marijuana possession in 1970, when Nixon was in office.
"Nixon was really worried about kids and drugs," David Courtwright, a drug policy historian at the University of North Florida, told me. "He saw illicit drug use by young people as a form of social rot, and it's something that weakens America."So, treating it as a public health issue was high on Nixon's agenda. As I have noted before, this was not unusual even within conservative governments in Australia - with the Bjelke-Petersen government having well funded methodone programs too, I believe.