Ehrlichman on The War on Drugs

I read this a few days ago, and I can’t stop thinking about it. If true, Nixon’s cynical political calculation may be the greatest evil perpetrated by the US since the near-extermination of native americans in the 19th century. Millions of people have served jail sentences for non-violent drug crimes. We’ve lost – are still losing – entire swathes of our citizenry to this.

I’m not sure I believe it. Certainly, Nixon seems capable of it. But the alleged quote took place in 1994, as part of the research for a 1996 book, Smoke and Mirrors by Harpers writer Dan Baum. He did not include it in the book. This I find hard to accept, as it would have been the story of the year, perhaps the decade. If true, this would have made Watergate look like a senior-class prank. What reporter would have overlooked this? And how could more than one person keep a secret this big for so long?

But it fits. It makes sense, at least through the filter of my own preconceptions. And it makes me a bit ill to think about.

Let’s assume this is accurate…how do we explain the continued “war on drugs” for the following 45 years? Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama are all in on it?

Our federal government sucks, but I doubt it is a conspiracy here. I think its just the feds taking the easy way out. It’s easy to demonize “drugs”. The “war on drugs” is a joke. To me it’s one of the biggest failings of the US federal government ever. Prohibition is a proven loser yet we continue.

I could see it as the “original plan” and then people just continuing the practice for various other reasons.

There’s a lot of money being made by the private sector with having people in prison and jail. Privatizing our judicial process has made a huge incentive to keep it going. I sometimes wonder how Big Business the Prison Industry would be if you removed most of the minor drug related offenses.

Yeah. Once the status quo sinks in, inertia is a strong force to overcome in politics. There aren’t any candidates agitating for example deep defense cuts are any meaningful change in foreign policy. That, and the Republicans have been extraordinary adept at bullying Democrats into accepting certain positions: “Weak on crime” was a thing back in the '80s and before Clinton.

Attempts to weaken enforcement laws that have been ingrained on the population as moral will naturally endanger those who propose them. Politicians mostly being spineless this means that even up to the present day in many states a majority are opposed to any relaxation in drug laws. No matter how much evidence there is that the laws are destructive to society or that particular drugs like marijuana are less dangerous than accepted forms like alcohol it will be very hard to convince politicians to risk their electability by standing up. It’s only where a clear and vocal majority of the population is in favor of legalization that this has happened.

Of course the Nixon administration didn’t invent the demonization of recreational drugs; that’s almost a hundred years old. But they enthusiastically exploited it for political gain.

Except that it wasn’t the original plan.

The war on drugs, especially against Marijuana, goes back to Harry Anslinger. And his rationale for starting it was simply because he was a bureaucrat’s bureaucrat, who wanted to grow the power of his department. And he started his efforts in 1930.

Edit: WIkipedia has a good piece on Anslinger’s absurd crusade against Marijuana.

The public doesn’t buy into the tragedy of the commons problems of drugs like they do with guns or alcohol.

Schedule 1: high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medicinal use.

Sounds like it’s time to revisit this designation, eh Obama?

Obama made very snarky comments back in 09 about stoners online wanting pot legalized. I wouldn’t hold my breath for him to take this on in his final ‘lame duck’ year.

Serious question, because I’ve never honestly contemplated it and Google was not terribly useful:

Apparently the Assistant Secretary of Health makes the determination on scheduling drugs on behalf of the Secretary of Health, after collecting data from appropriate government bodies (NIH, etc.). How much of a say does any given President have over such things? I mean, ostensibly I would guess that the Secretary of Health is an underling of the President, but at the same time would have exclusive privilege in terms of making decisions associated with the office. Of course, the President could then fire the Secretary of Health (right?) if they made a decision that the President didn’t agree with. So is that a scenario where we’d hear “a suggestion” was made or something?

It’s a law thing. That means that the executive branch and the legislative branch need to pass any changes.

The President can tell any cabinet Secretary to do anything and by the nature of their job they will automatically obey. One in a million times some rogue Surgeon-General with an actual conscience might demur if a President ordered something destructively stupid, but it would be so shockingly rare as to have historical value. The only exception might be a Democrat President with a Republican Secretary of Defense appointed to appease the GOP, but even in that case I expect the secretary would simply resign rather than obey and the deputy would do what the President wanted. The President is in charge of the Executive Branch and all those departments are supposed to do what the President says within the bounds of the law. Of course if the law is obviously contrary to the order then there might be more resistance, but even then I imagine the majority of cabinet secretaries will fold before the President’s will.

I’m a bit conflicted because I like that whole Harper’s article, but the Erlichman quote seems dubious for the reasons Oghier mentions.

… I don’t know what’s supposed to be the news here. Pot and heroin were already illegal, and the subject of various waves of national hysteria, from the 1930s onward (Reefer Madness, etc.) The '60s was one of those waves: the nation was already freaking out about dirty hippies and their drugs before Nixon was even elected.

Did the Nixon Administration cynically and callously exploit this hysteria for its own ends? Sure, that’s what the Nixon Administration did with everything. Did the Nixon Administration invent this hysteria? Nope, you’re going to have to dig back further and deeper for the roots of that. All the Nixon Administration did was slap their own label on a wave of anti-drug hysteria that already existed. (… though really they just hijacked LBJ’s “War on Poverty” label, both to twist the knife and because they weren’t terribly original.)

A more interesting line of speculation might be, why has American society been so hysterical about things like marijuana over the years? Probably ties in with what led to Prohibition and the like.

Probably, too, all the fault of Protestants. And Progressives. And probably, progressive Protestants most of all.

Like i said previously, you need only look to Harry Anslinger for the answer, and the answer is not complex.

He wanted to grow his power as a government bureaucrat. By creating the myth that marijuana was a great evil, he successfully did exactly that, and remained in power for decades.

Despite all the facts and stats, I’ve worked with young people who smoke pot on a daily basis. Even if employers could hire them despite having that in their system… it’s hard to get them to do anything, like actually care enough to show up at work or school. One of the first things we had to do is get them off the stuff. That just an anecdotal perspective, but it is what it is.

The way i think of it is this:
Marijuana doesn’t have any significant impact in terms of making you a worthless person.
It just happens to be that lots of worthless people do drugs.

IANAAdvocate for smoking anything, but I suspect the pool of people who would choose to use would be different if it was not an illicit substance. The real question would be whether having an “unnatural” high more readily available would perhaps create a noticeable reduction in ambition or enthusiasm for careers and educational opportunities. How much of what we do in life is to make ourselves reach an acceptable level of feeling okay vs. a distinctly separate desire to achieve difficult goals? Right now, the correlation for the young people that Nesrie deals with between “laziness” and pot use is pretty high, but are these people who turn to pot as a symptom of other issues and use it as an artificial mood enhancement to reach that “feeling okay” level at the same rate as others, or is it pot which causes their other issues and then makes them more dependent on the sensation to reach that feeling once again? Modern studies are all largely correlative, because you’d be breaking a million different laws by giving someone pot long term to study their evolution from start to finish, and unfortunately these questions are some of the results of that limitation. You can, with a strong enough set of correlations, distill causality from the results, but I’ve yet to see anything satisfactorily do that one way or another.