The legacy of former American president Richard Nixon is a complicated one. For most of his detractors, the Watergate investigation and his subsequent resignation are proof of his inherent wickedness. For his supporters, the Watergate situation was a tragic case of a good man destroying his own legacy. With that said, Nixon’s most enduring legacy may not have been Watergate, but instead him firing the first shots in America’s modern drug war.
Richard Nixon was an arch-conservative, with views on communism, race, religion and politics that would be far out of the modern mainstream. In his day, he was seen by his supporters as somewhat of a crusader, a man who was “the last line of defense” against the destruction of the old way of American life; a destruction that began with the social upheaval of the 60’s.
One of Nixon’s top targets in his efforts to save America as he knew it was the American counterculture. This included both liberal “hippies” and the nascent black power revolutionary movement. Nixon was raised in an incredibly conservative household and for him, both hippies and “black revolutionaries” were antithetical to his core beliefs. So, after building his reputation in the senate as a staunch “anti-communist”, Nixon needed a new enemy for his 1968 presidential campaign.
It wasn’t long before he figured out how to zero in on the American counterculture. Many soldiers were returning home from Vietnam with what we now know of as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and severe drug addictions.
So, Nixon and his aides came up with an idea to declare “War on Drugs”. It was an incredibly effective piece of campaign propaganda, but it had disastrous and long lasting effects on American society.
The truth is, the so-called “War on Drugs” was never about public safety, but instead revolved around scoring political points. Many people suspected this to be the case in the 70s, suspicions that were recently confirmed by former top Nixon aide John Erlichman who said this in a 1994 interview:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman told Harper’s writer Dan Baum for the April cover story published Tuesday.
“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,” Ehrlichman said.
“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.”
This campaign succeeded with devastating effects. Shortly after Nixon’s election, the country passed the 1970 Federal Controlled Substances Act. This legislation not only granted the Drug Enforcement Agency broad powers, it created a drug classification system, which the DEA was responsible for administrating. They classified cannabis as a “schedule I” narcotic.
Schedule I Narcotics had “High abuse potential with no accepted medical use” according to the provisions of the act. It also meant any drug classified as “schedule I” was considered to be the most dangerous drug possible. By contrast, heroin and cocaine, which are both far more harmful, were considered “schedule II“.
To say the long-term effects have been devastating is an understatement. Trillions of dollars have been spent and America went from the “land of the free” to becoming the nation that has more of its citizens in jail than any country on Earth (including Russia and China). Worse still, there has been no real reduction in drug use by Americans.
So, while Nixon may be most famous for Watergate, one could argue that his most enduring (and devastating) legacy was the politicization of drug use as a criminal issue and not a medical problem.
Cannabis use was unfortunately caught up in the gears of this campaign and remains caught in a quagmire of legislative inertia, stuck between pro-legalization progressives and old-line conservatives of the Nixon and Regan era. It’s a sad story that is still playing out and ruining the lives of Americans every day.
G13 Club is a private social club for medical and recreational cannabis users based in Barcelona. It is also a space for musical and artistic development that promotes a multitude of activities focused on the expression and exhibition of urban, hip hop, reggae and skate culture.