The War on Drugs: How President Nixon Tied Addiction to Crime

By shifting public perception, and making us believe that drug users were dangerous and a threat to America, Nixon justified his actions.

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On December 5, 1969, President Richard Nixon appointed Stephen Hess to the position of National Chairman of the White House Conference for Children and Youth. Hess's task was to "listen well to the voices of young Americans -- in the universities, on the farms, the assembly lines, the street corners," in the hopes of uncovering their opinions on America's domestic and international affairs. After two years of intensive planning, Hess and 1,486 delegates from across the country met in Estes Park, Colorado, and, from April 18 to 22, 1971, discussed ten areas that most concerned the youth of America. These issues included, not surprisingly, the draft and the war in Vietnam, the economy and employment, education, the environment, poverty, and, most notably for Points readers, drugs.

The task force on drugs, composed of eight youths and four adults, forcefully argued for addressing the root causes of drug abuse, advocating therapy for addicts rather than incarceration or punishment. "We acknowledge that drug abuse is largely a symptom of the individual's inability to cope with his immediate personal environment," they conceded. "However, it must be understood that deep societal ills increase the individual's sense of personal alienation. Specifically, our society has permitted the perpetuation of the Indochina War, of institutional and personal racism, of the pollution of our environment, and of the urban crises.... If the administration is sincere in its concern with drug abuse, it must deal aggressively with the root causes as well as implement the recommendations contained herein."

At this point, it might have been easier if Nixon had just told his Conference delegates that they couldn't have their "root causes" cake (even with its concessionary 'individual inability to cope' icing) and eat it too: There was only so much federal funding to go around. Just three months after the Youth Conference met, Nixon launched a drug war that framed drug users not as alienated youths whose addiction was caused by inhabiting a fundamentally inequitable society, but as criminals attacking the moral fiber of the nation, people who deserved only incarceration and punishment.

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Long before William Bennett wrote that the root cause of crime was moral poverty (and well after Richmond Hobson called drug users the vampires of society), Nixon was chewing on the same meaty ideas, privileging the view that drug abusers were criminals and decreasing social welfare funding would therefore attack the root causes of drug abuse. This criminalization of drug users launched a trend; Nixon's was one of the last administrations to spend more on prevention and treatment than law enforcement and nearly every administration since (with the exception of Jimmy Carter's) worked to increase the division between prevention and enforcement spending. This division has become the core of our modern war on drugs. After all, why finance a war on poverty when there's a politically popular war against crime to fund? This tension has a long and complex history. As any scholar of addiction or drug history knows, Nixon wasn't the first president (let alone the first person) to ponder the question of whether drug abusers were victims of their environment or of their own personal vice. David Courtwright, Arthur Benavie, James Inciardi, David Musto, and Caroline Acker and Sarah Tracy, among many others, have traced America's two-century quest to figure out what lies behind a person's abuse of chemical substances. These scholars have written excellent texts showing how, historically, the pendulum has repeatedly swung between these two poles. They've also shown how, through the ages, the specter of drug abuse has been a presented as a cause (or a whipping boy) for the ills of the era. It was Nixon's drug war in the early 1970s, however, where the drug-user-as-culpable-source-of-crime exploded into view. Since this image has come to underscore the drug policies that Republican presidential contenders are currently debating right now, and given that it informs much of our current era of drug law confusion, we must attempt to understand the origins of this debate.

In Nixon's eyes, drug use was rampant in 1971 not because of grand social pressures that society had a duty to correct, but because drug users were law-breaking hedonists who deserved only discipline and punishment. After all, this was the same man who argued in "What Happened to America?" (published in Reader's Digest in 1967) that, when it came to punishing rioters in Detroit and Newark, "our opinion-makers have gone too far in promoting the doctrine that when the law is broken, society, not the criminal is to blame." This view appealed to Nixon's "Silent Majority," his core constituency of voters who had grown tired of shouldering the blame as drug use grew rampant and violence tore inner cities apart.

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Emily Dufton is a Ph.D. candidate at George Washington University, where she works as a teaching assistant in GW's University Writing Program. She served in the Peace Corps in Niger, West Africa, where she worked as an agriculture extension agent.

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