In the lead-up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, a University of Maryland study found many Americans held three incorrect beliefs that made them support the war. They believed that Iraq’s leader was involved in the September 11, 2001, attacks, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and that most of the world supported the war. And the press reinforced these beliefs. As a result, the United States started a war that most Americans later decided was a mistake. (1)
We’re now repeating that error with drugs. The marijuana lobby has painted a picture of aggressive police and an out-of-control legal system bent on punishing harmless drug users. As a result, many people have three false beliefs:
1. They believe the War on Drugs is a war on otherwise innocent drug users.
2. They believe prisons are full of people whose only crime was to use marijuana.
3. They believe police zealously and intentionally pursue individuals who use drugs.
None of these beliefs are true.
In 1971, U.S. President Richard Nixon launched the War on Drugs with increased spending to enforce the law against distributors of illegal drugs, not against drug users. In fact, he got rid of mandatory minimum federal sentences for marijuana and other drugs, and called for treating substance abuse instead of simply criminalizing it. (2) At the time, the country’s main drug problem was heroin addiction. In his message to Congress, Nixon said:
“I am proposing the appropriation of additional funds to meet the cost of rehabilitating drug users, and I will ask for additional funds to increase our enforcement efforts to further tighten the noose around the necks of drug peddlers, and thereby loosen the noose around the necks of drug users. At the same time I am proposing additional steps to strike at the ‘supply’ side of the drug equation—to halt the drug traffic by striking at the illegal producers of drugs, the growing of those plants from which drugs are derived, and trafficking in these drugs beyond our borders.” (3)
Nixon’s plan was to have tough law enforcement against major traffickers and more treatment for users. Of the $155 million he requested, two-thirds was to be spent on drug treatment. The man he put in charge of the drug war, a psychiatrist named Dr. Jerome Jaffe, was a pioneer in devising programs to help inner-city drug addicts. The main weapon in the war on drugs was treatment, not arrest or incarceration. To help addicts, the Nixon administration even gave financial support to the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, a symbol of the counterculture that was largely funded by the Grateful Dead. (4)
The legalization lobby says the drug war “failed,” but under Nixon it was successful; deaths from drug overdose dropped significantly in most large cities, and so did crime. Drugs remained illegal, but the focus on treatment worked. (5)
So how did our image of the War on Drugs mutate into its exact opposite? Why do so many people believe Nixon used the police to target drug users? And how did the drug war get linked in the public mind to mass incarceration?
For the answer, we need to look at laws passed a decade later under President Ronald Reagan. These Reagan-era laws increased prison time for all types of crime. As a result, the incarceration rate increased, but most of this increased incarceration was for non-drug crimes.
However, the marijuana lobby conflated Nixon’s drug war with the Reagan-era “lock-’em-up” policies and told everyone that drug laws caused prison overcrowding. And they repeated it so often that many people now believe it.
Here’s what actually caused incarceration to skyrocket. In the 1980s and early 1990s, conservatives pushed through tougher penalties for all types of crime, not just drug crime. Lawmakers believed longer sentences would keep dangerous criminals off the streets. So nearly every state increased the length of prison terms for all types of crime. Some also passed persistent felony offender laws—a.k.a. three strikes laws, which locked people up for life after their third felony, no matter how minor. (6)
Several states and the federal government abolished parole, forcing inmates to serve entire sentences. And in the 1980s, Congress passed federal sentencing guidelines and established mandatory minimum sentences for several crimes. Many states also passed mandatory minimums. (7)
Crime prevention suffered. Nixon spent most of the drug war money on treatment because that was the best way to prevent crime. Under Reagan, money for treatment was slashed and law enforcement increased. In inflation-adjusted dollars, the 1986 federal drug treatment budget was only one-fifth of what it had been in 1973. (8)
Under President Reagan, the United States all but stopped trying to prevent crime and instead relied on locking up criminals for as long as possible. As a result, the U.S. prison population climbed by more than 400 percent. (9)
Most of the mass incarceration had nothing to do with drug crime. According to the Pew Center on the States, between 1990 and 2009, the average length of time served increased by 37 percent for violent crimes, by 36 percent for drug crimes, and by 24 percent for property crimes. (11) All types of crime contributed to prison overcrowding.
In particular, neither Nixon’s War on Drugs nor laws making drug possession illegal caused mass incarceration. In fact, Michael Massing, author of The Fix, said the United States could undo the damage by abandoning the Reagan-era laws and going back to Nixon’s policies. (12)
One former White House policy advisor believed Nixon only used the draconian term “war on drugs” to appease his party’s right wing. (13) Unfortunately, people remember the military-sounding language, but not the actual plan, which might have succeeded had it not been mostly jettisoned under Reagan. The sad story of the drug war is that it went from mostly treatment to mostly interdiction overseas, which is far less effective. However, it was never about criminalizing drug users. There was never a war on drug possession.
Pro-legalization groups wanted to vilify drug laws, so they rewrote history; they used the term “drug war” to mean laws against possession. This allowed them to create a very compelling myth: The drug war, they said, is the intentional pursuit and mass incarceration of innocent people whose only crime was to use drugs, filling our prisons to unheard-of levels. They could then say the only solution to mass incarceration is to end the drug war by legalizing drugs.
It’s a fiction that mischaracterizes the drug war and misstates the reason for prison overcrowding, but the marijuana lobby repeated its version over and over until nearly everyone believed it. And they’re still trying to convince us.
The implication in these statements is untrue. Most people in U.S. prisons were convicted of non-drug crimes, so even if we freed everyone imprisoned for a drug crime, we’d still have mass incarceration. (17) And vilifying Nixon for a time he was sensible and compassionate seems especially unfair.
However, Nixon’s dishonesty is legendary, so there’s poetic irony to the marijuana lobby twisting the public perception of his drug war into its exact opposite. (18) If anyone could appreciate how crafty the marijuana lobby has been, it would be Richard Nixon.
Chapter 10 Endnotes
1. The PIPA/Knowledge Networks Poll (Oct. 2, 2003) “Misperceptions, The Media And The Iraq War” Principal Investigator Steven Krull www.pipa.org/OnlineReports/Iraq/IraqMedia_Oct03/IraqMedia_Oct03_rpt.pdf
Gallup (2014) ”Foreign Affairs: Iraq” www.gallup.com/poll/1633/iraq.aspx
2. Tilem & Associates “The Richard Nixon Era – The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 Eliminates Mandatory Minimums” (Jan. 19, 2009) New York Criminal Attorney Blog www.newyorkcriminalattorneyblog.com/2009/01/the_richard_nixon_era_the_comp.html
Keith Humphreys “Who started the war on drugs?” (June 1, 2011) The Reality-Based Community www.samefacts.com/2011/06/drug-policy/who-started-the-war-on-drugs/
3. Richard Nixon “Special message to Congress on drug abuse prevention and control” (June 17, 1971) The American Presidency Project www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=3048
4. Michael Massing “The Fix” University of California Press 2000 www.amazon.com/The-Fix-Michæl-Massing/dp/0520223357
6. The Pew Center on the States (June 2012) “Time Served: The High Cost, Low Returns of Longer Prison Terms” www.pewstates.org/uploadedFiles/PCS_Assets/2012/Pew_Time_Served_report.pdf
“Timeline: The Evolution Of California’s Three Strikes Law” NPR (Oct 28, 2009) npr.org http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=114250301
7. National Center for Policy Analysis (Jan. 13, 1999) “States Are Abolishing Parole” www.ncpa.org/sub/dpd/index.php?Article_ID=12601
Families Against Mandatory Minimums (Sept. 21, 2013) “Frequently asked questions about the lack of parole for federal prisoners” http://famm.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/FAQ-Federal-Parole-11.29.pdf
Families Against Mandatory Minimums (Feb. 25, 2013) “Federal Mandatory Minimums” http://famm.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Chart-All-Fed-MMs-NW.pdf
Families Against Mandatory Minimums (June 30, 2013) “Recent State-Level Reforms To Mandatory Minimum Laws” http://famm.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/FS-List-of-State-Reforms-6.30.pdf
“Excerpt from Introduction to Federal Sentencing Guidelines” http://www1.law.umkc.edu/suni/CrimLaw/fed_sent_guide.htm
8. Michael Massing “The Fix” University of California Press 2000 www.amazon.com/The-Fix-Michæl-Massing/dp/0520223357
9. From “US Incarceration Timeline” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Jan. 24, 2012. Original by the November Coalition. http://november.org/graphs/ Modified by Sarefo July 28, 2009 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:US_incarceration_timeline-clean.svg Sources: Justice Policy Institute Report: The Punishing Decade & U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin NCJ 219416 – Prisoners in 2006. Modified by changing from color to black & white. Original and modifications licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/legalcode http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:US_incarceration_timeline-clean-fixed-timescale.svg http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:US_incarceration_timeline-clean.svg The edited version here is available for use and licensed under the same Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, available at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/legalcode.
11. The Pew Center on the States (June 2012) “Time Served: The High Cost, Low Returns of Longer Prison Terms” www.cdcr.ca.gov/realignment/docs/Report-Prison_Time_Served.pdf
12. Michael Massing “The Fix” University of California Press 2000 www.amazon.com/The-Fix-Michael-Massing/dp/0520223357
13. Keith Humphreys “Who started the war on drugs?” (June 1, 2011) The Reality-Based Community www.samefacts.com/2011/06/drug-policy/who-started-the-war-on-drugs/
14. Drug Policy Alliance (July 21, 2014) “The Drug War, Mass Incarceration and Race” www.drugpolicy.org/resource/drug-war-mass-incarceration-and-race
15. American Civil Liberties Union (Jan. 1, 2015) “Smart Justice, Fair Justice” https://www.aclu.org/feature/smart-justice-fair-justice?redirect=smart-justice-fair-justice-0%2Csmart-justice-fair-justice
16. Marijuana Policy Project (Jan. 1, 2015) “Like it or not, we can’t afford marijuana prohibition” www.mpp.org/media/op-eds/like-it-or-not-we-cant-1.html
17. Howard N. Snyder, PhD (Sept. 2011) “Arrest in the United States 1980-2009” U.S. Department of Justice http://gb1.ojp.usdoj.gov/search?q=cache:gYDYmR1XIl4J:www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/aus8009.pdf+aus8009.&site=BJS-OJP&client=bjsnew_frontend&proxystylesheet=bjsnew_frontend&output=xml_no_dtd&ie=UTF-8&access=p&oe=UTF-8
18. Rick Perlstein Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (May 2008) Scribner http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/05/e-pluribus-nixon/306765/