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Richard Nixon’s War

April 4, 2013

Iraq was a stupid war.  Afghanistan, after year one, has been a stupid war.  Libya was a very, very stupid war.

But the stupidest war, and the longest-lasting and the most expensive is the war declared, in 1970, by Richard Milhouse Nixon: the War on Drugs.

That declaration was, as with most everything else Nixon ever did, raw political calculation.  There was, at the time, a nascent backlash among older Americans to the excesses of the 1960’s counterculture.  There wasn’t much Nixon could do about bell-bottom trousers or girly hair on boys or loud guitar music.  But, by God, he could come down hard on drugs. This appealed to his working and middle-class white base, who still couldn’t figure out where hippy headbands and naked communes had come from, but they knew where marijuana came from.  It came from Negros.   And they just weren’t gonna abide that.  Not in this house.

Forty-three years later, the War on Drugs, still in full swing, is a disaster.  We’ve spent 1.5 trillion dollars, incarcerated millions of people, created at all levels of law enforcement what amounts to a police state, and introduced a legion of intrusive new measures (having fun opening  that foil packet of sinus medicine?).

Meanwhile, we’ve engendered a whole new underclass. We currently arrest one person every 19 seconds on drug charges, more than half of them for simple possession of a small amount of marijuana.   Once they’re in the parole and prison systems, their lives are wrecked.

So what’s the payoff?  Well, in 1970 about two percent of the population could be classified as addicted to one illicit drug or another.  Ten million incarcerations later, that number is…two percent.

And then there’s the corrosive affect this “war” had had on the relationship between citizens and law enforcement.  There are so many incentives for cops to make drug arrests – from promotion to overtime pay to Federal dollars for shiny new cop toys – that they often come to see every contact with a citizen as an opportunity to ring the bell, whether or not that contact had anything to do with drugs in the first place.   After enough years of that, everybody looks like a suspect.  That’s not how the relationship between cops and citizens should be.

We’ve given Richard Nixon’s war four decades and all we have to show for it is millions of ruined lives, billions of dollars squandered and a grotesque distortion of the law enforcement function.  Let’s end this madness.

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2 Comments
  1. Ned Zeppelin permalink

    I suppose the challenge is where to draw the line – weed OK, crank or meth a no-no? It’s the old “slippery slope” thing, though I’ve yet to see a causal link between an occasional toke and raging addiction to vein-delivered heroin, as we were warned by our parents. At the very least, the costs, economic and human, argue for leaving the herb alone, even legalizing it, and leaving law enforcement to go after the large scale suppliers of truly addictive white powders.

    • Agreed, but the cops’ incentive is to go after the low-hanging fruit. Easier to meet your arrest quota with street mopes than distribution masterminds.

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