Fun Facts Department: Nixon, Reagan, and the Drug War

Richard Nixon’s message to Congress usually cited as the beginning of the “War on Drugs” does not in fact include the phrase “war on drugs” or “drug war.” It does mention “an effective war against heroin addiction.” It does use lots of military metaphor. It does embrace the supremely silly idea of replacing all opiate medicines with synthetics and ending world poppy production.

But compared to contemporary drug-hawk rhetoric or anything that came out of the Drug Czar’s office under Bennett, McCaffrey, or Walters, it’s not at all a culture-war document: there’s no sense that drug abusers are social enemies and no attempt to hippie-bait the “drug culture.”

I can’t figure out whether Nixon ever actually said “war on drugs.” But in any case, the impetus for anti-drug policies faded after Nixon left office. Ford cut the DEA budget. Carter wanted to decriminalize pot.

The drug war in its current guise started in 1979, when Carter fired Peter Bourne, and ramped up under Reagan, who managed to become a hero of the drug hawks despite presiding over the rise of crack because of the First Lady’s sponsorship of the mindless “Just Say No” campaign. It was Ronald Reagan’s legislation and budgets – continued by his successors – that gave us the contemporary horror show of paramilitary drug policing, the creation of huge holes in the Fourth Amendment, and half a million dealers behind bars. And it was Nancy Reagan’s White House Conference for a Drug-Free America that organized the ideological thought police which made serious drug policy discussion impossible for most of the next two decades.

So give (dis)credit when it’s due. And always fly to Washington National Airport.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.