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June 17, 1971 - President Nixon Declares War on Drugs

This Day in Cannabis History:

It was 50 years ago today that President Richard Nixon first announced the War on Drugs.

Just a month and a half after the Controlled Substance Act went into effect—which classified marijuana alongside heroin in Schedule I as a dangerous and addictive drug with no medical benefits—Nixon was ready to put the taxpayers' money where his lying mouth was.

He convened a press conference in the White House Briefing Room in which he declared drug abuse to be America's "Public Enemy #1"—announcing his intention to launch a new, all-out global offensive against illegal drugs. As part of this new initiative, he explained, he would coordinate all existing drug-related government entities under one new White House-run agency called the Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention (SAODAP) which would be run by drug abuse prevention specialist Dr. Jerome Jaffe (who was standing beside him), and request an additional $155 million in funding from Congress, bringing the total drug control budget to around $350 million.

Of course, the motives behind Nixon's new "War on Drugs" (as it would soon come to be called) were far from noble. Consider the fact that, by that time, a large percentage of the soldiers fighting in his wildly unpopular war in Vietnam were either using or addicted to the very drugs he was cracking down on: reports indicated that over a quarter of them had used cocaine or heroin, a third had used psychedelics, and over half had smoked weed...not to mention all of the legal sedatives and amphetamines they were being prescribed.

Even more insidious though were the covert racist and fascist aims behind the increased criminalization of drugs. As Nixon's former domestic-policy adviser (and Watergate co-conspirator) John Ehrlichman freely admitted to journalist Dan Baum over 20 years later, their true purpose was to arrest and imprison the counterculture and civil rights activists that had plagued Nixon's presidency:

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. 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. 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.”

Here we are, half a century removed from this disastrous declaration, still fighting to counteract those lies and overcome the enormous social and racial injustices they spawned.

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