Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Keith Humphreys ― Who Started the War on Drugs?

As President, he dramatically reduced federal criminal penalties for marijuana possession and launched the largest expansion of drug addiction treatment in U.S. history. I refer of course to Richard M. Nixon, who is today widely remembered as the President who launched the “war on drugs”. Why are his well-documented progressive drug policies almost completely forgotten today, leaving us with a collective memory of Nixon as the original snarling drug warrior?

In part, the mythology is unsurprising in that all aspects of our political history are subject to stereotype, forgetting and distortion. Why should drug policy history be immune? To cite another choice example, Dr. Jonathan Caulkins points out that if we wanted to get back to the rate of incarceration the U.S. had under the “tough lock ‘em policies of the Reagan administration”, we would have to release about 75% of the people who are currently behind bars.

The misremembering of Richard Nixon also stems from the “war on drugs” increasingly becoming a term that is used to mean almost anything and therefore means almost nothing. To some the “war on drugs” means the violence in Mexico, to others it means no knock raids and other aggressive policing tactics, to still others it means even applying the usual medical regulations to those pharmaceuticals than can be addictive (e.g., painkillers). If we can’t agree on what the war on drugs is, then we can’t of course figure out who started it.
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