Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

– John Ehrlichman
(During his time serving President Nixon.)

The racist truth behind the War on Drugs

Sophie Stockman

United States President Richard Nixon announced a ‘War on Drugs’ in 1971 – a declaration that continues to have a lasting impact on the way people who use drugs are treated worldwide.

After his announcement, Nixon temporarily moved cannabis into the most restricted drug category – Schedule One – pending review from the appointed commission. Cannabis became a focal point for racial-based fears, with a prominent bureaucrat of the prohibitionist movement summing up the sense of moral panic at the time.

“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”

The new laws against cannabis enabled police to arrest and oppress African-American communities in the name of public safety. Even so, the commission came back to Nixon a year later unanimously calling for the decriminalisation of marijuana for personal use – but Nixon ignored this entirely. Politicians ignoring the advice of experts… sound familiar? 

If these experts were telling Nixon that his harsh approach to drug laws weren’t working, then why didn’t he listen? Years later, one of his most influential side-kicks, John Ehrlichman, shed light on Nixon’s true motivations. 

“You want to know what this was really all about. 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.”

The War on Drugs had truly taken hold by the time Ronald Reagan stepped into the White House in 1981. The number of people being put behind bars increased as the media ran scare campaigns about how ‘crack’ cocaine ‘shatters lives’. In 1980, just under 41,000 people were in U.S. prisons for drug crimes. By 2017 this number hit over 450,000 – almost a 1000 per cent increase. 

The War on Drugs ignited by the White House had a ripple effect worldwide, with countries including Australia taking up some aspects of the US approach. Australian politicians have also leveraged the War on Drugs to criminalise minority groups in a similar way that Nixon did in the U.S. 

If Ehrlichman’s declaration is anything to go by, for the prohibitionists, some may say the War on Drugs has been a success. There are clear winners, while others have lost. Prohibitionists have ‘won’ by leveraging harsh drug laws to criminalise minority groups worldwide. Minority groups are overcrowding prisons and being isolated from society. Most people who use drugs won’t have an issue unless they come into contact with the criminal justice system, but police profiling ensures certain people make the cut. 

Read our next post to find out how the War on Drugs still impacts Indigenous Australians today. 

Image Credit:
The U.S. National Archives 


  1. Halperin, A., 2018. Marijuana: is it time to stop using a word with racist roots?. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/29/marijuana-name-cannabis-racism> [Accessed 12 March 2021].
  2. Drug Policy Alliance. n.d. A Brief History of the Drug War. [online] Available at: <https://drugpolicy.org/issues/brief-history-drug-war> [Accessed 12 March 2021].
  3. The Sentencing Project. 2018. Criminal Justice Facts | The Sentencing Project. [online] Available at: <https://www.sentencingproject.org/criminal-justice-facts/> [Accessed 12 March 2021].

Read the series

The racial injustice of drug laws

Australia’s drug laws are inherently racist – and always have been

Prohibitionists like to say that illegal drugs are banned because they’re dangerous. That’s just a cover-up for the real, racist roots of prohibition.

The War on Drugs isn’t just bad for our health – it’s also deeply unfair

Police continue to enforce racism through profiling certain stereotypes for drug searches.