DEA Black History Month Misstep

The TDR Three Key Takeaways:

  1. The DEA social media tribute to Nixon’s drug policies has been met with criticism for its insensitivity and timing during Black History Month.
  2. Nixon’s drug war, credited with fostering mass incarceration and racial disparities, remains a contentious legacy as the DEA reviews cannabis scheduling.
  3. Historical admissions reveal the war on drugs was politically and racially motivated, contributing to systemic biases still evident today.

The DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) made a social media post on the first day of Black History Month that has been a catalyst for significant discussion. The post featured a historical photograph of President Richard Nixon being awarded a “certificate of special honor” by the International Narcotic Enforcement Officers’ Association in December 1970, in recognition of his commitment to narcotic law enforcement. This post, aligning with Nixon’s initiation of the war on drugs, has been met with criticism for its timing and the message it conveys.

Cannabis advocates and critics have pointed out the insensitivity of the post, considering the wider historical impact of the drug war. The Controlled Substances Act, enacted in 1970 under Nixon, and the subsequent declaration of the war on drugs have been pivotal in shaping current drug policies and law enforcement practices. The DEA’s commemoration of Nixon’s drug war legacy coinciding with the onset of Black History Month is seen as a continuation of support for a policy framework that has disproportionately affected certain communities, contributing to a cycle of mass incarceration and the marginalization of specific demographic groups.

Adding to the critical view of the DEA’s actions is a stark revelation from a 1994 interview with John Ehrlichman, who served as counsel and assistant to President Nixon. Ehrlichman’s quote, highlighted in Dan Baum’s book “Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure” and cited in Baum’s 2016 Harper’s Magazine cover story “Legalize It All,” unveils the strategic and targeted nature of the war on drugs. Ehrlichman said, “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You want to know what this was really all about? 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.”

This admission by Ehrlichman provides a candid look at the motivations behind the drug policies of that era, which have had long-lasting repercussions that are still being contented with today. The DEA’s recent social media post, intended to honor a part of its history, has instead reignited a conversation on the legacy and current role of the agency in drug law enforcement and policy, against the backdrop of a society still grappling with the consequences of the war on drugs.
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