In 1970, President Richard Nixon's tongue lolled with contentment as Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, making a number of chemical compounds illegal. Their hands were tied. Youths all over the nation were irresponsibly using psychedelic drugs and putting themselves in harm's way. These substances—so dangerous in the wrong hands—basically got a bad rap because a bunch of hippies wouldn't stop screwing around.
Well that's how the narrative goes, anyway. Nice and tidy and not exactly true. The real story is way grosser and has more to do with political maneuvering and red-lined paranoia than public health.
In 1994, journalist and author Dan Baum spoke to John Ehrlichman, Nixon's domestic policy adviser and fellow Watergate co-conspirator, who allegedly told him, “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. … 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. … Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Ehrlichman's admission didn't see the light of day until Harper's published it in 2016—more than 20 years after the interview and almost 50 years after the Controlled Substances Act went into effect. While it should have been an earth-shattering revelation, the idea that Nixon outlawed cannabis for politically and racially motivated reasons was obvious to many.
Nixon himself said the “drug problem” was a Jewish-Communist conspiracy to undermine the country, as evidenced in recordings found in the massive collection left after his death (Nixon recorded everything that happened in the oval office, and some of the racist and homophobic rants you come across in the thousands of hours of tapes is absolutely hair-raising).
Nixon was becoming increasingly paranoid throughout 1969. In October a massive protest called the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam descended upon the US. Millions participated across the country. A month later, a huge group of demonstrators marched on Washington, D.C. These huge marches followed a number of smaller ones across the nation earlier in the year, and it was clearly becoming a problem. Enemies of the war were amassing, and they were angry that Nixon had backed out on campaign promises of withdrawing troops from Vietnam (déjà vu). He was always looking over his shoulder, waiting for the axe to drop.
Under the new act, certain chemicals like those found in cannabis, LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, peyote, MDMA, DMT, heroin and many others were now listed as Schedule I substances, meaning they had no accepted medical use, a high potential for abuse and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision. The Drug War was on.
Ehrlichman's children have questioned the legitimacy of Baum's account, claiming they never heard their father say anything racist. But Baum reminded CNN that Ehrlichman had been involved in the Watergate scandal and had a reason to hide things from his family and the world.
Their argument also suffers when we consider that this version of the story makes more sense than the official one. The Nixon administration claimed they pushed the Controlled Substances Act because they were worried about the health dangers of cannabis and other drugs. But the infamous Shafer Commission—tasked by Nixon to hunt down any negative science related to marijuana—ended up returning with a recommendation that cannabis be legalized. The old bastard ignored their advice and plowed on anyway.
So a drastic political move was made to cement Nixon's place in the White House that would result in the mass incarceration, a complete waste of around $1 trillion in public funds (according to the Center for American Progress) and half a century of fear and paranoia that have greatly contributed to the rift between the US citizenry and its police. I sure hope whoever suggested it got a raise, at least.
And now, nearly half a century on, we are still operating under a paradigm established by a mentally ill man's administration that banned research into what might be some of the most powerful treatments of mental illness. If it were a movie script, I'd complain about lazy plotting.