By Matt Walsh, VI Form
The Presidential Bully Pulpit: Marijuana Policy and Rhetoric during the Nixon Administration
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” claimed John Ehrlichman, a Domestic Affairs Aide under President Nixon. He continued:
We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be…against the war […], but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana […], and then criminalizing [it] 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.
By the time of Richard Nixon’s election in 1968, marijuana had become more than just a psychoactive substance. For users, it was a symbol of rebellion. For socially conservative politicians like Nixon, it posed a threat to civilized society. In his 1968 campaign, Nixon promised to restore law and order to a country where civil rights and anti-Vietnam War protests had become commonplace. As president, Nixon launched a War on Drugs, which included both a political and rhetorical crusade against marijuana. The drug symbolized the anti-war movement, so Nixon maintained a strict anti-marijuana stance to demonstrate his scorn for the movement. However, without the work of Harry Anslinger, the director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) from 1930 to 1962, marijuana may not have gained the political clout that it possesses today.
A substantial amount of marijuana first entered the United States when Mexicans fleeing the Mexican Revolution crossed the border into the American Southwest and brought marijuana with them. Even though one Texan senator claimed that “All Mexicans are crazy, and [marijuana] makes them crazy,” the first major piece of drug enforcement legislation—the Harrison Narcotics Act in 1914—did not outlaw marijuana. Furthermore, a U.S. government committee formed in 1926 to investigate the smoking of marijuana by off-duty soldiers stationed at the Panama Canal found that the drug had no “appreciable deleterious influence on the individual using it.” Only some western and southern states, where marijuana use by Mexican immigrants was more pronounced, criminalized the plant.
Matt Walsh is a VI Form Day Student from Southborough, Massachusetts. His academic interests include chemistry, history, and politics, and he enjoys playing baseball and performing with the trumpet in the jazz band.