The War on Drugs: A Calculated Political Assault on American Counter-Culture

Overview:

1968 was a tumultuous year in American history filled with war, civil unrest, and drastic transitions in American political identity.  Furthermore, 1968 was also a pivotal year in both the hippie and civil rights counter-culture movements.  The growing popularity of these movements directly challenged the authority of the “establishment” and led many Americans to lose confidence in their government.  In response to the growing popularity of the hippie and civil rights movements in conjunction with increasing public unrest, the United States Government would use the War on Drugs to discriminate against black Americans and those who endorse the political ideals of the hippie movement.

Propaganda:

In 1968, anti-drug propaganda heavily influenced the public’s perspective on drugs as well as greater collective memory surrounding drugs and drug use in 1968.  Anti-drug propaganda such as this film illustrates the materiality of memory that is associated with the War on Drugs in 1968 America.  Much of the anti-drug propaganda of 1968 employed scare tactics similar to those from the anti-drug movement of the 20s and 30s, an era commonly referred to as “Reefer Madness”.  One of the more notable pieces of 1968 anti-drug propaganda was the documentary “Marijuana,” an educational film which informed America’s youth on the dangerous psychological side effects of marijuana.

At one point in the film, a man that is high on marijuana kills his friend because he is experiencing a “bad trip”. Although the notion that marijuana can cause violent intensions in its users was untrue, it was one of the most effective factors in swaying Americans perspective away from marijuana’s increasing normalization.  In fact, most of the published propaganda regarding the effects of marijuana were either scientifically unproven or entirely fabricated.  Six years later though, the War on Drugs gained a much-needed scientific backing from the results of the Dr. Heath/Tulane Study.

In collaboration with Tulane University, Dr. Robert Heath conducted an experimental study evaluating the effects of marijuana on the brain function of primate test subjects [5].  The study ultimately concluded that smoking marijuana directly causes brain damage within its users stating, “the active ingredient in marijuana [THC] impairs the brain circuitry,” [5].  However, upon closer review, the study’s conclusion was found to be inaccurate as the brain damage observed in the test subjects resulted from asphyxiation during the experiment’s administration procedure, not from inhalation of THC [14].  Notwithstanding, the claim that marijuana causes brain damage provided the foundation for the illegalization of marijuana, fueled public anti-marijuana sentiments, and is referenced still today in spite of an abundance of contradicting studies.

Government Action:

In addition to anti-marijuana propaganda, 1968 also saw an increase in federal punishment for marijuana consumption, production, and distribution.  The Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs – a predecessor to the Drug Enforcement Agency – was founded in 1968 under President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Reorganization Plan Number 1 [10].

Regarding his intentions behind his proposed drug polices, President Johnson states, “this 22-point program will, if adopted and put fully into practice, make the conditions of life for most law-abiding citizens safer, and thus freer and happier,”[11].  The presidential election of Richard Nixon in 1968 drastically redirected America’s drug enforcement strategies from targeting narcotic “pushers” and “peddlers” to targeting drug users themselves instead.

One piece of legislation that signifies this policy shift is the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.  The Controlled Substances Act of 1970, or CSA, ultimately increased federal jurisdiction on the regulation of controlled substances and would come to serve a vital role in the Nixon administration’s political agenda [13].   According to some of the Nixon administration’s top political aides, the policies in respect to the War on Drugs were more about the groups of people who used them rather than the drugs themselves.  In a 1994 interview, John Ehrlichan, one of Nixon’s key political advisors stated that the War on Drugs was meant almost entirely to target the individuals and ideologies that threatened the administration [12].  The Nixon administration’s ability to target its key political enemies, which it characterized as “the young, the poor, and the black,” was facilitated by the legislation of the CSA [8].  The CSA separated controlled substances into five categories, or schedules, which were tiered according to potential for abuse, with Schedule I substances having the highest potential and Schedule V substances having the lowest [13].

Drugs were the common denominator between each of Nixon’s political enemies.  This enabled the administration to establish hostile political tactics aimed at dismantling any and all political opposition [8].  John Ehrlichan again gives insight into the motives behind the administration’s tactics stating, “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,” [1].

Memory and the War on Drugs:

The memory surrounding the War on Drugs is a critical aspect to consider when analyzing the American political spectrum both in 1968 and in society today.  Memory in 1968 regarding both drug use and the War on Drugs is considerably one sided and partial.  The Nixon administration concealed its motives behind the War on Drugs by fabricating a drug crisis that was “decimating a generation of Americans” when in reality, drugs were such a tiny health problem that they were statistically insignificant [8].  Moreover, the War on Drugs embodies processual qualities of memory.  In the decades since 1968, American memory on the War on Drugs has changed immensely due to the increase in research on certain drugs in addition to the emergence of the vernacular memory detailing the corruption of the Nixon administration and its manipulation of the American public through the War on Drugs.

Additional Information:

Marijuana Myths: http://www.mit.edu/~thistle/v13/2/myths.html

The War on Drugs: https://www.history.com/topics/the-war-on-drugs

Works Cited:

[1] LoBianco, Tom. “Report: Nixon’s War on Drugs Targeted Black People.”

CNN, Cable News Network, 24 Mar. 2016, www.cnn.com/2016/03/23/politics/john-ehrlichman-richard-nixon-drug-war-blacks-hippie/index.html.

[2] “Marijuana (1968).” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/title/tt0251221/.

[3] Miller, Max, director. Marijuana. Avanti Films, 1968.

[4] Burnett, Malik, and Amanda Reiman. “How Did Marijuana Become

Illegal in the First Place?” Drug Policy Alliance, 8 Oct. 2014, www.drugpolicy.org/blog/how-did-marijuana-become-illegal-first-place.

[5] Chandler, David. “Pot Is Safe, Right: Wrong, Says a Doctor: It Can Cause

Brain Damage.” PEOPLE.com, 9 Dec. 1974, people.com/archive/pot-is-safe-right-wrong-says-a-doctor-it-can-cause-brain-damage-vol-2-no-24/.

[6] “Decades of Drug Use: Data From the ’60s and ’70s.” Edited by Jennifer

Robinson, Gallup.com, 2 July 2002, news.gallup.com/poll/6331/Decades-Drug-Use-Data-From-60s-70s.aspx.

[7] History.com Staff. “War on Drugs.” History.com, A&E Television

Networks, 2017, www.history.com/topics/the-war-on-drugs.

[8] Baum, Dan. “Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of

Failure.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 1996, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/books/chap1/smoke.htm.

[9] “LBJ Proposes New Bureau To Fight Drug Use.” The Desert Sun, 7 Feb.

1968.

[10] Kte’pi, Bill. “Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.” Encyclopedia of

Drug Policy. Eds. Mark A. Kleiman and James E. Hawdon. Vol. 1. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2011. 109-110. SAGE Knowledge. Web. 24 Apr. 2018, doi: 10.4135/9781412976961.n50.

[11] Johnson, Lyndon B. “Lyndon B. Johnson: Special Message to the

Congress on Crime and Law Enforcement:” The American Presidency Project, 7 Feb. 1968, www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=29237.

[12] Calabria, Stephen. “Nixon Invented War On Drugs to Suppress ‘Anti-

War Left and Black People.’” Nixon Invented War On Drugs to Suppress “Anti-War Left and Black People”, 5 Mar. 2017, herb.co/marijuana/news/nixon-policy-advisor-admits-invented-war-drugs-suppress-anti-war-left-black-people.

[13] Gabay, Michael. “The Federal Controlled Substances Act: Schedules and

Pharmacy Registration.” Hospital Pharmacy 48.6 (2013): 473–474. PMC. Web. 25 Apr. 2018.

[14] “Does Cannabis Kill Brain Cells? Cannabis Myths Debunked.”

Cannabis.info, 11 Nov. 2017, www.cannabis.info/en/blog/does-cannabis-kill-brain-cells-myths-debunked.

6 thoughts on “The War on Drugs: A Calculated Political Assault on American Counter-Culture”

  1. This is a really great summary of the way drugs were viewed in 1968. I think it would have been really powerful for you to include something in the Memory section about the 1980s Reagan Administration “war on drugs.” The “war on drugs” is something that is very interesting in American politics to me as it inherently targets minority populations and people who do not have the money to access “clean” and “expensive” drugs. The wealthy have never been in trouble with regards to drugs, as their price level is not in conjunction with the price level of blacks, the Hippie Movement, or another minority.
    If you have not seen the documentary, The 13th, I would highly recommend you watch it. Although not in relation to 1968, it explores this concept.
    Your article is very interesting, and I loved the embedding of the Youtube video!

    I also did not know much on the Controlled Substances Act, and find that to be very interesting as well. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Great job! I really liked how you gave an overview of 1968 as a whole before you went in specifically to the war on drugs. It also helped that you integrated some memory practices in as you went rather than just putting all of them at the end. I definitely learned a lot about the war on drugs from your piece. I didn’t realize that the whole point of this “war” was to target and to demonize minorities but you shed a light on the reality of the government corruption that allowed for this targeting to occur. The only thing I would say is that maybe you could have somehow connected it with memory today rather than just memory then.

  2. I thought your post was very informative and interesting! I never knew how manipulative the government was with their information regarding drugs during this time, and it makes me think that this was another key moment for the American public to grow their distrust for the government. I think it would be interesting to see how governmental policies during that time has really shaped society today such as the idea of mass incarceration or the public’s view on drugs.

  3. I found your post to be quite intriguing, both in language and in memory. Firstly, the connotation behind “war on drugs” seems intentional as it in some way attempts to connect with the political climate regarding the contestation of the Vietnam war in 1968. It also seems ironic how this “war” is connected to the minorities, who were forced to be attached to this distorted history of drug abuse and criminality. Since this is quite a recurring theme throughout history, it would have been interesting to see your perspective and interpretation on it especially regarding how the image of minorities and drug use has changed statistically versus how it is actually perceived socially. Overall, I think you did a wonderful job on your insightful analysis and including the concepts discussed in class. I also learned quite a lot about the campaigning tactics used by Nixon and his opponents.

  4. This is a very interesting yet professional post. I like how to interpret the violent intention of a man high on marijuana in the film and it also demonstrates the instrumentalization since the untruth of film’s exhibition was a memory selected and distorted to serve the present purpose. I also think that your choice of a specific incident of 1968 was smart in terms of analyzing how counter-culture played a role in that year when many are focusing on a vague and broad context.

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