Me, Richard Nixon and the War on Drugs

A couple of years ago I was having a discussion with a guy in his thirties about legal marijuana. Vermont had finally changed its laws and the weed was legal in that fine state. Possession of small amounts had been decriminalized for a while and most police agencies were under instructions to ignore adults in possession of those amounts. Still, it is nice to know that I can grow a couple of plants without the fear of getting busted.

Speaking of getting busted, when I told this fellow that I had done a total of around forty days in jail for marijuana in the 1970s and early 1980s, he didn’t believe me. At first, he thought I must have been moving some serious weight and that I got off easy because I was white and had a decent lawyer. When I explained that no, I was thrown in jail for an ounce of weed or less every time and had a public defender, he shook his head in disbelief. When I told him there were probably thousands of people sitting in prison for marijuana doing long stretches, he could not believe it.

The first few times I smoked legal marijuana was in Portland, Oregon. As I toked on the pipe I was proffered I couldn’t help but look out my friends’ front window to make sure no cops were around. It was usually my failure to be aware of cops that were the reason I had been busted in the past. Of course, there was also the fact that the Berkeley cops who patrolled certain parts of town where I hung out at did not like me and seemed to be constantly harassing me and some of my fellow street denizens. Talk about a waste of resources. But, then again, I’m of the mind that most of what police do is a waste of resources.

Richard Nixon hated marijuana. He hated it so much that in the Fall of 1969 (harvest season) he closed the border between Mexico and the United States. Operation Intercept, as it was known, involved searching almost every vehicle crossing into the United States, installing radar to detect border crossings along with unguarded places in the border, and drug searches at several US airports. Designed by the CIA-hack and future Watergate criminal G. Gordon Liddy and right-wing Sherriff Joe Arpaio, the operation significantly curtailed the amount of marijuana coming across the border. Since domestic growing was in its infancy, this meant that weed was quite difficult to find in the US for a few months. Underground newspapers wrote about the lack of grass (as it was called then) and an influx of narcotics accompanied by an increase in drinking in hippie ghettos in cities and college towns across the United States.

It’s been fifty years since Richard Nixon declared illegal drug use to be public enemy number one. I remember my friends and me laughing at Nixon and his speech while we smoked hash and listened to Cheech and Chong records. Little did we know what Nixon’s declaration meant for the future—ours and much of the USA. Little did we know that this speech would mean a much greater curtailment of the Bill of Rights, a substantial increase in the number of prisons and prisoners, and a huge increase in the powers of individual police officers, to name a few. Furthermore, the establishment of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in July 1973 meant that an extralegal police force with a seemingly endless budget and powers like those of the CIA would be given free rein in something called the war on drugs. Like its stepchild, the war on terrorism, the warriors in this war on drugs can do pretty much whatever they wish in their intentionally ill-defined battle against an enemy that is as poorly defined as the enemy of terrorism. Indeed, in 1975, under the Gerald Ford administration, the DEA and the US State Department began to assist the Mexican government in spraying marijuana fields with the poison paraquat. The intention was to kill the marijuana plants before they could be harvested and sold. As it turned out, paraquat-infested marijuana made its way to US streets and the program was only stopped after an outcry from marijuana law reformers like Keith Stroup of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and High Times reporter Craig Copetas. The spraying of drug crops continues to this day; now the targets are mostly coca and opium fields. The very nature of the war on drugs—from its targets to its procedures—seem designed to ensure that the war will never end. This is just like the war on terrorism.

One of Nixon’s top advisers—John Erlichmann—stated in 1994 that the war on drugs was actually a cover for a war on leftist and countercultural radicals, Blacks, Latinos, and other non-white members of US society. Those of us in that milieu had always understood this to be the case. A couple of legal cases from that period serve to illustrate this truth. The first involved a member of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). His name was Scott Camil and his organizing against the war would eventually find him and seven of his comrades brought up on fabricated charges accusing them of conspiracy to violently disrupt the 1972 Republican convention in Miami. These men would become known as the Gainesville 8. However, it’s the drug war side of things that need to be emphasized here. Let me quote from my book Daydream Sunset: 60s Counterculture in the ’70s:

“Another activist, Scott Camil, … was shot in the back by a DEA agent during a 1974 cocaine deal as he attempted to leave the agent’s car. Camil survived the shooting. Since he survived, the DEA charged him with possession with intent to distribute. Camil claimed that the cocaine had been left with him by an unidentified hitchhiker (and probable informant) whom police allowed to leave the car within minutes after Camil was shot.

Scott Camil was a key organizer for the VVAW. He had spent 20 months in Vietnam as a Marine and when he came back he joined the organization. By 1971, he was on President Nixon’s enemies list (so was Hoffman, along with hundreds of other US citizens) and was characterized by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover as an “individual whose activities must be neutralized at the earliest possible time.” Camil and seven other VVAW members of the Gainesville, Florida chapter were charged with conspiracy to disrupt the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami, Florida. The convention was moved to Miami after law enforcement determined that the original host city San Diego was too dangerous. As it turned out, the defense was able to prove that the Gainesville VVAW chapter had been infiltrated by an FBI informant and the supposed conspiracy existed only in the minds of the Bureau. The Gainesville Eight, as they became known, were all acquitted. The drug-related frame-up and subsequent shooting of Camil proved to his supporters that the government had not given up its desire to “neutralize” him. By using the DEA to arrest him instead of the FBI, the authorities thought they might be able to get a conviction despite the obvious entrapment involved. Furthermore, the drug arrest might discredit him in the minds of those supporters unwilling to be associated with the sale of illegal drugs.”

Another white radical who was set up by law enforcement was Abbie Hoffman. Once he fell for the bait offered by federal agents and was busted, Hoffman ended up on the run for several years. Fortunately for him, he was able to avoid spending too much time in prison. As he was quick to note, there were thousands of Black men and women doing much more time for actions similar to what Hoffman went down for.

Like other government agencies designed to fight wars, the DEA is a power unto its own. It commands a multi-billion dollar budget, roams across international borders at will, and constantly commits acts that are considered criminal when a civilian commits them without legal repercussions. In his two books detailing the war on drugs, author Doug Valentine’s detailing of US drug control agencies describes an essentially criminal enterprise that puts illegal international crime organizations to shame. He further notes how the actions of the DEA are occasionally at odds with those of the CIA and even the FBI; all of which compose that portion of the state some now call the deep state. Answerable not to the people of the United States, but, like the rest of the political establishment, to the various power elites behind the nation’s tarnished and dying democratic facade, these agencies blackmail the population in the name of safety and security while actually providing little of either, if any.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: