Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in our new Hidden Figures of Drug History series, with more to come in the future. Next week Points will feature more exciting news about drug and alcohol history in the media, as well as a great recap of LSD use in New York City in the 1960s. Enjoy this post and come back next week for more!
There are few subjects I like writing about more than the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse’s 1972 report, “Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding.” Also known as the Shafer Commission, the group’s report enlivened my book Grass Roots, and I’ve continued to mine it for material on how we can understand the Trump administration’s response to the opioid overdose epidemic today.
But there’s something of particular interest for those who want to understand the role gender has long played in American drug history within this report as well. And that’s a name that appears within the list of the commission’s thirteen members, nine of whom were appointed by President Richard Nixon, and four of whom were senators and members of Congress.
At a press conference on June 17, 1971 then President Richard Nixon informed his constituents of a troubling menace. “America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse.” Nixon also labeled those associated with drug abuse primary enemies of the state. “In order to fight and defeat this enemy,” Nixon charged, “it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.” Sadly, this all-out offensive has been in full bloom under the modern War on Drugs while drug abuse—keeping in step—has also flourished.
Earlier that afternoon Nixon gave a special message to Congress, providing more details regarding the scope of the problem. Declaring the “tide of drug abuse” a “national emergency,” Nixon reminded Congress that, “narcotic addiction is a major contributor to crime.” Nixon continued, establishing what is now an oversimplified, rarely analyzed cultural truth: “Narcotic addicts do not ordinarily hold jobs. Instead, they often turn to shoplifting, mugging, burglary, armed robbery, and so on. They also support themselves by starting other people-young people-on drugs.” The addict, and the peddler—often doubling as the same shadowy figure—became cemented as cultural boogeymen. Addicts were either hooking our youth on dangerous drugs or committing other crimes to cop. Addicts, not society, caused the problem and bore the threat to public safety. Despite his well-documented fiscal commitment to rehabilitation efforts, Nixon’s public rhetoric designed to sway silent majority voters advanced the march towards an ethos of punishment and condemnation. For example, in his same message to Congress, Nixon asked for additional funds to support enforcement efforts “to further tighten the noose around the necks of drug peddlers.” To borrow from our Managing Editor Emily Dufton, Nixon, “transformed the public image of the drug user into one of a dangerous and anarchic threat to American civilization.”