A Debate for the Ages, Part I: Nixon and Drug Abuse – “Root Causes” or “Personal Culpability”?

Editor’s Note: We here at Points are delighted to host a new four-part series over the next month. Special guest blogger Emily Dufton will discuss the potential causes of drug abuse and the role that ideas such as genetic predisposition, religion/ethics, and personal culpability play in shaping the War on Drugs. Emily is a PhD candidate in the American Studies department at George Washington University.  She’s currently beginning work on her dissertation, “Just Say Know: How the Parents’ Movement Brought Education and Conservative Family Values to the Center of the Domestic War on Drugs, 1971-2001,” which explores the origins of the family-centered, zero-tolerance prevention approach that consumed America’s social, political, and judicial approach to the drug abuse ‘epidemic’ in the late twentieth century. In her first post, Emily discusses the historical origins of the War on Drugs.

On December 5, 1969, President Richard Nixon appointed Stephen Hess to the position of National Chairman of the White House Conference for Children and Youth. Hess’s task was to “listen well to the voices of young Americans – in the universities, on the farms, the assembly lines, the street corners,” in the hopes of uncovering their opinions on America’s domestic and international affairs. After two years of intensive planning, Hess and 1,486 delegates from across the country met in Estes Park, Colorado and, from April 18 to 22, 1971, discussed ten areas where that most concerned the youth of America. These issues included, not surprisingly, the draft and the war in Vietnam, the economy and employment, education, the environment, poverty, and, most notably for Points readers, drugs.

Report from the Famed White House Conference on Youth.

 The task force on drugs, composed of eight youths and four adults, forcefully argued for addressing the root causes of drug abuse, advocating therapy for addicts rather than incarceration or punishment. “We acknowledge that drug abuse is largely a symptom of the individual’s inability to cope with his immediate personal environment,” they conceded. “However, it must be understood that deep societal ills increase the individual’s sense of personal alienation. Specifically, our society has permitted the perpetuation of the Indochina War, of institutional and personal racism, of the pollution of our environment, and of the urban crises… If the administration is sincere in its concern with drug abuse, it must deal aggressively with the root causes as well as implement the recommendations contained herein.”

At this point, it might have been easier if Nixon had just told his Conference delegates that they couldn’t have their “root causes” cake (even with its concessionary ‘individual inability to cope’ icing) and eat it too: there was only so much federal funding to go around. Just three months after the Youth Conference met, Nixon launched a drug war that framed drug users not as alienated youths whose addiction was caused by inhabiting a fundamentally inequitable society, but as criminals attacking the moral fiber of the nation, people who deserved only incarceration and punishment.

Alienated Youth or Vicious Criminal?

Long before William Bennett wrote that the root cause of crime was moral poverty (and well after Richmond Hobson called drug users the vampires of society), Nixon was chewing on the same meaty ideas, privileging the view that drug abusers were criminals and decreasing social welfare funding would therefore attack the root causes of drug abuse. This criminalization of drug users launched a trend; Nixon’s was one of the last administrations to spend more on prevention and treatment than law enforcement and nearly every administration since (with the exception of Jimmy Carter’s) worked to increase the division between prevention and enforcement spending. This division has become the core of our modern war on drugs. After all, why finance a war on poverty when there’s a politically popular war against crime to fund?

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