Fixin' under Nixon

A new book examines Richard Nixon's progressive drug policies and the deevolution of the war on drugs.

Published May 11, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Progressive drug policies are not typically associated with Richard Nixon. But as an examination of America's war on drugs shows, since Tricky Dick left office, the nation's drug policies have grown increasingly Draconian, and increasingly ineffective.

In his new book, "The Fix," journalist Michael Massing argues that Nixon, more than any other recent president, accepted that treatment for hard-core drug users was far more effective -- and practical -- than incarceration.

Salon News spoke to Massing about the poor public image of methadone, the limitations of "Just Say No" and why only a Republican can usher in a new age of drug policy.

Were Nixon's drug policies notably different from those of his successors?

When I began to look into the history of the war on drugs, I really did not expect to find anything of great interest, anything different from the standard policy of using law enforcement to fight drugs. But as I began doing the research, several people in the field, whom I interviewed, said, "Well, if you're looking at this history, you have to look at the Nixon era because he really had the most innovative program of any president and it stressed treatment." I was somewhat disbelieving at first, but the more I began to research it, and when I found Nixon's first drug czar, Dr. Jerome Jaffe, and began to talk to him about his experience, I just became completely fascinated by the Nixon experience. While Nixon did launch the war on drugs, he also made treatment its major weapon.

What would have happened to a hard-core heroin user who was arrested in New York City during Nixon's term, as opposed to what would happen to that same user today?

Under Nixon, it was less likely that that person would be arrested. Today, arrest is the primary way that we deal with hard-core drug users. You get arrested, you are prosecuted, usually you'll plea-bargain and if you have any prior offense, generally -- at least in New York, and in most other states -- you'll go to prison for one or more years, depending on your record.

In the Nixon period, arrests were much less frequent. Instead, the cities and the government took a public-health approach to drug use ... the idea was that treatment would be available to any addict who wanted it. That was Jaffe's guiding principle and the one that the Nixon administration supported. They gave him hundreds of millions of dollars to set up treatment facilities, and basically anybody who got into trouble could show up at one of these and get help.

What was the role of law enforcement under Nixon?

The Nixon administration did use law enforcement, but the key was, addicts knew they could get help. Today, if a hard-core drug user is worried about arrest, if he's got medical problems, if his wife or husband is threatening to throw him out because of his drug use, it's often very hard to find appropriate care. There is not enough of it, and what is available often is not that good.

How has the political climate changed since the war on drugs began, and what other changes do you foresee?

I feel that the political climate is going to change and make drug reform more possible. Look at the medical marijuana initiatives around the country. Despite intense lobbying by the federal government, they are carrying in state after state. That to me is a sign that people are getting frustrated with the war on drugs. People are getting more upset over the explosion in the prison population, and how that is beginning to take money away from things like education. I think the Democrats are too afraid of being labeled soft on drugs. I think what we need is a moderate Republican, with good law-and-order credentials, to lead a reform effort.


The two people whom I look to as potential reformers are George W. Bush of Texas and George Pataki of New York. Both of them are moderate Republicans who have in fact made clear that they are tough on crime, and thus could make the big political effort. I basically feel -- and I hate to say this -- that we need a Nixon-type figure to undertake what would be extremely controversial.

So, what happened to all the treatment centers that were set up under Nixon?

During the 1970s, the network that Nixon and Jaffe set up remained largely intact, and most addicts who wanted help could get it. But in the late '70s this extraordinary political movement developed called the Parents' Movement. These were parents in places like Atlanta, Florida and Texas, who were terrified at the growing use of marijuana among young people. For young people to drink a beer was no big deal, but marijuana was something that they had no experience with. So they put together this extremely powerful political movement. Most of them had no political experience, but many of them were housewives who were extremely talented and energetic, and they found this outlet. They created this potent political movement which mushroomed all over the country and hundreds of these parent groups popped up. Then Nancy Reagan latched on to the anti-drug thing, and the parents became her foot soldiers in the "Just Say No" campaign.

Was Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign successful?

In my book I give the Parents' Movement credit for the fact that, largely because of them, we have pretty good data on drug use from the late '70s to the present. The peak year of marijuana use in this country was 1978-79. It began dropping even before Nancy Reagan got active, but then it dropped particularly sharply. I do think that her campaign had an effect on marijuana. The problem is that at the same time that they were bringing the marijuana problem under control, or bringing marijuana rates down, hard-core drug use shot way up.

Like crack?

Cocaine, but particularly crack, arrived in the mid-'80s, and the Reagan administration did nothing about it. Where I fault Nancy Reagan the most is that she went around the country preaching "Don't use drugs," while her husband was cutting all the funding for drug treatment programs. The people who really wanted to stop using did not have the opportunity to do so. Of course there were cultural changes taking place during that period, too. We became more conservative as a nation, so marijuana fell out of favor. I still hear a lot of people, more conservative people, say, "Oh, if only Nancy Reagan were back. She had commitment [to the issue]." Well, the government's doing Nancy Reagan's job now. The current drug czar, Barry McCaffrey, has a big media advertising campaign against drugs, pot in particular. But the ads don't make a crucial distinction between marijuana and other drugs. Other drugs can be very devastating. I try to be very clear about that.

Have we had any success squelching drug trafficking abroad?

You have to go back to the 1970s to find the last time that the United States had any real success in keeping heroin or cocaine out of the country. The drug traffickers have become so sophisticated and powerful that they have, in the last 20 years, shown themselves able to frustrate and counter every single tactic that the U.S. government has thrown at them. There is so much cocaine produced that there is a glut on the world market, and the supply in this country, as measured by the price, has remained at extremely high levels, despite our growing investment. I think it is a huge waste of our resources to keep up these efforts. I recently wrote an article in which I tried to show that for the cost of one customs surveillance plane, which is about $47 million, it would be possible to get rid of all the waiting lists for treatment in Washington, D.C.

You argue that Reagan made the crack epidemic worse than it had to be.

One cannot blame a government for the eruption of a drug epidemic. It has deep causes. What I fault the Reagan administration for is doing nothing to provide services to people caught up in the crack epidemic. There was ample warning that something terrible was developing. Treatment experts were going to the White House and telling them, "Cocaine is becoming cheaper, it's going down the socioeconomic ladder, if it reaches the inner city, we are going to have a major crisis on our hands." The Reagan people listened to this and completely ignored it. They did nothing to try to provide services, or make more treatment available, in anticipation of this, and ... even after crack hit, they continued to refuse to provide relief to these treatment facilities, which were becoming so overwhelmed with addicts. I feel that as a result of that, the crack epidemic was much worse than it needed to have been.

When was the position "drug czar" created?

The first drug czar really was Jerry Jaffe, and to me, what was unique about him was that he was a public health expert. It is amazing to think that Richard Nixon, the great apostle of law and order, named a psychiatrist, who was an expert in the treatment of drug addictions, to this position. If you look at who our most recent drug czars have been, we've had four in the modern period: William Bennett, basically a political moralist; Bob Martinez, who was a defeated governor of Florida; Lee Brown, a police commissioner; and now Barry McCaffrey, a four-star general. Not one comes out of the public health arena; not one knows anything about treatment. I believe that this has affected their ability to address the real heart of our drug problem, which is providing more services to hard-core users. I argue in my book that the heart of our drug problem is the 4 million or so hard-core drug users of heroin, crack and cocaine.

What was it about Jaffe that impressed Nixon? He must have been a pretty compelling figure for Nixon to base his strategy on this one man's program.

Nixon was such a complex politician. On the one hand, he had these very deep convictions about the best way to deal with a problem, like drugs, and his gut told him that cracking down, mass arrests, breaking the "French Connection" wasn't the real way to go about it. But he had this pragmatic side as well, and during the 1968 campaign, he had promised to bring the crime rate down, because it had been going up for so many years.

Once in office, he realized he had to deliver on this. In 1972, it was going to be his reelection, so his pragmatic side came out, and he turned to his domestic policy staff and said, "I want you to find a way to bring the crime rate down." And his domestic staff was very pragmatic as well; in particular, Egil "Bud" Krogh Jr., who eventually went to jail for the Watergate affair, was an extremely resourceful, hard-headed and pragmatic man who wanted to find the way to do this. Basically he undertook a search of who was doing the best work on drug treatment in the country and who was doing the best work with heroin addicts.

How did the Nixon administration deal with the incoming, international supply of drugs?

The Nixon Administration broke the French Connection, so drugs were more difficult to find. It was one of the few times in our history when the government successfully kept drugs from coming into the country. I'd say, we haven't been successful on that in about 20 years.

Is there any indication that we will move, or are moving, toward a public-health approach to treating addicts?

No. In fact, if you look at what happened with Mayor [Rudy] Giuliani in New York, we have taken a step backward. The idea that the mayor of a large city could, in 1998, attack methadone, and say he wanted to eliminate it, shows that we are moving backwards, in some ways. However, I ... hope that maybe [my book] can shake up a few people, make them think a little bit harder about what we're doing.

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

MORE FROM Lori Leibovich

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