Did Nixon Get the War on Drugs Right? Michael Massing’s The Fix

The dust jacket of Michael Massing’s¬†The Fix¬†summarizes his thesis in bold red letters: “Under the Nixon Administration, America Had an Effective Drug Policy. WE SHOULD RESTORE IT. (Nixon Was Right).” That is a pretty extraordinary claim to make regarding an administration that gained office in large part through the “Southern Strategy” that had at its heart Nixon’s declaration of a “War on Drugs” and whose policies created the cocaine epidemic that caused so many new concerns a decade later. At most, I would agree that the Nixon administration’s pursuit of a fundamentally bad policy included some worthwhile efforts that have been devalued by every subsequent administration. This was not because Nixon or his closest advisers were right about drug policy but because Nixon was more interested in foreign policy issues and his benign neglect of domestic policy allowed a number of positive developments to blossom in the midst of the mire of incompetence and corruption that characterized his presidency.

Perceptively concluding that “policies being formulated in Washington today bear little relation to what is taking place on the street,” Massing attempts to depict the real effects of drug policy at the street level. Unfortunately, he doesn’t rely on the epidemiologic evidence or read the careful analyses conducted by researchers like myself who have systematically examined what is truly taking place on the street. Instead he relies on the journalist’s usual — and usually misleading — tool of dramatic anecdotes.

Massing’s anecdotal case is presented through the stories of Raphael Flores and Yvonne Hamilton. Flores runs Hot Line Cares, a drop-in center for addicts in Spanish Harlem. Hot Line Cares, which Flores founded in 1970, is essentially just a cramped office in of an otherwise abandoned tenement where Flores and his staff advise and assist addicts who want to get into treatment. Given the fragmented state of drug abuse treatment in New York City, and in most other American communities, it is no easy task to connect addicts with appropriate care and even harder to connect them with adequate aftercare. Massing writes, “If a Holiday Inn is full, it will at least call the Ramada down the street to see if it has a vacancy. Not so two treatment programs” cnw

Yvonne Hamilton is a crack addict trying to get her life together. Massing describes her trials and tribulations as she copes with her illness and makes her way through New York City’s treatment non-system. It is an affecting story and well told. The author presents it as an argument for treatment and perversely as an argument against decriminalization or legalization. But she is one of the many examples that show that prohibition does not prevent addiction. And improvements in her drug problem seem to have less to do with the treatment she did receive than with changes in her life situation.

These two lives provide a touchstone to which his narrative will later return. The middle third of the book shifts dramatically in tone as Massing chronicles the evolution of the war on drugs in Washington. During Nixon’s tenure, the government spent more money on treatment (the “demand” side) than on stopping drug trafficking (the “supply” side), which he argues led to declines in both drug overdoses and crime rates. As successive presidents felt pressure to emphasize the “war” rather than treatment, he asserts that the number of chronic addicts skyrocketed. In the third and last section Massing returns to Spanish Harlem, where Hamilton continues a difficult struggle to remain drug-free and Flores struggles to keep his center afloat and to keep from falling into addiction himself.

It is the second part of the book that is the heart of Massing’s thesis. It is a tale that is familiar to those of us who are active in the field of drug policy and, in addition to scholars, other journalists have told it before — Dan Baum (1996) and Mike Gray (1998) doing so particularly well — but I will summarize (with some details Massing missed or left out) the history of drug policy under Nixon for the reader who is not familiar with the story.

In 1968, as Richard Nixon was making his comeback run for the presidency, he adopted the “Southern Strategy” that has been the key to Republican victories in presidential races ever since. Since the end of Reconstruction every Democratic presidential candidate had been able to rely on the votes of the “solid South” but the Northern Democrats’ support for civil rights had been the cause of increasing disaffection in the South, as epitomized by Strom Thurmond’s independent run for President against Truman in 1948. Then, in 1964, Alabama Governor George Wallace’s bid for the Democratic nomination for President showed that racism won votes in the North as well as the South. Nixon wanted to win the South, as well as racists’ votes in the North, without offending more traditional Republican voters by an openly racist campaign. The answer Nixon and his advisers found was to campaign against crime, which most Americans quite falsely equated with minorities. So what if the crime rate was actually declining, Americans seem to always believe that crime is increasing just as they seem to always blame it on cultural or racial outsiders.

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