In the April 2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Dan Baum writes about interviewing John Ehrlichman:

At the time, I was writing a book about the politics of drug prohibition. I started to ask Ehrlichman a series of earnest, wonky questions that he impatiently waved away. “You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

And later in the same piece:

Nixon’s invention of the war on drugs as a political tool was cynical, but every president since — Democrat and Republican alike — has found it equally useful for one reason or another. Meanwhile, the growing cost of the drug war is now impossible to ignore: billions of dollars wasted, bloodshed in Latin America and on the streets of our own cities, and millions of lives destroyed by draconian punishment that doesn’t end at the prison gate; one of every eight black men has been disenfranchised because of a felony conviction.

My question is: Is there evidence to suggest the "war on drugs" was a cover for class warfare?

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    The article you cited is worth reading in its entirety. The drug war is a complex issue, and cherry-picking a couple of quotes doesn't really do it justice. – Robert Harvey Dec 29 '16 at 15:45
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    "Was"? Sadly, the War On Drugs is ongoing, "is". Drugs appear to be winning. – Schwern Dec 29 '16 at 20:33
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    This is about conspiracy theories, and is more appropriate on skeptics.se – jwenting Dec 30 '16 at 7:27
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    @jwentig Absolutely not. This is a perfectly valid question about modern American history, and there is a convincing argument made by multiple reputable scholars that the war on drugs has been and still is used as a weapon against politically disfavored groups of people. – HopelessN00b Dec 30 '16 at 7:44
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    @Greg The question is not particularly well-asked, but the idea that Nixon deliberately used the drug war as a weapon against demographic groups whose politics he disliked is not exactly controversial. There's a strong case that this was one of the primary reasons Nixon launched his "War on Drugs". So, saying that the war on drugs was a cover for class warfare [by Nixon] does not necessarily imply it is still is, nor does it preclude the possibility that it's used for other purposes today. – HopelessN00b Dec 30 '16 at 17:49

Yes. That Erlichman quote is evidence, and here are two scholarly articles making similar arguments:

  • Nunn, Kenneth B. "Race, Crime and the Pool of Surplus Criminality: Or Why the" War on Drugs" was a "War on Blacks"." J. Gender Race & Just. 6 (2002): 381-473.

  • Goetz, Edward G. "The US war on drugs as urban policy." International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 20.3 (1996): 539-549.

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    Worth noting that, like every non-trivial issue, you can find scholarly articles going in every direction. So two articles claiming it is a cover for class-warfare doesn't make it so, and articles claiming it isn't doesn't make it so either. – David says Reinstate Monica Dec 29 '16 at 16:39
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    @DavidGrinberg you make a good, often ignored, point, but op did ask "Is there evidence to suggest..." Which in itself is sort of an odd Question. – Sam Dec 29 '16 at 18:28
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    @DavidGrinberg -- sure, and remember that we can't prove a negative. I would, however, be happy to see articles making the opposite case. – Aaron Brick Dec 29 '16 at 20:19

I don't think that's the right question. You're not asking the wrong question, but it's too simple. I'm sure you can find plenty of evidence for or against the idea, but the question doesn't reflect the messy complexities of reality so neither will the answers.

As with most socioeconomic issues, the question of why the War On Drugs started and has persisted is a very tangled one that probably has no authoritative answer and there's no one person or group responsible. It's often difficult to tell if the negative consequences were intended or if it was co-opted. Probably plenty of both. Were there people who used the War On Drugs for overtly cynical and racist ends? Yes. Were there people who sincerely believed drugs are bad, mmkay? Yes.

I would recommend "The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice" covering not only the War On Drugs, but criminal justice in general. It's been through 11 editions now, and the two authors have excellent pedigrees. It'll help build up a broader understanding of the socioeconomic pressures behind the War On Drugs.

Jeffrey Reiman is the William Fraser McDowell Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at American University in Washington, D.C. In addition to The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, Dr. Reiman is the author of In Defense of Political Philosophy (1972), Justice and Modern Moral Philosophy (1990), Critical Moral Liberalism: Theory and Practice (1997), The Death Penalty: For and Against (with Louis P. Pojman, 1998), Abortion and the Ways We Value Human Life (1999), As Free and as Just as Possible (2012), and more than 60 articles in philosophy and criminal justice journals and anthologies.

Paul Leighton is a Professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminology at Eastern Michigan University. In addition to The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, Dr. Leighton is the co-author of Punishment for Sale (with Donna Selman, 2010) and Class, Race, Gender and Crime (with Gregg Barak and Allison Cotton, 4th edition, 2013). He is also co-editor, with Jeffrey Reiman, of the anthology Criminal Justice Ethics (2001). In addition to his publications, Dr. Leighton is webmaster for PaulsJusticePage.com and PaulsJusticeBlog.com.

This applies the author's idea of Pyrrhic Defeat Theory, that the people most able to change a system also benefit from the system so they're unmotivated to fix it, to criminal justice. While the War On Drugs might have originally been conceived with good intentions, Reiman and Leighton make the argument there's many social and economic benefits to those in power to keep it going. Racism is one of them, to which Pyrrhic Defeat Theory can also be applied.

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    @drewbenn I mention the author's pedigrees because, frankly, when I picked up the book decades ago the title and cover suggested it was something written by a radical wacko. goo.gl/photos/wmzSGN4GYFX6TPS86 – Schwern Dec 29 '16 at 22:05
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    <ctd> While I don't like the whole war on drugs, for reasons that have nothing to do with WHO gets killed and thrown in prison as a result of it btw, I'm not going to write a book titled "the war on drugs, an effective means of controlling the black underclass"... I'd title it "the war on drugs, and its effects on the makeup of prison populations" or something similarly neutral. – jwenting Dec 30 '16 at 7:51
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    @jwenting You're being That Guy On The Internet who dismisses the collected works of a Professor Emeritus and a Professor of Criminology based on the titles of works you've never read. Don't be that guy. – Schwern Dec 30 '16 at 8:52
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    @Schwern I'm the skeptic who questions the motivations of someone who's clearly seriously biased and partisan, irrespective of his supposed credentials. I've seen too many charlatans in my own field who have high credentials to trust peoples' opinions just based on some title or job position. – jwenting Dec 30 '16 at 9:16
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    @jwenting Questioning motives is fine, that's being a good skeptic. Thinking you know everything from one initial, tangential observation, failing to investigate further, not confirming your own initial conclusion, that's being a bad skeptic. A good skeptic should consider their own biases, and how they can dispel them. A good skeptic, a good scientist, will want to try and make their own hypothesis fail through experimentation and observation. – Schwern Dec 30 '16 at 18:54

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