Former California judge James Gray is among those interviewed for Public Enemy Number One.
“We’ve always had a demon,” says author and historian Dan Baum in Public Enemy Number One, a new documentary that traces the history of the War on Drugs in America. “Something about American political culture requires us to have a demon. Go back to Salem. Alcohol was a demon. Communism was a demon, and all kinds of things were justified in the name of fighting communism. This is what we do.”
The demon in Public Enemy Number One is cannabis. The documentary, produced by Denverite Chris Chiari, directed by Boulder native Robert Rippberger and featuring executive producer Ice-T, looks at the last 50 years through the eyes of a fascinating array of historians, scholars, three former drug czars, politicians, police, lawyers and judges. Many of these individuals were involved in actual decision-making, and the documentary seems particularly apt today.
The War on Drugs has disproportionately affected people of color, and scratchy old videos of black Americans being lined up by police against storefronts and tossed into paddy wagons for drug offenses in the 1970s and 1980s seem presciently familiar today. Former Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bushes Sr. and Jr., and Bill Clinton, all promoted the concept that anyone connected with drugs should be considered a bad person and treated as such, including incarceration of citizens for nothing more than simple possession.
The film begins with Nixon calling himself a “law & order” candidate while running for president in 1968. Sound familiar? In the middle of the Black Lives Matter movement, President Trump attempted to sow the seeds of civil unrest by similarly declaring himself a “law and order” candidate who will run that theme as part of his re-election campaign this year. It’s more important than ever to take a historical look at what that means.
After his election, Nixon and his cronies pushed federal control of law enforcement to attack perceived “demons” and declared drug abuse “public enemy number one.” Baum, the author and historian featured in the film, was the journalist who was told by former Nixon aide John Erlichmann that the War on Drugs was actually concocted to control blacks and hippies, Nixon’s two worst perceived enemies. It had nothing to do with drug abuse, a story he expands upon in the documentary.
In 1971, Nixon signed into law the Controlled Substances Act Congress had passed the year before. Almost immediately, the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), and other groups sprang up to oppose it. Their initial grassroots effort was wildly successful. In the five years after the state of Oregon decriminalized possession and use in 1973, Alaska, Maine, Colorado, California, Ohio, Minnesota, South Dakota, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina and Nebraska followed suit.
By the time Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976 on a platform that included decriminalization at the state level, the public seemed to be seriously waking to the craziness of the Drug War. As the film points out, NORML founder Keith Stroup and others, who were buoyed by their successes, admit they became overconfident, despite having inroads to the White House, including with drug czar Dr. Peter Bourne. Nobody counted on a grassroots campaign waged by mothers outraged by unregulated paraphernalia, which they claimed was fueling major profits by marketing smoking accessories to children. These groups began to organize and gain traction with like-minded legislators in the late ’70s.
Ronald Reagan upped the ante when he became president in 1980, casting the War on Drugs as a moral crusade. His wife, Nancy, co-opted the parents’ movement into her “Just Say No” campaign, as Reagan and George Bush, Sr. added even more federal funding and support to local police bureaus. Civil forfeiture laws, originally intended as a tool against organized crime, became a license for police to literally steal from perceived drug dealers. (One particularly galling scene involves a local police chief freely admitting to a judge that his unit used civil forfeiture laws to obtain special equipment that didn’t fit into the police budget.)
Reagan’s rise coincided with that of the evangelical movement, and what public support there had been for legalization literally evaporated. In 1986, college basketball sensation Len Bias died of cocaine intoxication two days after being selected second in the 1986 NBA draft. Media attention was intense, and as Ethan Nadelmann, founder of the Drug Policy Alliance, explains, Bias’ death became the perfect event for pushing the drug war further into insanity. Congress passed even more strict laws, adding mandatory-minimum sentencing requirements without consulting any studies or fact-based assumptions. Congress said lenient judges should be stopped, so it undercut their authority, and low-level drug offenders began churning through the system adding to overflow prison populations.
The madness continued after Bill Clinton was elected in 1992. He has since admitted that his policies, especially the “three strikes and you’re out” campaign, contributed to the huge increase in drug arrests and incarceration and oppression of minorities that continue to plague us. It wasn’t until the late 1990s, as states began to legalize cannabis for medical purposes, that public opinion began to shift once again.
People in every culture have used some kind of mind-altering drug. The question is not how to get rid of them (the purpose of the Drug War, after all), but rather how we learn to live with them so they cause the least amount of danger. “Don’t warehouse people; rehabilitate them” is a concept that just makes common sense. But as Nadelmann reminds us, it’s so much easier to find a demon.
Public Enemy Number One is available for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, AppleTV and iTunes.