Cops For and Against the War On Drugs

Originally appeared at: From uniformed beat cops to homicide dicks, SWAT officers to chiefs and sheriffs, more and more of the nation’s police officers are coming to realize that our 40-year drug war is an unmitigated failure, that it has ruined countless lives, squandered billions of taxpayer dollars, guaranteed a handsome lifestyle for demonstrably dangerous people, and done nothing to reduce drug potency, profits, or ease of access. Thoughtful police officers know this, better than most. Yet most of them keep their mouths shut. And by doing so they help to perpetuate the country’s most costly and shameful social policy since the days of slavery and Jim Crow. Why do those who’ve witnessed firsthand the folly of the drug war not speak up? Fear. Many cops are afraid they’ll be seen as “soft on drugs, soft on crime.” They’re afraid they won’t get that assignment or promotion they’ve worked so hard to achieve, that their superiors will think they’re one of “them” — closeted dope smokers, pushing reform for private, self-indulgent reasons. Or pointy-headed social-worker, civil liberties-types who belong to “the other side.” And some police officers, realizing how dependent (addicted?) to drug war revenues their agencies have become, are afraid to speak truth to all that money, and the equipment and overtime it buys. State and local law enforcement agencies receive billions in federal funding for performing their dangerous role as frontline regional drug warriors. Moreover, in a classic case of ironic symbiosis, local police benefit directly from the very traffickers they bust. They wind up confiscating cash, and selling dealers’ homes, cars, Harley Davidson motorcycles, works of art, yachts, high-speed cigarette boats–goods used in the commission of illicit drug transactions, or purchased from the proceeds. Still, more and more of the nation’s police officers, along with prosecutors, judges, correctional officers, prison wardens, DEA, FBI, and Homeland Security personnel are speaking out against U.S. drug policy. Many of them are members of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. As a police officer in San Diego for 28 years, as a former chief of the Seattle Police Department, and as a LEAP speaker, I’ve lost track of the number of times cops (or local, state, or national politicians) have approached me after a talk to whisper their support for replacing the criminal-sanctioned prohibition model with a public health, regulatory system of drug control. Obviously, not all cops are convinced of the damage done by the nation’s drug laws. They’ve grown up on a steady diet of drug-war propaganda. Year after year, generation after generation they’ve been subjected to the war’s never-ending IV-drip of toxic deceptions. These police officers are convinced that the only answer to the country’s “drug problem” is continue to classify drug possession as a crime and the possessors as outlaws. They don’t stop to think that prohibition just might be the cause of the problem, not the solution. They may never have worked Narcotics, toiled as an undercover “dirty,” cultivated snitches, or donned one of those POLICE jackets on drug raids. But True Believers are narcs, one and all. As odious a term as it is to freedom-loving, responsible Americans, the “narc” label signifies honor and pride (not to mention adventure and romance) to those who go about the business of busting American adults for drug possession. It is not merely what these officers do, it is who they are. It is their identity. Which is why it is so important that those police officers and other criminal justice practitioners who do see the drug war for the failure it is speak out. (This is an especially pressing need at a time when California voters have a genuine opportunity to legalize marijuana, by voting YES on Proposition 19. You can be sure Golden State voters will be assaulted by wave after wave of misinformation and outright lies launched from the mouths and pens of True Believers bent on frightening the electorate.) But each and every endorsement of reform by a police officer, full-throated or soto voce, adds yet another authoritative and powerful voice of sanity and reason to the mix of law enforcement officers who are saying enough is enough. An article that discusses the various attitudes towards the war on drugs from within the police enforcement community.