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The Drug War's Collateral Damage

Drug prohibition militarizes our police, enriches our enemies, undermines our laws, and condemns our sick to suffering.

Radley Balko
January 23, 2009

At around 6pm on January 27 of last year, 80-year-old Isaac Singletary spotted a couple of drug dealers attempting to do business on his front lawn. It wasn’t the first time. Singletary, described by relatives as territorial and a bit crotchety, did what he’d done in the past. He grabbed his gun, and walked out on to his lawn to scare them off. Problem is, this time the men weren’t drug dealers. They were undercover Jacksonville, Florida police posing as drug dealers. They had come on to Singletary’s property to bait possible drug offenders. When he brandished his gun, the police shot Singletary four times, once in the back. He died a short time later. A subsequent investigation by Florida’s attorney general cleared the officers who shot Singletary of any wrongdoing.

Singletary wasn’t a drug dealer. Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford described him as “an honest citizen trying to do good.” Florida Governor Charlie Crist visited Jacksonville a few days later. When asked by a reporter about Singletary’s death, Crist euphemistically called it one of the “challenges in fighting crime.”

Singletary is far from the first innocent person to die for the war on drugs, and he’s nowhere near the last. But let’s call Singletary’s death what it is: collateral damage. Like the collateral damage of military wars overseas—innocents inadvertently killed by bombs, bullets, and missiles aimed at legitimate targets—Singletary's a victim only because he happened to live in close proximity to the government's intended target, in this case, drug offenders. And like the civilian casualties of military wars, Singletary’s death won't do a thing to cause the people who run this war to rethink their priorities. Because for them, the ultimate goal is more important than the innocent lives they may take along the way. As Governor Crist said, Singletary's death is really little more than a "challenge" on the journey to a drug-free Florida.

But whatever you may think of the legitimacy of some of America’s military wars, past or present, they’re waged under at least the pretense that they’re necessary to defeat a foreign aggressor that poses a real threat to U.S. security. The drug war’s aim is to stop people from getting high.

When Richard Nixon first uttered the phrase “war on drugs” in 1971, he chose his words carefully. Government declarations of war signal to the country that the threat we’re facing is so perilous, so grave, so existential, that in order to defeat it, we should prepare to give up some basic freedoms, to make significant sacrifices, and—yes—to accept the inevitable collateral damage we may endure on our way to victory. It so happens that to Nixon, that threat was dirty hippies smoking marijuana and urban blacks strung out on heroin.

It was during the Reagan administration that the “war on drugs” got a lot more literal. Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign was backed by an administration of culture warriors ready to settle remnant grudges from the 1960s, an aggressive justice department, and an eager and compliant Congress. Every 1980s celebrity overdose or high-profile drug abuse story (many of which turned out to be false or exaggerated—see the infamous “crack baby” myth, or the Washington Post’s retracted series on “Jimmy,” the 8-year-old heroin addict) sent both parties scrambling to see who could pass the most odious and draconian new drug bill. The climax came in 1986, when Maryland basketball phenom and Boston Celtics draft pick Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose. Eric Sterling, who helped write much of that legislation and is now an activist for reforming the drug laws, likened the frenzy to a stampeding herd of wildebeests. From journalist Dan Baum’s terrific history of the drug war, Smoke and Mirrors:

Sterling had once seen a film shooting Tanzania; a million wildebeest grazing peacefully, until one of them started running. Assuming danger, a few more joined in, and in no time, the whole heard was stampeding wildly, trampling the sick and the slow, laying waste to the flora and fauna alike in a senseless headlong panic. Those images kept occurring to him as he watched Congress in the weeks following Len Bias’s death.


The wildebeests have been charging in a blind gallop ever since. Through the Reagan, Clinton, and both Bush administrations, both major political parties have exacerbated and expanded what is arguably the most destructive and wasteful government policy of the last 40 years.

Culture11 asked me to write a piece outlining the drug war’s collateral damage. That’s a tall order. The drug war touches nearly every area of American life—certainly all facets of U.S. public policy. But here are a few areas where drug prohibition has done the most damage:

Police Militarization

In the 1980s, the “war” part of the drug war got very real. America’s long (and wise) constraint on using the military for domestic policing began to blur, as states deployed National Guard troops to search for marijuana hidden in fields and forests and, in some cases, to patrol drug-riddled inner cities. The line between cop and soldier further blurred when President Reagan authorized active-duty elite military units to train with narcotics police, and then again with the exploding use of paramilitary SWAT teams in America.

Only a handful of police departments had SWAT teams in the 1970s, and they were only deployed in total a few hundred times per year. That number soared to around 4,000 per year by the early 1980s. There are around 50,000 SWAT deployments per year today in America, and they’re primarily used to serve drug warrants.

By the late 1980s, Congress had opened up the Pentagon’s cache of surplus military equipment for civilian police departments across the country to scavenge, again driven largely by the drug war. Millions of pieces of equipment designed for use on the battlefield—including guns, tanks, armored personnel vehicles, helicopters, grenade launchers, and armor—would now be used on American streets, against American citizens. Parallel to the rise of SWAT teams was the rise of the “no-knock raid” which sent cops barreling into private homes to look for dope, a particularly aggressive and violent method of policing, that has since left behind a predictable trail of tragedy.

As many police officers internalize the mentality that they’re fighting a “war,” police-community relations have soured, and many officers have adopted the “us or them” mindset typically seen in soldiers. Here’s former Kansas City and San Jose police chief Joseph McNamara, in a 2006 op-ed for the Wall Street Journal:

Simply put, the police culture in our country has changed. An emphasis on "officer safety" and paramilitary training pervades today's policing, in contrast to the older culture, which held that cops didn't shoot until they were about to be shot or stabbed. Police in large cities formerly carried revolvers holding six .38-caliber rounds. Nowadays, police carry semi-automatic pistols with 16 high-caliber rounds, shotguns and military assault rifles, weapons once relegated to SWAT teams facing extraordinary circumstances. Concern about such firepower in densely populated areas hitting innocent citizens has given way to an attitude that the police are fighting a war against drugs and crime and must be heavily armed.

The military’s task is to conquer and annihilate a foreign enemy (as former Reagan administration official Lawrence Korb once put it, it’s “to vaporize, not Mirandize”). The police are charged with protecting the public order, but without sacrificing the rights of the citizenry. It’s dangerous to conflate the two. But that seems to be where we’re headed. Our politicians have dressed our police like soldiers, trained them in paramilitary tactics, given them military weapons and armor, and told them they’re fighting a “war.” We shouldn’t be surprised if and when some police officers take that message to heart.


Foreign Policy

America’s quest to rid the world of illicit drugs knows no boundaries—political or moral. Just months before September 11, we gave $43 million to Afghanistan—a way of compensating Afghan farmers hurt by the Taliban’s compliance with a U.S. request to crack down on that country’s opium farms (as it turns out, the Taliban had merely eradicated the farms in competition with the Taliban’s own producers).

We don’t seem to have learned. The western world’s prohibition on opium makes poppies a lucrative crop for impoverished Afghan farmers, and is a valuable recruiting tool for insurgents and remnant Taliban forces.

At the same time, we have DEA agents and U.S. and United Nations troops roving the country on search-and-destroy missions, setting Afghani livelihoods aflame before their very eyes—not exactly the way to build alliances. Former BBC correspondent Misha Glenny, author of a book on the global drug trade, explained last year in the Washington Post:

In the past two years, the drug war has become the Taliban's most effective recruiter in Afghanistan. Afghanistan's Muslim extremists have reinvigorated themselves by supporting and taxing the countless peasants who are dependent one way or another on the opium trade, their only reliable source of income. The Taliban is becoming richer and stronger by the day, especially in the east and south of the country. The "War on Drugs" is defeating the "war on terror."

But it isn’t just Afghanistan. The U.S. has a long history of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses and unintended consequences in the name of eradicating illicit drugs overseas. For example, between 2001 and 2003, the U.S. gave more than $12 million to Thailand for drug interdiction efforts. Over ten months in 2003, the Thai government sent out anti-drug “death squads” to carry out the summary, extra-judicial executions of as many as 4,000 suspected drug offenders. Many were later found to have had nothing to do with the drug trade at all. Though the U.S. State Department denounced the killings, the United States continued to give the same Thai regime millions in aid for counter-narcotics operations.

The U.S.-backed and heavily U.S.-funded drug war has led to a particularly bloody civil war in several provinces in Mexico. Large swaths of Mexican police forces are working for the country’s drug cartels. Meanwhile, U.S. drug agents and politicians have been corrupted in their own way—in their willingness to accept brutal violence in Mexico as collateral damage if it brings hope for a diminished drug supply in the U.S. In one case, federal drug agents looked the other way while one of their confidential informants participated in a series of brutal murders across the border, because they didn’t want to compromise their investigation. Or witness a former federal drug warrior write in an Arizona newspaper that all the death and carnage in Mexico is welcome news—merely a necessary step on the road to “victory.” Just last year, the U.S. Congress approved another $400 million in drug war aid to Mexico, despite concern from human rights organizations that the Mexican military may be killing innocent Mexican citizens in its vigor to crack down on the drug lords.

In Latin America, the “Plan Colombia” drug interdiction effort spearheaded by President Clinton has been a disaster, as our military aid has funded right-wing paramilitary groups responsible for mass human rights abuses and spawned public support for the FARC guerilla organization that periodically rises up to threaten the country’s stability. The other main component of the plan—the mass spraying of concentrated herbicide on Colombian coca fields—has poisoned vast tracts of farmland (and, some say, many people), depriving many Colombians of their livelihood. This, again, isn’t likely to foster warm feelings toward the United States. Three provinces in Ecuador are currently suing the U.S. government and U.S. contractor Dyncorp, alleging that our spraying efforts in Columbia have on several occasions crossed the Columbia-Ecuador border, raining toxic, potent chemicals down on Ecuadorian villages.

Opposition to the U.S. drug war in South America was a motivating factor in the election of the anti-American Evo Morales administration in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. Brazil and Argentina are actually moving toward decriminalizing drugs, despite the cooling of relations with the U.S. that would likely come with it. U.S. anti-narcotics efforts have also fostered instability, corruption, and the rise of terrorist organizations in Peru. Incidentally, it was in Peru that, in 2001, the CIA mistook a plane full of missionaries for a drug plane. U.S. officials ordered the Peruvian Air Force to shoot the plane down, killing 35-year old Veronica Bowers and her seven-month-old daughter, Charity. More collateral damage.

The Rule of Law

“The Fourth Amendment has been virtually repealed by court decisions,” Yale law professor Steven Duke told Wired magazine in 2000, “most of which involve drug searches.”

The rise of the aforementioned no-knock raid is one example, as is the almost comically comprehensive list of reasons for which you can be legally detained and invasively searched for drugs at an airport. In many areas of the country, police are conducting “administrative searches” at bars and clubs, in which an obvious search for criminality is cloaked in the guise of a regulatory inspection, obviating the need for a search warrant.

But the drug war has undermined the rule of law in other ways than its evisceration of the Fourth Amendment. Take the bizarre concept of asset forfeiture, an attack on both due process and property rights. Under the asset forfeiture laws passed by Congress in the 1980s (then reformed in 2000), property can be found guilty of a drug crime. The mere presence of an illicit substance in your home or car can allow the government to seize your property, sell it, and keep the proceeds. The onus is then on you to prove you obtained your property legally. Even the presence of an illicit drug isn’t always necessary. The government has seized and kept cash from citizens under the absurd argument that merely carrying large amounts of cash is enough to trigger suspicion. If you can’t prove where you got the money, you lose it.

The drug war has undermined the rule of law in less obvious ways, too. As was the case with alcohol prohibition, and is the case with the prohibition of any consensual crime, the people we ask to police these crimes often have to break the very laws they’re enforcing. The presence of large sums of unaccounted money can be tempting, as we’ve seen in the countless stories of drug cops gone bad.

But the drug war breeds corruption more mundane ways, too. Politicians and prosecutors want statistics—lots of arrests, big busts, and lots of drug seizures. The temptation for even well-meaning cops to take shortcuts looms large. We saw this in Atlanta in 2006 when a botched drug raid led to the death of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston. Subsequent investigations revealed that not only did police in that case lie about nearly every aspect of Johnston’s case, but that lying on search warrants to make the quick bust was common among Atlanta’s narcotics cops.

The cops in the Johnston case also lied about their use of a confidential informant, another common temptation in drug policing. Police abuse of the drug informant system led to the high-profile scandals in Tulia and Hearne, Texas, as well as other scandals in St. Louis, Cleveland, and elsewhere.

The use of street informants is bad enough. But there’s also the problem of jailhouse informants, convicts facing long sentences who testify against drug suspects in exchange for a reduction in their time behind bars. Despite the obvious shortcomings in their trustworthiness—they’re cons who have everything to gain by lying, and nothing to lose—countless innocents have been wrongly convicted on the word of jailhouse snitches.

These inherent problems with the informant system have given rise to the “Stop Snitch’n” movement, which, whatever you may think of it, has revealed the troubling extent to which entire communities in America have completely given up on the people charged with protecting them, even when it comes to helping with investigations of violent crime. Many understandably find the “Stop Snitch’n” movement repugnant, but there’s no question that it’s symptomatic of a larger problem: In many urban areas, the drug war has completely eradicated respect for the rule of law.


Crime, Violence, and Prison

If you look at a graph of the U.S. murder rate going back to about 1915, you’ll notice a few interesting patterns. There’s a spike at around 1919, just at the onset of alcohol prohibition. The graph then takes a dramatic dip in 1933, just after the repeal of prohibition. There’s then another spike in the late 1960s, just as Richard Nixon took office and fired the first shots of his war on drugs. That spike falls in the 1970s as President Carter took a less militant approach to drug prohibition, but then with Reagan’s reinvigorated war in the 1980s, it begins another upward ascent.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Prohibitions create black markets, and black markets spawn crime. Drug prohibition, then, spawns violent crime. There’s a reason we don’t often hear about a Michelob deal gone bad. Because alcohol is legal, there are no turf wars, no sour deals, no smuggling operations to defend.

One in 100 Americans today
is behind bars. That number by far and away leads the world, and is at its highest point in American history. About 350,000 of the approximately 3 million Americans behind bars are there for nonviolent drug crimes (trafficking or possession). It would be impossible to approximate, but countless others are undoubtedly in for violent or property crimes that are by-products of drug prohibition. The drug war has turned entire neighborhoods into, well, war zones. If the temptation of the drug trade can be too much for some police officers, you can imagine the allure for a young urban kid wasting away in an awful public school with few other prospects.

It’s difficult to know what effect the exploding prison population will have on American society going forward, but it certainly can’t be good.

Hundreds of thousands of people who victimized no one will spend a good deal of their lives in prison alongside hardened criminals, then face lives on the outside limited by their status as convicted felons.


Medical Treatment

One final and emerging class of drug war collateral damage is medical treatment. As the drug war has become increasingly federalized, the federal government has at the same time increasingly nosed in on the relationship between doctor and patient.

The most obvious example is medical marijuana, where the federal government has not only told doctors what they can and can’t prescribe to their patients, it has barred research into the possible medical benefits of marijuana (it then dishonestly claims there is no research providing evidence of said benefits), and asserted the supremacy of federal law when it comes to marijuana-related medical policy—a field of policy America has traditionally (and wisely) left to the states.

Supporters of drug prohibition argue that medical marijuana is merely a ruse to get the drug legalized on a wider scale, and in some ways they’re right. You’d have to be fairly gullible to believe that everyone sporting a prescription for marijuana in California right now is in dire need of the drug (and I say this as someone who supports complete legalization).

Yet there are, unquestionably, people who do need the drug, and they’re unquestionably suffering—and in some cases dying—because they can’t get it. Peter McWilliams is one of the sadder examples. Angel Raich—whose case upheld the federal government’s imposition of federal law on states like California—is another. Or consider National Review’s Richard Brookhiser, a credentialed conservative who, as it happens, used marijuana to help with the nausea that came with chemotherapy when he was battling cancer. When Drug Czar John Walters said in 2005 that there’s no evidence of a medical benefit to marijuana, Brookhiser responded, “He is a liar or an ignoramus, probably both.” Perhaps more eloquently, in testimony before Congress in 1996, Brookhiser said:

“My support for medical marijuana is not a contradiction of my principles, but an extension of them. I am for law and order. But crime has to be fought intelligently and the law disgraces itself when it harasses the sick. I am for traditional virtues, but if carrying your beliefs to unjust ends is not moral, it is philistine."

One more recent area where the drug war is corrupting medical treatment is in the treatment of pain—specifically, chronic pain. By some estimates, as many as 30 million Americans suffer from untreated chronic pain. That number is only likely to rise as the country continues to age. A promising new treatment called “high-dose opiate therapy” has proven successful at keeping chronic pain at bay in many patients. The problem is that as patients build up a resistance, doctors must titrate up their dosages, to the point where some patients can take 40 or more pills per day. These patients don’t get high, and they don’t suffer any ill effects. They aren’t addicted, they’re merely dependent. Take the medication away, and the pain comes back.

Unfortunately, because some addicts use opiate painkillers to get high, the Drug Enforcement Administration has decided to play doctor, determining that no patient should ever need medication at dosages that high, and that any doctor prescribing drugs in those quantities must be dealing (or “diverting,” as it’s called in the white collar world). While it’s certainly possible that some doctors who prescribe pain medication are unethical, the DEA’s aggressive, un-nuanced pursuit of pain doctors has put the fear of prosecution into nearly all doctors who specialize in pain treatment (and scared young doctors from entering the field). Driven by politicians spooked by a spate of irresponsible press reports warning of an OxyContin fad sweeping the country, the DEA’s high-profile pursuit of pain specialists has poisoned the relationship between pain doctors and their patients, and left the country with a dire shortage of physicians willing to prescribe pain medication at the dosages many patients need.

We have drug cops dictating medical policy, and it’s leading to all sorts of unnecessary suffering. Some patients have lost one doctor to a DEA prosecution, spent weeks to find another who will treat them, sometimes miles away, only to have that doctor come under investigation, too. More than a few pain patients have attempted suicide after being unable to find a doctor to treat them.

All just collateral damage. The DEA’s mission is to prevent people from getting high. If it takes an overly broad, overly aggressive, chilling campaign against doctors to do that, leaving millions of people in needless, sometimes debilitating pain, so be it.


And for What?

Even if the drug war were working—even if all the horrible things the federal government says are caused by illicit drugs were accurate (and some of them admittedly are), and even if the war on drugs were proving successful in eradicating or even significantly diminishing our access to those drugs—you’d have a difficult time arguing that the benefits would be worth the costs.

But the kicker is, of course, that it isn’t working. Most of the federal government claims about the evils associated with illicit drugs are either exaggerated or misapplied effects not of the drugs, but of the government’s prohibition of them.

More to the point, none of this is working, even taking drug war advocates’ positions at face value. It is as easy to achieve an illegal high today as it was in 1981, as it was in 1971, as it was in 1915. The vast majority of you reading this either know where to get a bag of marijuana, or know someone who knows where to get one. Specific drugs come in and out of vogue, but the desire to alter one’s consciousness, to escape life’s drab monotonies, or just to call in a different mindset is as strong and pervasive as it’s ever been, going back to the stone age. It’s also just as easy to fulfill.

In a 1986 speech designed to drum up public support for yet another round of War on Drugs legislation, President Ronald Reagan officially designated illicit drugs a threat to America’s national security. After declaring that, “We’re running up a battle flag,” Reagan then compared America’s determination in the war on drugs to that of the French troops at the World War I Battle of Verdun. As the journalist Dan Baum notes while explaining Reagan’s speech in his book Smoke and Mirrors, Verdun was a protracted, bloody, brutal battle of attrition. A quarter million troops lost their lives and another 700,000 were wounded in the months-long battle for a small strip of land that offered little practical advantage to either army. In fact, in much of Europe, Verdun has come to symbolize the futility of war, and the way governments are willing to write off the mass loss of human life as mere collateral damage in the pursuit of some seemingly noble but ultimately shallow and elusive aim.

Looking back, Reagan’s analogy was quite a bit more appropriate than he probably intended.

Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine. This article orginally appeared at Culture11.com and previously at Reason.com.


Radley Balko is Senior Editor


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