War on Crime, Not on Drugs

Editor's Note: The following excerpt is reprinted with permission from "Breaking Rank: A Top Cop's Expose of the Dark Side of American Policing (Nation Books, 2005).

I say it’s time to withdraw the troops in the war on drugs.

For a jaw-dropping illustration of drug enforcement’s financial costs, take a look at DrugSense.org’s Drug War Clock. To the tune of $600 a second, taxpayers are financing this war. For the year 2004 the figure added up to over $20 billion, and that’s just for federal enforcement alone. You can add another $22 to $24 billion for state and local drug law enforcement, and even more billions for U. S. drug interdiction work on the international scene. We’re talking well over $50 billion a year to finance America’s war on drugs.

Think of this war’s real casualties: tens of thousands of otherwise innocent Americans incarcerated, many for 20 years, some for life; families ripped apart; drug traffickers and blameless bystanders shot dead on city streets; narcotics officers assassinated here and abroad, with prosecutors, judges, and elected officials in Latin America gunned down for their courageous stands against the cartels; and all those dollars spent on federal, state, and local cops, courts, prosecutors, prisons, probation, parole, and pee-in-the-bottle programs. Even federal aid to bribe distant nations to stop feeding our habit.

“Plan Colombia” was hatched under the last year of the Clinton administration to wage America’s drug war on Colombian soil. Costing over $1.3 billion ($800 million going to the military), the plan sought to “eradicate” that nation’s coca and heroin poppy plants (Colombia supplied 95 percent of America’s cocaine). The chemical used was the herbicide glyphosate, which when sprayed on crops does untold damage to the environment. When sprayed on water supplies or unprotected people, it causes a host of serious to fatal medical problems.

Similar efforts in Peru and Bolivia have reduced production only temporarily, and always at high cost: recall that the Peruvian Air Force, on the strength of mistaken U.S. drug intelligence, shot down a civilian aircraft carrying an American missionary and her infant daughter in April of 2001.

In Afghanistan, the Bush administration supported the Taliban to the tune of $125 million in foreign aid, plus another $43 million for enforcing its ostensible ban on poppy production—right up until September 10, 2001. (As Robert Scheer makes clear in his May 22, 2001 column in the Los Angeles Times—“Bush’s Faustian Deal With the Taliban”—the president knew all along that the Taliban was hiding Osama bin Laden.)

Today, Afghanistan’s drug lords give the country’s warlords (when they’re not one and the same) a run for their money. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) in the summer of 2004 issued a scathing report citing the phenomenal growth in Afghan poppy production—and the Bush administration’s failure to monitor its own anti-drug aid. The United Nations estimates the value of the 2004 crop at $2.2 billion, with production up 40 percent, breaking all records for a single year.

According to Peter Rodman of the Pentagon (BBC News, September 24, 2004), “…profits from the production of illegal narcotics flow into coffers of warlord militias, corrupt government officials, and extremist forces.”

The United States has, through its war on drugs, fostered political instability, official corruption, and health and environmental disasters around the globe. In truth, the U.S.-sponsored international "War on Drugs" is a war on poor people, most of them subsistence farmers caught in a dangerous no-win situation.


Another casualty of the drug war: the reputation of individual police officers, individual departments, and the entire system of American law enforcement. If you aspire to be a “crooked” cop, drugs are clearly the way to go. The availability, street value, and illegality of drugs form a sweet temptation to character-challenged cops, many of whom wind up shaking down street dealers, converting drugs for their own use, or selling them.

Almost all of the major police corruption scandals of the last several decades have had their roots in drug enforcement. We’ve seen robbery, extortion, drug dealing, drug stealing, drug use, false arrests, perjury, throw-down guns, and murder. And these are the good guys?

There isn’t an unscathed police department in the country. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Washington, D.C., Memphis, Miami, Oakland, Dallas, Kansas City—all have recently suffered stunning police drug scandals. You won’t find a single major city in the country that has not fired or arrested at least one of its own for some drug-related offense in the past few years, including San Diego and Seattle…

Tulia, Tex. offers another example of a cop—and a system—gone bad. Tom Coleman, an ex-police officer, was hired by the federally-funded Texas Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Taskforce to conduct undercover narcotics operations in Tulia in 1998. In 1999, Coleman arrested 46 people -- 39 of them black. He put dozens of “drug peddlers” behind bars—for 60, 90, 434 years (we’re talking Texas here).

The only problem? Coleman made up the charges. He manufactured evidence. Working alone, he never wore a wire, never taped a conversation, never dusted the plastic bags he “scored” for fingerprints. He testified in court that he wrote his notes of drug transactions on his leg. Who was this Tom Coleman?

A 1997 background investigation revealed that he’d been disciplined in a previous law enforcement job, that he had “disciplinary” and “possible mental problems,” that he “needed constant supervision, had a bad temper and would tend to run to his mother for help.”

According to New York Times reporter Adam Liptak, Coleman had “run up bad debts in another law enforcement job before leaving town abruptly in the middle of a shift…. Eight months into the undercover investigation, Coleman’s supervisors received a warrant calling for his arrest for stealing gasoline. They arrested him, let him out on bond and allowed him to make restitution for the gas and other debts of $7,000. The undercover investigation then continued.”

In August of 2003, Governor Rick Perry pardoned 35 of the people Coleman sent to prison, 31 of them black.

Thousands of drug cases have been dismissed throughout the country in just the past few years because of similar police malfeasance. Spurred on by federal financial incentives, departments exert tremendous pressure on narcotics units and individual narcs to make a lot of busts, impound a lot of dope, and seize as much of a drug-trafficker’s assets as possible.


Just how prevalent is drug use in America? In 1975, according to the Monitoring the Future Survey, 87 percent of high school seniors reported that it was “easy” or “fairly easy” to buy marijuana. At the dawn of the new century, and millions of arrests later, the figure is at 90.4 percent.

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse reported in 1998 that high school students found it a lot easier to score pot than to purchase beer. In 1988, Congress set a goal of a “drug-free America by 1995.” Yet, according to research of the Drug Policy Foundation in Washington, D.C. (which in 2000 merged with the George Soros-funded Lindesmith/Drug Policy Research Institute to form the widely respected Drug Policy Institute), the number of Americans who have used illegal drugs stands at 77 million and counting. That’s a lot of enemies.

Not that the war on drugs hasn’t taken prisoners. The Department of Justice reports that of the huge increases in federal and state prison populations during the ‘80s and ‘90s (from 139 per 100,000 residents in 1980, to 476 per 100,000 in 2002), the vast majority are for drug convictions. The FBI reports that 580,900 Americans were arrested on drug charges in 1980. By 1999 that annual figure had ballooned to 1,532,200. Today there are more arrests for drug offenses than for murder, manslaughter, forcible rape, and aggravated assault combined.

Nowhere is this misguided campaign waged more mindlessly than in New York. The “Rockefeller Drug Laws” call for life in prison for first-time offenders convicted of possessing four ounces, or selling two ounces, of a controlled substance. The result? The state’s prison system is filled to the gills with drug offenders, most of them convicted of minor offenses, most of them nonviolent, taking up 18,300 of its beds.

By any standard, the United States has lost its war on drugs. Criminalizing drug use—for which there is, was, and always will be an insatiable appetite—has been a colossal mistake, wasting vast sums of money, and adding to the misery of millions of Americans.

The solution? Decriminalization. (Not “legalization,” which would take government out of the picture altogether—and doom desperately-needed drug reform.) Decriminalization means you take the crime out of the use of drugs, but preserve government’s right—and responsibility—to regulate the field.

How would it work? If I were the new (and literal) Drug Czar, I would have private companies compete for licenses to cultivate, harvest, manufacture, package, and peddle drugs. I’d create a new federal regulatory agency (with no apologies to libertarians and neo-cons) to: (1) set and enforce standards of sanitation, potency, and purity; (2) ban advertising; (3) impose taxes, fees, and fines to be used for drug abuse prevention and treatment, and to cover the costs of administering the new regulatory agency; and (4) police the industry much as alcoholic beverage control agencies operate in the states.

But I wouldn’t stop there: I’d put all of those truly frightening, explosion-prone, toxic meth labs out of business—today; make sure that no one was deprived of methadone or other medical treatment for addiction or abuse; establish free needle exchange programs and permit pharmacy sales of sterile, non-prescription needles in every city; and require random, mandatory drug testing for those workers whose judgment and mental alertness are essential to public safety—cops, firefighters, soldiers, airline pilots, bus drivers, ferry boat operators, train engineers, et al. (Not part of the et al are brain surgeons, mental health counselors, and countless others whose sensitive work, if botched, would generally not jeopardize public safety.)

...I would insist on the enforcement of existing criminal laws and policies against street dealing, furnishing to minors, driving under the influence, or invoking drug influence as a criminal defense.

Consequently, if someone chose to take a drug, anything they did under its effects would be 100 percent their responsibility... If they rob a bank, drive high, furnish drugs (including alcohol) to a minor, smack their neighbor upside the head, slip Ecstasy into their date’s drink, they should be arrested, charged, and prosecuted. If convicted, they should be forced to pay a fair but painful price for their criminal irresponsibility. Moreover, if they’ve injured or killed someone in the process, they should be slapped with civil damages. I’ve never understood defense attorneys who argue, “Gee, your honor, my client was so loaded she didn’t know what she was doing.”


But what of the undeniable harm caused by drugs? Wouldn’t decriminalization make things worse? Who knows? We’re too scared to approach the subject in a calm, open, levelheaded manner. But, I’ll tell you what I think would happen: there would be a slight increase in drug use, and no measurable increase in drug abuse. Experiences in Portugal and the Netherlands suggest that decriminalization does not portend a mad rush for drugs among the currently abstemious…

Handled properly, decriminalization would improve the overall health—physical, emotional, and financial—of our society and our neighborhoods.

How? For starters, it would put illicit traffickers out of business; their obscene, untaxed profits evaporating overnight. Dealers and runners and mules and nine-year-old lookouts would be off street corners, and out of the line of fire. It would take much of the fun out of being a gang member (gang-banging being synonymous these days with drug dealing, “markets” synonymous with “turf”). Firearms employed in the expansion and protection of drug markets would go quiet—a welcome change for peace-loving citizens, and the nation’s cops. Drug raids on the wrong house would be a thing of the past.

And since most junkies finance their addiction by breaking into your home, stealing your car, or mugging you on the street, crimes like burglary, robbery, auto theft, and car prowl would drop. A lot. Justice Department studies linking patterns of property crime and drug use suggest a reduction of 35 to 50 percent in those crimes alone.

Decriminalization would arguably wipe out at least one variety of structural racism, as well as class discrimination. A sad but safe generalization: poor blacks smoke cheap crack, upscale whites snort the spendy powdered version of cocaine. And who goes to jail, for longer periods of time? Blacks, of course. Nowhere is this more evident than in Texas where, according to the Justice Policy Institute, blacks are incarcerated at a rate 63 percent higher than the national rate…for blacks!

(Nationally, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 12 percent of all African American men between the ages of 20 and 34 are in prison, versus1.6 percent of white men). More than half of these African Americans are in prison for nonviolent offenses, mostly drug-related. Needless to say, this same group is grossly underrepresented in drug treatment programs.


...Where do we find the money to treat addiction and other drug abuse problems when tens of millions of Americans can’t even get basic health insurance, insulin, heart meds or cancer drugs at affordable prices? Law enforcement officials at every level—federal, state, and local—know the answer, and it scares them to death: take it from them, the cops.

Use the money now being squandered on drug enforcement, domestically and internationally, to finance a fresh, new public policy that educates, regulates, medicates, and rehabilitates.


Opposition to decriminalization runs so deep among law enforcers that many refuse even to talk about it. And they’ll do their best to shut you up if you so much as mention it… [But] not everyone is frightened of the First Amendment. Many Americans are speaking up, demanding a new, workable approach to the drug problem.

An October, 2002 Time/CNN poll showed that 72 percent of Americans already believe there should be no jail time for possessing small amounts of pot, and 80 percent support medical marijuana programs; (maybe that’s because 47 percent of them had used the weed).

When, as chief of the Seattle Police Department, I made my views on drugs known at a conference of mayors from Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia, the response was overwhelmingly positive. In presentations I made to business groups throughout Southern California in the early nineties, the typical reaction was, ‘Why can’t our government see the folly of the drug war? It’s just plain bad business, a gigantic waste of taxpayer money.’

A handful of politicians and even a police chief or two do favor decriminalization. I know this because they whisper endorsements in the privacy of their offices or over an adult beverage after a drug conference. Why don’t they speak up? They’re scared. They think they’ll be voted out of office or forced to turn in their badges.

But they “misunderestimate” the wisdom, the common sense of their constituencies. Americans want to see their tax dollars spent on prevention and enforcement of predatory crimes, crimes that frighten them, take money out of their pockets, restrict their freedoms and cause them to change the way they live.

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