A Brief History of Drug Prohibition III
Part III Business is Good
Until the start of the War on Drugs in 1973 drug prohibition was a slapdash affair driven by paranoia, xenophobia, self-righteousness, bureaucratic self-interest and the demonstrated vote-getting power of being “hard on drugs.“ Empty headed members of the political class can always count on a round of applause for condemning drug use.
The War on Drugs got started in 1973 in the atmosphere of political desperation surrounding the Watergate hearings. Casting about for distractions from his political problems Nixon played the always reliable drug card. He had big problems so he made a big bet. He created the Drug Enforcement Administration and declared “...all-out global war on the drug menace.” It didn’t help him with his own Congressional investigation menace, but the new war found little opposition among politicians.
Politicians love fighting drugs as much as kissing babies. The War on Drugs has all the political benefits of a real war but is as hard to oppose as aid to disaster victims. Suggest that it may not be entirely moral for Congress to help some people with money taken at gunpoint from other people and you are heartless and cruel. Speak out against the War on Drugs and you will be accused of favoring drug abuse.
Presidents after Nixon were fully aware of the rich veins of political gold to be mined in the deep pits of the Drug War. Party affiliation mattered little. Reagan, Bush and Clinton all swung mighty swords in the WOD.
Drug laws through the 80’s became more severe and asset seizures easier and more common. Federal drug prosecutions tripled between 1980 and 1997. Federal money spent on the war jumped from $1 billion to over $15 billion per year. The states spent twice that amount again. Now the government seizes more property each year than is lost to all crimes of theft combined.
By 1995 sixty percent of federal prisoners were doing time for drug crimes. There were a million and a half drug arrests per year. A third of those were for possession of pot. Arrests for marijuana possession alone are more than the combined total of arrests for murder, manslaughter, robbery, arson, vagrancy, rape, and all sex offences including prostitution. Here in the land of the free we incarcerate our citizens at a greater rate and in greater numbers than any other country on earth. The WOD drives this massive incarceration machine.
If we measure the success of the Drug War like we do success in other wars, by bodies counted, assets seized, and prisoners taken, we could argue that the war has been successful. If, however, the intent of the war is to decrease our society’s drug problems every measure shows the war to be a spectacular failure.
Drugs are stronger and cheaper than ever. There are more addicts and drug crimes. The medical costs, HIV infections, non-violent prisoner populations, decimated inner city communities, and broken families attendant to the WOD all show that money and jail time won’t cure drug problems.
The question then becomes why do we continue to follow policies that are obviously not working? Why do so few public and law enforcement officials speak out against a continuing irrational drug policy?
The answer is that no matter how irrational our current policy may be, the bureaucratic and political logic is seamless. The War on Drugs from the point of view of law enforcement agencies and politicians is a successful, rapidly growing, money-making enterprise. Business is good.
The political consequences of being “soft-on-drugs” are well known. The wrecked political careers of former Surgeon-General Joycelyn Elders and William Weld come to mind.
The bureaucratic motives for fighting the war, though less obvious, are entirely financial. Policy and moral rationalizations are used to obscure the truth, like the Diet Coke the fat guy orders with his banana cream pie. But easy forfeitures and asset seizures have given lucrative rewards and powerful incentives to police and prosecutors. Because the agencies get to keep part or all of whatever loot they seize, enforcement of drug laws has become their top priority.
Allowing law enforcement agencies to directly benefit from the seizure of private property has distorted drug policy and given a weird and menacing shape to the justice system.
Unintended consequences include the targeting of assets rather than crime, 80% of seizures occurring where no crime has been committed, generous plea bargains with “kingpins” who have assets to trade while poor “mules” get heavy jail time, “reverse stings” that target buyers rather than sellers, and a huge shift away from local and toward federal jurisdiction.
If you feel you don’t have a stake in uncorrupted law enforcement consider the case of Donald Scott. He was a wealthy recluse who owned a choice 200 acre ranch in Malibu, California. Based on an informant’s tip that Scott was growing marijuana on his ranch the LA Sheriff’s Department raided his home with a 30 man SWAT team. Despite extensive efforts before the raid the police never confirmed the tip nor did they have any reason to suspect Scott was violent.
The police arrived at his home at 8:30 a.m. They knocked once and immediately swarmed through the house. Hearing his wife’s screams, Scott emerged from a bedroom carrying a pistol. He was gunned down by the SWAT team. He never pointed or fired his weapon. He died at the scene in front of his horrified wife. No marijuana plants were found anywhere on the ranch.
There is no crime control strategy that could explain Donald Scott’s death. The Ventura County District Attorney’s report on the incident concluded that the main purpose of the raid was the expected forfeiture of Scott’s five million dollar property. Among documents given to officers at the pre-raid briefing were a recent appraisal, a reference map noting selling prices of nearby properties, and a statement that if 14 marijuana plants were found the property could be seized. I could list dozens of similar if less tragic cases of asset driven drug law enforcement.
Forfeiture statutes have created self-financed, unaccountable agencies, general corruption and widespread miscarriages of justice. Corrupt enforcement agencies feed victims to a huge and powerful drug war industry. Lawyers, the prison and court systems, the parole system, drug testing outfits, psychologists and counselors of all flavors form an industry of thousands to whom a cease fire in the WOD would represent serious financial hardship. Convicted and more often merely accused drug offenders are harnessed to pull a gravy train on which the entire sorry enterprise rides. Lobbying from this industry has repeatedly frustrated efforts at forfeiture reform.
That, of course, is the bad news. The good news is that the situation can be fixed with very minor changes in property seizure laws. The proceeds of seized property should be deposited only in state or federal treasuries. They should not be given back to the agencies who seized them. This one small change would remove the perverse incentives behind law enforcement for profit. The Drug War industry lobby works vigorously against reform. We must overcome their efforts.
To do so we must take a close look at what we have done in our 25 year failed attempt to win the Drug War. We must reconsider the institutions we have built and the lives and liberties we have destroyed trying to bring about the unattainable “drug free” society.
A good place to start would be right here at home. Public safety would not suffer if the City of Key West stopped the legal muggings known as “reverse stings,“ or if we were no longer blessed with a SWAT team. Surely a city that has an official policy against war 10,000 miles away could take a small step to stop the war against its own citizens. It would be a small gesture, but a good start.