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May 13, 2009 -- Jack-Booted Liberal (US)

"The War On Drugs" -- More Than Just A Metaphor

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"The war on drugs." Let's look at that phrase.

Wikipedia says, "The word 'war' is used to invoke a state of emergency, although the target and methods of the campaign are largely unlike that of a regular war." It may have been true at one time that the "war" on drugs was largely metaphorical, like the previous "War on Poverty," but words have power, and this war has become deadly literal. More and more police departments are acquiring military equipment and adopting military-style tactics and attitude.

The image below shows sheriff Leon Lott, from Richmond County, South Carolina, posing with some of his officers in front of the armored personnel carrier they just purchased. You tell me: do these look like police officers or military personnel?

The vehicle is equipped with a belt-fed .50 caliber machine gun. According to Wikipedia, this gun "is effective against infantry, unarmored or lightly-armored vehicles and boats, light fortifications, and low-flying aircraft." You tell me: is this weapon intended to address the kind of situations that a police officer is intended to encounter, or those of a soldier?

This is not an isolated occurrence. In his white paper, Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America, Radley Balko quotes an estimate that SWAT teams serve "no-knock warrants" 40,000 times a year. Balko writes:

The use of hyper-militarized, heavily armed police units to carry out routine search warrants has become increasingly common since the 1980s. These raids leave a very small margin for error. A wrong address, bad timing, or bad information can­and frequently does­bring tragedy. The information giving rise to these raids is typically collected from confidential informants. These informants are sometimes no more than well-meaning members of the community who want to tip police to illicit activity. But more often they're professional "snitches"­people who regularly seek out drug users and dealers and tip off the police in exchange for cash rewards. A third, even more common class of informants is actual convicted or suspected drug dealers themselves, who are then rewarded with leniency or cash in exchange for information leading to other arrests. The folly of using informants of such questionable repute, who hold such obvious ulterior motives to conduct raids with such high stakes and such little room for error, would seem to be self-evident. Yet the practice grows more and more common, and the judges whom the criminal justice system entrusts to oversee the warrant process have grown more and more complacent.

The effect of these raids is well-illustrated by this map, from the Cato Institute, which shows the location of botched raids around the country. I encourage you to click through and play around with it. You can filter by "death of an innocent," "raid on a suspect who later turned out to be innocent," and so on.

Any lingering doubt that one might have about the metaphorical nature of the term, "War on Drugs," can be dispelled by this quote, from the lawyer of some officers who raided the wrong address:

"They [police officers] made a mistake. There's no one to blame for a mistake. The way these people were treated has to be judged in the context of a war."

Okay, so premise number one out of the way. Even though it may have started out as a metaphor, the war on drugs is not a metaphorical war. It is being treated as a literal war by those who wage it, law enforcement officers. They are arming themselves as soldiers and training themselves as soldiers. They are waging war on their enemy, and as in any war, damage is occurring, in the form of deaths of innocent people and pets, and needless destruction of property.

In Iraq, we have been re-training our soldiers to treat the military mission more as a diplomatic, political, and police action. It has been acknowledged that a purely military approach, which primarily involves destroying an enemy's ability to make war, is inappropriate to the mission. Ironically, here at home, we are re-training police officers to act as soldiers in what is fundamentally a law enforcement action. Attempting to enforce drug prohibition via pseudo-military methods is just as inappropriate, just as harmful, and just as ineffective as trying to fight the insurgency in Iraq the same way we did Germany in World War II.

And who is the enemy in this war? Is it "drugs"? No. This war is being waged, not on drugs themselves, but on the people who produce, distribute, and consume drugs, and those people are us. Drug prohibition, in and of itself, is morally wrong and legally ineffective, but by turning the law enforcement action of prohibition into a military action, we have ordered our law enforcement officers to declare war on ourselves.

The famous quotation from Pogo goes, "We have met the enemy and he is us." For the war on drugs, perhaps it should be re-phrased, "We have made the enemy, and he is us."

For more reading on this topic, check out Radley Balko's blog, The Agitator, and especially the sub-section on Police Militarization. Also see Collateral Damage In The War On Drugs by Graham Boyd.

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