The war on drug users

Radley Balko tells a tale that will shock you:

A year and a half ago she was beaten by a neighborhood thug outside of a city bar. It took months of do-it-yourself sleuthing, a meeting with a city alderman and a public shaming in a community newspaper before the Chicago Police Department would pay any attention to her. About a year later, Shaver got more attention from cops than she ever could have wanted: A team of Chicago cops took down her door with a battering ram and raided her apartment, searching for drugs.

Shaver has no evidence that the two incidents are related, and they likely aren’t in any direct way. But they provide a striking example of how the drug war perverts the priorities of America’s police departments. Federal anti-drug grants, asset forfeiture policies and a generation of battlefield rhetoric from politicians have made pursuing low-level drug dealers and drug users a top priority for police departments across the country. There’s only so much time in the day, and the focus on drugs often comes at the expense of investigating violent crimes with victims like Jessica Shaver. In the span of about a year, she experienced both problems firsthand.


Arresting people for assaults, beatings and robberies doesn’t bring money back to police departments, but drug cases do in a couple of ways. First, police departments across the country compete for a pool of federal anti-drug grants. The more arrests and drug seizures a department can claim, the stronger its application for those grants.

“The availability of huge federal anti-drug grants incentivizes departments to pay for SWAT team armor and weapons, and leads our police officers to abandon real crime victims in our communities in favor of ratcheting up their drug arrest stats,” said former Los Angeles Deputy Chief of Police Stephen Downing. Downing is now a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an advocacy group of cops and prosecutors who are calling for an end to the drug war.

“When our cops are focused on executing large-scale, constitutionally questionable raids at the slightest hint that a small-time pot dealer is at work, real police work preventing and investigating crimes like robberies and rapes falls by the wayside,” Downing said.


The most perverse policy may be asset forfeiture. Under civil asset forfeiture, police can seize property from people merely suspected of drug crimes. So long as police can show even the slightest link of drug activity to a car, some cash, or even a home, they can seize it. In the majority of cases, most or all of the seized cash goes back to the police department. In some cases, the department has taken possession of cars as well, but generally non-cash property is auctioned off, with the proceeds then going back to the department. An innocent person who has property seized must go to court and prove his property was earned legitimately, even if he was never charged with a crime. The process of going to court can often be more expensive than the value of the property itself.

Asset forfeiture not only encourages police agencies to use resources and manpower on drug crimes at the expense of violent crimes, it also provides an incentive for police agencies to actually wait until drugs are on the streets before making a bust. In a 1994 study reported in Justice Quarterly, criminologists J. Mitchell Miller and Lance H. Selva watched several police agencies delay busts of suspected drug dealers in order to maximize the cash the department could seize. A stash of illegal drugs isn’t of much value to a police department. Letting the dealers sell the drugs first is more lucrative.

Earlier this year, Nashville’s News 5 ran a report on how police in Tennessee are pulling over suspected drug dealers and seizing their cash along I-40, often without bothering to make an arrest. The station combed through police reports showing that officers spent 10 times as long policing the side of the interstate where a drug runner would be leaving after he sold his supply — and thus would be flush with sizable amounts of cash — than on the side where he was likely to be flush with drugs. The police were letting the drugs be sold in order to get their hands on the cash.

Where I live in California’s Central Valley used to be a popular spot for meth labs. The Mexican drug gangs would set up in isolated farm houses and cook 20-30 pounds of crystal meth a week.

So then came the drug cops. There were all kinds of state and federal grants to add more cops, more prosecutors and to form special task forces. With all the cops around, the drug gangs moved their labs somewhere else.

But even though the meth labs are gone the drug cops are still here, because you can’t EVER reduce the number of cops. An politician who tries will be accused of being soft on crime.

And we’re not really any safer because those drug cops don’t do anything but look for drugs. They don’t hunt rapists and murderers, they don’t look for drunk drivers. Since we don’t have meth labs anymore they search for pot farmers.

We still have those.

BTW – Jeralyn tells a funny joke.

This entry was posted in Cops Gone Wild, Uncategorized, War on Drugs and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to The war on drug users

  1. 1539days says:

    I tend to look at the War on Drugs the way I look at the War on Poverty. Both tend to incentivize failure and neither has reduced the overall problem.

    I definitely think if the grab bag of money were taken away from police departments, law enforcement would give it the priority it deserves instead of top priority. Look at Fast and Furious. The government tried to give out weapons to find drug lords and just ended up giving drug lords a bunch of weapons.

  2. DeniseVB says:

    I’m all for legalizing most recreational drugs so we can tax and regulate them. Have we learned nothing from prohibition where only the criminals made money?

  3. yttik says:

    I hate the drug war. Where I live you can really see how it becomes a competition for dollars. The other big money maker right now is terrorism and illegal immigration. We now have fancy border patrol agents and all their expensive toys and they have to try and justify the expenses by harassing everybody. It’s an incredible waste because we already have US customs, homeland security, and there just aren’t that many Canadians sneaking into the country to take our jobs. Seriously, where I live most people were born within a few miles of here. Our border control has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and caught an Irishman who had an expired visa and a Korean who was selling veggies at a farmers market. We are not a great haven for illegals because we have 30% unemployment.

  4. That is so fucked up. There’s only one thing for it, I’m going to get stoned.

  5. Jeffhas says:

    Just legalize it like Cigarettes and Booze; tax the hell out of it, and take a portion of the proceeds to educate and offer low-cost rehab programs.

    It seems like it would be cheaper, and most incentives for crime would go away… I mean doesn’t it seem like 90% of the crime committed is in some way related to drugs, getting drugs – or money for drugs?…. Society will shun drug users from ‘the cubicles’ like they have cigarette smokers, so lots of people who want to succeed at their job will quit. The rest will either get into jobs where drug use is rampant and acceptable, – and good luck making that work out well in your family life – but what the heck, it’s not like f’ing up your family is only related to drugs.

    • Lola-at-Large says:

      I’m not picking on you, Jeffhas, but I wanted to take this opportunity to say that not all drug users are abusing drugs, and not all of them are failures without economic of family options. I know quite a few well off, credentialed professionals who regularly partake of, for example, pot. Some will even occasionally do coke if the right opportunity comes along at the right place and time.

      It is possible to use drugs responsibly, just as it is possible to drink responsibly. Perhaps if it were decriminalized, more people would do so. And campaigns about responsible drug use could come about, as they have for alcohol.

      • 1539days says:

        The alcohol sellers are the only ones advertising to drink “responsibly.”

        I’m neutral on the legalization thing. Most people think pot is okay. Less people would want to legalize black tar heroin. I just happen to think if you have the right to do something, that doesn’t mean it’s a great idea to do it.

        I also don’t like the “tax the hell out of it” strategy. It does the same thing that the current system does. It encourages crime by letting the government artificially determine the value of a product. The example from my state is cigarettes. All over NY, there are limits on the locations people can smoke, as well as taxes on a pack of cigarettes.

        For example, you can wake up in an apartment building which the landlord has deemed smoke free. That means IN the apartment, too. We have to protect the kids on another floor from second hand smoke. When you drive to work, you may not be able to smoke in your car (there was a trial about that and parental rights). When you get to work, you may not be able to smoke on the premises. You’d have to go across the street on your lunch break, assuming that location isn’t smoke free.

        On the tax side, it can cost something like $6-10 a pack now. The state has figured out smoking is a great source of revenue. They justify it by saying that it’s a way to discourage smoking. The problem is that these high taxes are reducing their overall cigarette revenue, causing budget shortfalls. In many cases, it’s because people are paying up to 50% less at Tribal smoke shops exempt from collecting state taxes.

        Plus, as soon as we legalize pot, some Congressman is going to want subsidies for the growers, like the Virginians have for tobacco.

        • Lola-at-Large says:

          You have several valid points, but to the very first line in your comment, I have to mention MADD. They got the ball rolling with activism over drunk drivers, and that has spawned a conversation about the nature of drinking responsibly. AA also helped with that prior to MADD. So it’s really not just alcohol sellers pushing the idea. It’s something that we, culturally, have decided address and provide pathways for reform.

          FTR, I do not advocate legalizing all drugs. You’re right, I wouldn’t want to legalize black tar heroin, at least not the way our culture, politics, and police are set up now. But that doesn’t mean it has to be all or nothing. People can reasonably use some drugs, just as they reasonably use alcohol. As for the tax, I would be happy to pay a 50% tax in order to be able to legally buy a pack of marijuana cigarettes, and not have to worry about drug testing at work or the judgement of holier-than-thou citizens.

          I understand your points about cigarettes, but as a smoker, I don’t have a problem with reasonable restrictions on where people can smoke, due to the health risks that are well detailed in medical science. I do agree that the restrictions have gone too far when you can’t smoke in your own home or out in the open air. I wonder if, like prohibition, that’s a pendulum swing to excessive reform ahead of more reasonable terms.

        • DeniseVB says:

          Since the smoking population has dwindled we’ve got a whole new health problem…the rise in obesity. I swear, it has a connection.

          I used to order my cigs from the Seneca tribe in upstate NY to support Native Americans, of course 😉 Obama then banned shipping cigarettes (I forgot the details), and really upset the tribe. Me too, because I smoke a premium brand that’s hard to find. It’s about $8 pack, and about $8 in gas to find a store that has them in stock. Probably why I smoke less than 1/2 pack a day …. also, helped me adjust to the restrictions.

          Especially in NYC. I don’t mind smoke free bars and restaurants and other public places, but it was definitely not enforced in Zuccotti Park!

          Maybe I should wait til Tinfoil Tuesday, but I think Big Pharma wants to control our addictions (Nicorette! Chantrix! Xanax! Valium!) and Big Insurance wants us to stay skinny and eat heart healthy (ban salt, ban everything else tasty! Let’s Move! NoKidsFatBehind !). One of these days I’ll trace political contributions to bills written.

          blabbly fingers/off 😀

        • Jadzia says:

          You guys are making me miss smoking for the first time in several months.

        • 1539days says:

          In France? Don’t they all smoke there?

        • Jadzia says:

          Actually they’ve passed laws here kind of like in the U.S.–no smoking in bars, cafes, etc. That said, the law is way ahead of the culture on this one. When I drop the kids off at maternelle in the morning (or go to pick them up in the afternoon), 75% of the moms are smoking! Including the ones who are pushing smaller kids in strollers. And when I went to have the baby (scheduled induction), the smoker right outside the hospital entrance who gave us directions to labor & delivery turned out to be my midwife.

        • Lola-at-Large says:

          Denise, I am going to laugh so righteously if your brand is Merit. Mine is. Very difficult to find…

        • Lola-at-Large says:

          Wow, Jadzia. Smoking midwife. BAND NAME!

          As for your desire, don’t do it! I’ll smoke one for ya. 😀

        • Susan says:

          Why should I be exposed to your second-hand smoke? If you don’t want to rent an apartment in a building that doesn’t allow smoking, don’t rent it. The effects of other people’s smoking cost me a fortune in healthcare costs so, please, tax the hell out of it. Do the same to soda and fast food, both of which I consume. If that convinces me to switch to water and fresh veggies, all the better for me.

        • 1539days says:


          If drinking responsibly means to have a designated driver, then that’s true. I don’t think the act of drinking is a hallmark of responsibility, but the designated driver program has made it easier for people to get wasted and not endanger others, and that’s the most you can ask for.

          And Susan, there are many wonderful socialist democracies out there who can help you control your uncontrollable urges with legislation and social engineering.

        • DeniseVB says:

          Lola – yes Merit !

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