Drugs: a war lost and a way forward

A former Deputy Chief of the LAPD explains how prohibition has failed again, and offers 10 concrete ways of improving US drug policing.

Stephen Downing
12 September 2013

“Prohibition will work great injury to the cause of temperance.  It is a species of intemperance within itself, for it goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man’s appetite by legislation, and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes.  A prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded.” (Abraham Lincoln, Illinois House of Representatives, December 18, 1840) 

August Vollmer, a former LAPD chief who became known as the father of professional policing, has always been a role model of mine. He was the ninth president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the primary author of the Wickersham Commission report, the document that advanced the primary changes that brought an end to the prohibition of alcohol.


August Vollmer. Wikipedia/US Library of Congress. Public domain.

Vollmer’s report concluded that the prohibition of alcohol gave birth to organized crime, the corruption of law enforcement and our political institutions across the nation, as well as the highest rates of violence in the history of the United States.  He believed the same was true of police involvement with the problem of drug addiction. According to Vollmer, the enforcement of moralistic vice laws leads to police corruption and “engenders disrespect both for law and for the agents of law enforcement”. 

I commanded the narcotics enforcement effort for the LAPD shortly after President Nixon declared the war on drugs.  My experience on the front lines of the drug war has led me to see a similar corruption of our institutions to that predicted by Lincoln in 1840 and witnessed by Vollmer in 1929.  The only difference is that today’s flow of federal dollars to our institutions and the private sector that supports them is perfectly legal, though just as corrupting. 

When I began the LAPD drug enforcement mission 40 years ago the strategy was to disband the drug organizations, minimize the flow of drugs into the country and reduce drug addiction, the very same goals that remain in place today.  After several years of trying I realized that our failure to accomplish those goals was not due to incompetence on my part as a police executive, but rather a policy failure.  Today, it is even more evident that as long as drugs remain illegal, they will also continue to be highly profitable, and these goals will continue to elude us.  

Since the 1980s, when President Reagan began to pour billions into the drug war, the social damage has proliferated beyond all reason. Drug arrests, asset seizures, federal task forces and government grants have grown to divert even more local police resources away from public safety while the gangsterism, high rates of violence and economic costs (comparable to the conditions that established the Wickersham Commission and the end of alcohol prohibition) have once again spread across the globe with a destructive force a thousand times greater than that experienced in the 1920s and early 1930s. 

In my time there were three or four local neighborhood gangs, prison gangs were unheard of and the cartels were shadows somewhere in Latin America. Today there are 33,000 street and prison gangs with a membership of 1,500,000, and the cartels control drug distribution in 1,000 American cities. Not to mention the 60,000 murdered and 20,000 disappeared in Mexico in just the last five years. Meanwhile, drug seizures continue to grow, gun running now involves thousands of war-level weapons, money laundering linked to our corrupted banking institutions is in the billions, private corporations are feeding at the drug trough and violence continues to escalate while government drug money continues to undermine local law enforcement’s commitment to public safety and its social contract with its communities.

Police organizations have become increasingly militarized and our peace officers have become drug warriors focused on making greater numbers of street level drug arrests, a practice that is the greatest contributor to racial profiling. This observation is supported by the statistical fact that while the majority of drug offenders are white, the majority of those arrested, sentenced to jail and prison are black and brown. The 43 million drug arrests made in our country over the past 40 years have thus served to produce a new caste system that has racial profiling at its core.

Extrapolate just one of the alarming facts found in Michele Alexander’s outstanding book examining the war on drugs, The New Jim Crow, to the rest of the nation:

“The impact of this new caste system is most tragically felt among the young.  In Chicago (as in other cities across the United States), young black men are more likely to go to prison than to college.  As of June 2001, there were nearly 20,000 more black men in the Illinois state prison system than enrolled in the state’s public universities. In fact, there were more black men in the state’s correctional facilities that year just on drug charges than the total number of black men enrolled in undergraduate degree programs in state universities.  To put the crisis in even sharper focus, consider this: just 992 black men received a bachelor’s degree from Illinois state universities in 1999, while roughly 7,000 black men were released from the state prison system the following year just for drug offenses.” (My bold.) 

And all of those men will carry the scarlet letter that we call a felony conviction for the rest of their lives.

This past year President Obama correctly stated that drug abuse is a health and education problem, but he has not modified the federal budget to treat it as a health and education problem. The criminal justice system continues to be the major benefactor of government drug money and people of color continue to be its primary target.  No other health and education problem – like the use of tobacco and alcohol for example -  receives similar treatment from our government. 

We need to end the prohibition of drugs with a tight system of government regulation and control that will effectively cripple the violent cartels and street dealers who control the illegal market, and put in place a system that treats drug abuse as a public health and education issue.

If such a system were in place, the cartel-supported gangbanger-pushers would be denied a product to push, there would be fewer guns on the streets, less attraction to gang membership, and a regulated marketplace that requires labeling and identification to purchase a product intended for adult consumption would replace the illegal market.  

Under a system of regulation and control, our communities would heal: the mass incarceration of people of color would shrink; more  fathers would be around for their kids; fewer children would be sent to foster homes; education would replace arrest; treatment would supplant jail and the brand of “felon”; the arms race between the police, gangs and cartels would abate; and “profiling” by our police officers would be replaced by probable cause based upon reasonable suspicion.

Local law enforcement organizations should set aside their dependence upon federal money and renew the social contract with their communities by acknowledging the harms of the drug war and declaring its failure.  And, until the laws are changed to end prohibition altogether, a declaration by local police chiefs and sheriffs can provide an important, credible catalyst to help move the country toward a goal of ending the prohibition of drugs.  

To establish better community relations and eliminate racial profiling, policy adjustments in several areas could reduce the mass incarceration of drug users and improve public safety until such time that our policy makers wake up and end the prohibition of drugs.  

An interim 10 point policy program for local law enforcement should include:

  1. Make street level drug arrests the lowest enforcement priority.
  2. Prohibit arrest quota management practices and reward systems for low level misdemeanor and felony drug arrests.
  3. Establish “consent search” policies that prohibit fishing expeditions and unreasonable detentions.
  4. Make money laundering, prosecution of bankers and seizures of cash leaving the country the highest drug enforcement priority, both through local investigations and work with the federal task forces. (Economists have stated that a 30% cut in cartel cash flow would put them out of business, as it would any business).
  5. Audit the frequency of property crimes in selected neighborhoods prior and subsequent to all drug enforcement raids (including those by the DEA)  to measure the impact upon public safety.
  6. Audit police laboratory workload as it relates to drug testing and its impact upon laboratory resources serving crimes against persons and property, with a special focus upon the backlogs experienced with rape kit testing, crime scene forensics and fingerprint examinations.
  7. Recognize the sovereignty  of the people and state under the Constitution by prohibiting the use of local police resources to “partner” with the federal government in their assault on legal medical marijuana and recreational drug dispensaries.
  8. Decline to participate in the federal government’s “Equitable Sharing” program, which promotes a lower threshold of proof than that required by asset seizure laws in most states and encourages the corrupting practice of “policing for profit.”
  9. Audit the expenditure of city funds used to support membership in professional law enforcement organizations that support goals and lobbying activity contrary to the mission, goals, ethics and policies of the police department.
  10. Review and audit all federal drug enforcement grants and determine if the “strings” attached are consistent with the mission, goals, ethics and code of conduct of local law enforcement.

While implementation of all these policies would help place local law enforcement back on the road to a more trusted and effective relationship with their communities and reduce many of the harms associated with drug prohibition, none will solve the violence and social devastation of the drug war.  Only a well-informed society using evidence based, courageous leadership, like that provided by August Vollmer with the Wickersham Commission report, will achieve that end.

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