Drug War Creates Distrust Between Cops and Communities

The 40-year-old "war on drugs" and the criminalization of addiction have placed communities at odds with law enforcement, prosecutors and courts -- to the detriment of justice and respect for the rule of law. The violence driven by the astronomical profits of the illicit drug market and the life-long collateral consequences for those snared by drug laws will continue to exile generations from the mainstream.

It might be surprising to hear this from a cop like me, but the solution to our current human rights crisis will ultimately require the legalization and regulation of current illicit drugs.

I retired from a rewarding career with the Maryland State Police in 2007, and since then have had the honor of working as a lawyer and educator in Baltimore, largely in communities composed of people of color. One of the most heartbreaking things to witness - as both a law enforcement officer and a legal educator -- is a "contempt of cop" culture held by many people living in poor and blighted communities. As a police officer I understood that some people dislike the police. As a lawyer I have witnessed a generational feedback loop within communities of color that perpetuates fear, distrust and hatred for the police officers charged with protecting their communities and maintaining order.

This contempt is grounded in the failure of criminal justice system leaders to effectively screen and manage cases to ensure the fair enforcement of laws and distribution of police services in all neighborhoods -- regardless of the socioeconomic and racial demographics. It is also informed by our nation's long history of racial tension and violence between police and minority communities.

But nowhere is the racial disparity more glaring than in the enforcement of drug laws. The rates of illicit drug usage in America by race and zip code do not reflect the criminal engagement and prosecution rates. In fact, black and brown people in this country are being disproportionately impacted by our criminal drug laws and what has evolved into an incarceration and penal model of social control. Meanwhile, affluent whites are afforded the privilege of handling substance abuse as a family and health issue, often covered by insurance.

On the other end of this disconnect between the police and the community is an equally troubling "contempt of community" culture emanating from law enforcement. Police, as a group, have become increasingly jaded about the prospects of effective policing in impoverished communities riddled with the violence and disorder associated with the business of the illicit drug trade.

The violence surrounding the enforcement of drug laws leaves community members and law enforcement fearful for their personal safety. It is natural for officers working on the front lines of the drug war to be impacted by the fact that the colleagues they work with oftentimes become arbitrary casualties. The trauma and fear associated with that reality reverberates through every relationship, every conversation and every decision the police make.

The laws, policies and procedures driving the unjust and uneven enforcement of our drug laws must be challenged and reformed. The drug laws the police and prosecutors are sworn to uphold are immoral and have eroded fairness in the justice system and undermined the rule of law.

The "contempt of community" and "contempt of cop" speak volumes about the abject failure of our contemporary justice system to deal with drugs and the illicit drug economy. If you have not observed court dockets in action and you care about access to justice issues, go and watch. The court system, particularly in the metro areas, is completely overwhelmed, and no one is getting real justice. Not the victims. Not the government. Not the community. Not the accused.

The question our society now faces is how to end prohibition and the criminal enforcement scheme without causing more harm. A logical frame is to pilot a legal drug enclave within a bounded jurisdiction where business and religious leaders, police, prosecutors, defenders, courts, community, youth and private and public health officials work collaboratively with addicts to create both time, place and manner restrictions and effective education and prevention campaigns. Simultaneously, social pacts will have to be formed with drug cartels, local gangs and the federal government to support the overarching goal of drug legalization, which is violence reduction.

The legalization of drugs, reinvestment in pillaged communities and implementation of a thoughtful regulatory scheme for the manufacture, delivery and distribution of all currently illicit drugs will remove the profit, the violence and the systemic racism inherently linked to our criminal drug laws. The time to act is now. Justice and respect for human rights demand transformative change.

The author is a retired captain with the Maryland State Police, a professor with the University of Maryland, School of Law and executive board member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (www.CopsSayLegalizeDrugs.com).