The New York Times recently delivered an extraordinary investigative journalism report depicting how our country’s continued romance with waging war on drugs has taken on a local and chilling nature.
The “War on Drugs” in this country dates back a long time, but was popularized by Richard Nixon, and then amplified by Ronald Reagan. The utter failure for decades of border interdiction and crop eradication coupled with alienating neighborhoods with ‘buy and bust’ tactics (which have had no more of a momentary effect and have led to more juveniles being ‘employed’ in drug dealing to elude jail sentences) has had next to no impact in foregoing these wasteful and hugely expensive efforts, which of course disproportionately affect those living in poverty and people of color. These are supply-side drug control efforts, which endure despite their damage and profound inutility.
Instead, ‘Gung Ho!’ has trumped a host of effective prevention and treatment strategies for drug use and dependence. The militant approach to limiting supplies of illegal drugs is estimated to cost $100 billion/year globally, one fifth of that in the United States (see Richard Branson’s Ending The War On Drugs, Virgin Books, London, 2016). Demand side approaches, of reducing use and thus purchases, have been lost in the fog of war.
And as we witness a mounting ethos of military ‘solutions’ to social problems emanating today from Washington, D.C., we are likely to see even more useless and dangerous pursuits ahead, not just abroad but in your neighborhood and mine.
The Times reported that from 2010 - 2016 there were at least 81 civilians and 13 law enforcement officers who died in what are called “dynamic entry”, “no knock” raids. Reportedly, as well, scores of people, civilians and officers, were wounded. So many of these assaults, which rival counter-terror raids in their violence, have resulted in avoidable casualties and deaths, widespread trauma among those raided – as well as neighbors and law enforcement alike, extensive property damage, and a spate of legal settlements costing many millions of taxpayer dollars.
In a great many instances, no drugs were found. Instead, with 40% of adults in the US owning guns, deadly firefights have ensued as a result of the homeowner taking up arms for protection, not knowing who was breaking down their door. A 26 year old Hispanic former Marine was fatally shot 20 times in 2013 at his Tucson home after agents broke down his door and he rallied to protect himself; no drugs were found.
The American Civil Liberties Union concluded in a recent study of 20 cities that 42 percent of those subjected to SWAT search warrant raids were black and 12 percent Hispanic. Of the 81 civilian deaths tallied by The Times, half were members of minority groups.
The zeal for combat has also extended beyond illegal drugs, with injurious and fatal raids on suspected poker games, moonshine and even complaints of neglecting pets. One Indiana raid the Times reported involved a mother and adolescent daughter whose wireless had been pirated and used to make police threats, resulting in the bashing of their door and their being cuffed in plain view of the neighbors. Scores of raids have been on innocent citizens, and have yielded no contraband.
This increasingly aggressive approach to drugs in America has been enabled by a program instituted by the US Defense Department called the “excess property program”. Since 1997, the DoD has distributed to local police and sheriffs in excess of $6 billion in military vehicles, weapons and other agents of war. When a war mentality prevails, then advanced weaponry is not only desired, it is rapidly and commonly employed. When SWAT teams are dispatched to presumed drug dealing sites, they are in full military attire, and equipped with machine guns, high caliber handguns, and powerful flash and incendiary grenades, one of which was lobbed in 2014 into a Georgia home on the basis of misinformation about drug dealing and landed in a 19 month old child’s playpen - with the boy sleeping there. He is still alive, several years later after 15 surgeries.
The progression in violent raids also has been fostered by a 2003 Supreme Court ruling, which "... affirmed the right of officers to break into a residence with a standard warrant after knocking and waiting only 15 to 20 seconds." Law and order, even ill-begotten, could eclipse civil liberties. Only Oregon does not permit “no-knock” entries; the Florida Supreme Court has disallowed warrants for “no-knock” police approaches. And in a state of reason, the Utah Legislature in 2015 banned forcible entry when drugs are the only suspected offense. There can be no safe zone, no safe home, once law enforcement can (many times with limited or erroneous information) storm your home as if you were making bombs, instead of baking cookies. That's the moral we can take from the NYT story.
The further tragedy of it all is that weapons not wisdom are driving drug policy in this country. The colossal expenses and damages and the endless failures of supply-side drug control efforts dating back well before Prohibition notwithstanding, we cannot seem to see what can save our country, which is in the midst of a growing and deadly opioid epidemic (on top of pervasive problems with alcohol, tobacco and psychostimulants). We are losing the War on Drugs, mainly because we keep viewing it as a war instead of attacking drug use and abuse as public health and societal problems.
Dr. Lloyd Sederer is a psychiatrist and public health doctor. The opinions offered here are entirely his own.
His latest books are Improving Mental Health; Four Secrets in Plain Sight (2017) and Controversies in Mental Health and the Addictions (2017). His next book on drugs in America will be published by Scribner (Simon & Schuster) in early 2018.
Twitter - @askdrlloyd
Website - www.askdrlloyd.com