It's Time to Rethink Drug War Strategy
Thu, 03 Oct 2002 - Detroit News (MI)
Copyright: 2002 Jerry A. Oliver
- Website: http://www.detnews.com/
Author: Jerry A. Oliver, chief of police for Detroit
With each passing year, evidence mounts that America is sadly
losing the war on drugs-not to drug cartels or drug traffickers
over there, but to the dependably relentless appetite for illegal
drugs created by our neighbors right here at home. Eighty-six
years after Congress passed the 1914 Harrison Act that criminalized
drugs, America's drug consumption thrives.
According to recent surveys and news reports, illegal drugs
are cheaper, purer and more available than ever before, and the
results are devastating.
Still, our national drug war strategy calls for an even greater
police presence in our nation's streets and public spaces. Drug-law
enforcement, however, is at best a very difficult proposition
at all levels. Drug law violations are generally consensual.
In almost every case, willing buyers and motivated sellers participate
secretly in this highly profitable criminalized industry.
I am concerned that for good, hard-working police officers-federal
or otherwise-to do their jobs, they must snoop, spy, sniff, sneak
and covertly surveil to snag drugs, drug traffickers or drug
users. Most of the snooping, sneaking and snagging is done primarily
by using informants-people who use their own criminal status
or position to gain some benefit from the police by trading information.
It is a dangerous, dirty business, chock full of espionage,
deceit, lies and double-crosses. I am concerned about what this
side of the police business is doing to other sides of our profession
ethically and morally.
We need only to look at the Los Angeles Police Department's
widely reported Rampart Division scandal, in which some police
officers stole money and drugs, and planted evidence, for a salient
recent example of drug law enforcement gone awry. We put our
integrity, hard-earned community trust and credibility at risk
when police stoop to snagging fellow, otherwise law-abiding Americans
over drugs in ways that we do in our current strategy.
I am concerned about the billions of dollars spent every year
by our nation's police in attempting to eradicate or intercept
illegal drug shipments to our country. These billions might be
better spent on demand reduction, prevention, treatment, education,
community-building and supporting families. Federal agencies
spend countless hours tracking planes, boats, trains and other
vehicles transporting cocaine, heroin and marijuana earmarked
for the U.S. market. These agencies and others have scored many
widely publicized successes in detection, eradication, seizures
and arrests both in foreign countries and within our borders.
However in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, traffickers
have become more brazen in the quantity, more creative in the
route and more determined than ever to match their supply with
America's demand. The United Nations estimates that illegal drugs
generate $400 billion a year in revenue and comprise 8 percent
of all global trade. America is, by far, the largest consumer.
This year, seizures off the Florida coast on Feb. 11 and 12 yielded
15.8 tons of cocaine. From Feb. 21 through 25, the U.S. Coast
Guard seized 28,845 pounds of cocaine, about the same amount
it captured in all 1996.
Several years ago, drug agents in Los Angeles seized nearly
29 tons of cocaine and more than $10 million in cash in what
was called at the time the largest drug haul in history with
street values estimated at up to $20 billion.
During the weeks after these massive seizures, the price of
cocaine in the United States was unaffected. This draws the inevitable
conclusion that our nation is so saturated with stockpiles, clandestine
labs and trafficking arteries that these celebrated seizures
were really a mere drop in the proverbial bucket.
I am also concerned about the "business" of drug-crime
incarcerations in our country. It really is big business, composed
of hundreds of thousands of law-enforcement and prison officials,
drug courts, private and public prisons, anti-drug organizations,
drug-testing labs, clearing houses and many others who benefit
economically and politically from this ever-growing bounty.
Our lock-ups at all levels are fuller today than ever before.
In 1980, approximately 50,000 people were behind bars for violating
drug laws. Today, because of aggressive policing, prosecution
and mandatory sentences, that number has surpassed 500,000 and
Warehousing people, many of them who are black like me, is
one of the fastest growing and most profitable businesses in
our country-all supported by our taxpayer dollars.
So, contrary to what our national law enforcement leaders
are saying, our drug enforcement strategy and our punitive prohibition-based
efforts are failing. Former Secretary of State George Shultz
said some time ago that any real and lasting change that occurs
in a democratic society is done through education and persuasion
and not through coercion and force. Perhaps it's time to heed
his sage advice and search for alternative approaches to our
drug-control strategies that will be more effective, fair and
humane in reducing drug usage and drug dependency. A policy that
will emphasize treatment, prevention and education, and that
will rely on our social and health systems more than on our criminal
I am certainly not advocating legalizing substance abuse or
decriminalization of drug laws. I am calling for more imagination
in the process, more truth about our prognosis and more options
in our efforts to more effectively address this problem.
A growing number of thoughtful Americans across the political
spectrum have strong doubts about the efficacy of the current
drug war, its costs, its true impact and its future consequences.
They want to rethink our direction and possibilities. As a police
chief on the front line, quite frankly I'm one of them.