Untitled Document

Untitled Document

It's Time to Rethink Drug War Strategy

Thu, 03 Oct 2002 - Detroit News (MI)
Copyright: 2002 Jerry A. Oliver
Contact: letters@detnews.com - 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 advancing.

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 justice systems.

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.

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