The War on Drugs Has Become the War on the American People
by John W. Whitehead
by John W. Whitehead: The
Death Penalty Is a Miscarriage of Justice: It Should Be Abolished
July 29, 2008, my family and I were terrorized by an errant Prince
George's County SWAT team. This unit forced entry into my home without
a proper warrant, executed our beloved black Labradors, Payton and
Chase, and bound and interrogated my mother-in-law and me for hours
as they ransacked our belongings
As I was forced to kneel,
bound at gun point on my living room floor, I recall thinking that
there had been a terrible mistake. However, as I have learned more,
I have to understand that what my family and I experience is part
of a growing and troubling trend where law enforcement is relying
on SWAT teams to perform duties once handled by ordinary police
Mayor Cheye Calvo in testimony before the Maryland Senate
the "damage done by drugs is felt far beyond the millions of
Americans with diagnosable substance abuse or dependence problems,"
President Obama has declared October 2011 to be National Substance
Abuse Prevention Month. However, while drug abuse and drug-related
crimes have unquestionably taken a toll on American families and
communities, the government's own War on Drugs has left indelible
scars on the population.
the Obama administration has shied away from using the phrase "War
on Drugs," its efforts to crack down on illicit drug use
especially marijuana use have not abated. Just consider
every 19 seconds, someone in the U.S. is arrested for violating
a drug law. Every 30 seconds, someone in the U.S. is arrested for
violating a marijuana law, making it the fourth most common cause
of arrest in the United States.
So far this
year, approximately 1,313,673 individuals have been arrested for
drug-related offenses. Police arrested an estimated 858,408 persons
for marijuana violations in 2009. Of those charged with marijuana
violations, approximately 89 percent were charged with possession
only. Moreover, since December 31, 1995, the U.S. prison population
has grown an average of 43,266 inmates per year, with about 25 percent
sentenced for drug law violations.
The foot soldiers
in the government's increasingly fanatical war on drugs, particularly
marijuana, are state and local police officers dressed in SWAT gear
and armed to the hilt. These SWAT teams carry out roughly 50,000
no-knock raids every year in search of illegal drugs and drug paraphernalia.
As author and journalist Radley Balko reports, "The vast majority
of these raids are to serve routine drug warrants, many times for
crimes no more serious than possession of marijuana... Police have
broken down doors, screamed obscenities, and held innocent people
at gunpoint only to discover that what they thought were marijuana
plants were really sunflowers, hibiscus, ragweed, tomatoes, or elderberry
bushes. (It's happened with all five.)"
Take the case
of Philip Cobbs, an unassuming 53-year-old African-American man
who cares for his blind, deaf 90-year-old mother and lives on a
39-acre tract of land that's been in his family since the 1860s.
Cobbs is the latest in a long line of Americans to find themselves
swept up in the government's zealous pursuit of marijuana. On July
26, 2011, while spraying the blueberry bushes near his Virginia
house, Cobbs noticed a black helicopter circling overhead. After
watching the helicopter for several moments, Cobbs went inside to
check on his mother. By the time he returned outside, several unmarked
police SUVs had driven onto his property, and police in flak jackets,
carrying rifles and shouting unintelligibly, had exited the vehicles
and were moving toward him.
officers insisted they had sighted marijuana plants growing on Cobbs'
property (they claimed to find two spindly plants growing in the
wreckage of a fallen oak tree), their real objective was clear
to search Cobbs' little greenhouse, which he had used that spring
to start tomato plants, cantaloupes, and watermelons, as well as
asters and hollyhocks. The search of the greenhouse turned up nothing
more than used tomato seedling containers. Incredibly, police had
not even bothered to secure a warrant before embarking on their
raid of Cobbs' property part of a routine sweep of the countryside
in search of pot-growing operations that had to cost taxpayers upwards
of $25,000, at the very least.
for Cobbs, no one was hurt during the warrantless raid on his property.
However, that is not the case for many Americans who find themselves
on the wrong end of a SWAT team raid in search of marijuana. For
example, on May 5, 2011, a SWAT team kicked open the door of ex-Marine
Jose Guerena's home during a drug raid and opened fire. Thinking
his home was being invaded by criminals, Guerena told his wife and
child to hide in a closet, grabbed a gun and waited in the hallway
to confront the intruders. He never fired his weapon. In fact, the
safety was still on his gun when he was killed. The SWAT officers,
however, not as restrained, fired 70 rounds of ammunition at Guerena
23 of those bullets made contact. Guerena had had no prior
criminal record, and the police found nothing illegal in his home.
Jose Guerena is far from the only innocent casualty in the government's
War on Drugs. Botched SWAT team raids have resulted in the loss
of countless lives, including children and the elderly. Usually,
however, the first to be shot are the family dogs. As Balko reports:
in Fremont, California, raided the home of medical marijuana patient
Robert Filgo, they shot his pet Akita nine times. Filgo himself
was never charged. Last October  police in Alabama raided
a home on suspicion of marijuana possession, shot and killed both
family dogs, then joked about the kill in front of the family.
They seized eight grams of marijuana, equal in weight to a ketchup
packet. In January  a cop en route to a drug raid in Tampa,
Florida, took a short cut across a neighboring lawn and shot the
neighbor's two pooches on his way. And last May , an officer
in Syracuse, New York, squeezed off several shots at a family
dog during a drug raid, one of which ricocheted and struck a 13-year-old
boy in the leg. The boy was handcuffed at gunpoint at the time.
must be done. There was a time when communities would have been
up in arms over a botched SWAT team raid resulting in the loss of
innocent lives. Unfortunately, today, we are increasingly coming
to accept the use of SWAT teams by law enforcement agencies for
routine drug policing and the high incidence of error-related casualties
that accompanies these raids.
the government is providing incentives to the SWAT teams carrying
out these raids through federal grants such as the Edward Byrne
memorial grants and the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS)
grants. As David Borden, the Executive Director of Drug Reform Coordination
Network (DRCNet), pointed out, "The exact details on how Byrne
and COPS grants are distributed has not been studied, at least not
to my knowledge, but an examination of grant applications by one
of my colleagues found that they overwhelmingly focus on the number
of arrests made, particularly drug arrests. Byrne grants also fund
the purchase of equipment for SWAT teams."
while few of these raids even make the news, they are happening
more and more frequently. As Borden notes, "In 1980 there were
fewer than 3,000 reported SWAT raids. Now, the number is believed
to be over 50,000 per year
About 3/4 of these are drug raids,
perhaps more by now, the vast majority of them low-level."
Balko's research reinforces this phenomenon. Based on more than
a year's worth of research and culled only from documented SWAT
team incidents, Balko cites "40 cases in which a completely
innocent person was killed. There are dozens more in which nonviolent
offenders (recreational pot smokers, for example
) or police
officers were needlessly killed. There are nearly 150 cases in which
innocent families, sometimes with children, were roused from their
beds at gunpoint, and subjected to the fright of being apprehended
and thoroughly searched at gunpoint. There are other cases in which
a SWAT team seems wholly inappropriate, such as the apprehension
of medical marijuana patients, many of whom are bedridden."
government's current fanaticism about marijuana, America has not
always been at war over the cannabis plant. In fact, in 1619, all
farmers of the Jamestown colony were required to grow cannabis for
rope and other military purposes. Over the next 200 years, a variety
of laws required hemp harvesting. In some cases, landowners could
be imprisoned for neglecting their duty to grow hemp. Oftentimes,
a surplus of hemp could be used as legal tender, even for paying
taxes. In 1850, there were 8,327 hemp plantations in the U.S.
It was only
later, during the early 20th century, that the government embarked
on an all-out assault on marijuana, largely due to corporate business
considerations that favored the production of cotton over hemp and
racist policies that tied Hispanics and blacks to marijuana use.
For example, even though blacks only account for 15% of the drug
using population (with whites making up a growing part of the market),
the vast majority of drug arrests and convictions affect black drug
users. Incredibly, more than 70% of prisoners convicted of nonviolent
drug offenses are black or Latino.
time has come to put an end to the government's racially-weighted,
militant war on marijuana. It is a failed, costly and misguided
program that has cost the country billions. As critics rightly point
out, the war on marijuana has also resulted in a massive increase
in incarceration rates. According to Joe Klein, writing for Time,
"We spend $68 billion per year on corrections, and one-third
of those being corrected are serving time for nonviolent drug crimes.
We spend about $150 billion on policing and courts, and 47.5% of
all drug arrests are marijuana-related."
the government's War on Drugs seems to have actually exacerbated
the drug problems in this country, funding criminal syndicates and
failing to restrict its availability or discourage its use. Indeed,
the National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed that as recently
as 2005, 58% of the public found marijuana readily available, with
50% of 12 to 17 year olds declaring it easy to get.
A growing number
of legal scholars, including Bruce Fein, who served as a high-ranking
Justice Department official during the Reagan administration, are
calling to end the prohibition on marijuana and treat it like alcohol
by regulating and taxing it at the state level. Their rationale
is that instead of allowing marijuana to flourish as a profitable
black market crop, it should be taxed and regulated in a manner
similar to tobacco and alcohol, which many in the medical community
believe to be far more harmful than marijuana. Not only would that
lessen violent criminal activity associated with the manufacture
and sale of marijuana, but it would also provide an economic boost
to ailing state and federal coffers. As it now stands, marijuana
is the United States' largest cash crop (it brought in an estimated
$35 billion in 2005), with a third of this production coming from
California where it is the state's largest cash crop.
500 economists led by Nobel Laureate George Akerlof, Daron Acemoglu
of MIT, and Howard Margolis of the University of Chicago, signed
an open letter to the President, Congress, State Governors, and
State Legislatures expounding the immense economic benefits of legalization.
They pointed out that if marijuana sales were taxed at the same
level as cigarettes and alcohol, the government would make up to
$6.2 billion annually. Additionally, a repeal of the prohibition
of marijuana would save federal, state, and local governments an
estimated $7.7 billion annually by ending the need for enforcement
of drug laws.
the medical benefits of marijuana, especially for those who suffer
from Alzheimer's, HIV/AIDS, and multiple sclerosis, 16 states as
well as the District of Columbia have also legalized it for medicinal
purposes. Most recently, the California Medical Association, which
represents more than 35,000 physicians statewide, called for the
legalization and regulation of the plant.
the special interests have a lot to say in these matters, and it's
particularly telling that those lobbying hard to keep the prohibition
on marijuana include law enforcement officials and alcoholic beverage
producers. However, when the war on drugs a.k.a. the war
on the American people becomes little more than a thinly
veiled attempt to keep SWAT teams employed and special interests
appeased, it's time to revisit our drug policies and laws. As Professors
Eric Blumenson and Eva Nilson recognize:
25 years of its existence, the "War on Drugs" has transformed
the criminal justice system, to the point where the imperatives
of drug law enforcement now drive many of the broader legislative,
law enforcement, and corrections policies in counterproductive
ways. One significant impetus for this transformation has been
the enactment of forfeiture laws which allow law enforcement agencies
to keep the lion's share of the drug-related assets they seize.
Another has been the federal law enforcement aid program, revised
a decade ago to focus on assisting state anti-drug efforts. Collectively
these financial incentives have left many law enforcement agencies
dependent on drug law enforcement to meet their budgetary requirements,
at the expense of alternative goals such as the investigation
and prosecution of non-drug crimes, crime prevention strategies,
and drug education and treatment.
attorney and author John W. Whitehead [send
him mail] is founder and president of The
Rutherford Institute. He is the author of The
Change Manifesto (Sourcebooks).
© 2011 The Rutherford Institute
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