The drug war evaluated

By J. Bradley Jansen
web posted April 23, 2001

Beginning with a section of the Comprehensive Crime Act of 1984, the marginal incentive for police shifted from protecting and serving to shaking down citizens for cash. Our country would be better served by returning to respect for our traditional rights and liberties.

Civil asset forfeitures mean that there is not a criminal offense-that would make it criminal asset forfeiture. Why are cops taking peoples' money, usually without even charging them with a crime? What happened to innocent until proven guilty and respect for property rights?

After the 1984 change in policy, local police departments augmented their own budgets by circumventing state laws. State laws earmarked confiscated funds for specific purposes usually local schools. Federal law enforcement policies encouraged casting a wider net: by using the federal statute, local cops could do more than confiscate people's money - they could also take people's homes. Only seven states had permitted the confiscation of real estate in civil asset forfeiture. Additionally, landlords could lose their apartments if police merely allege that renters even possessed an illegal substance.

Studies' evidence indicates that many law enforcement bureaucracies created misinformation in order to exaggerate the potential benefits of a drug war ("The Market for Heroin before and after Legalization," by Robert Michaels in 1987). Former police Chief Joseph McNamara has come to believe that hundreds of thousands of law-enforcement officers commit felony perjury every year testifying about drug arrests.

Other studies suggest that law enforcement's resources are being diverted away from crimes against persons and property. From 1970 to 1984, drug arrests relative to murder, manslaughter, sexual assault, assault, robbery, burglary, larceny and auto theft were relatively constant. Since the change giving police bureaucracies a financial incentive to pursue drug offenses rather than crimes against people and property, the allocation of police resources has shifted to drug crimes ("Predatory Public Finance and the Origins of the War on Drugs 1984-1989," by Bruce L. Benson and David W. Rasmussen, The Independent Review, Fall 1996).

Our streets are less safe with cops wasting precious resources chasing alleged drug users rather than spending their time and our money going after murderers, rapists, robbers, burglars and other violent offenders. Mandatory minimums fill prisons with non-violent drug offenders and force wardens to free violent convicts in order to free up space.

The war on drugs extends to financial regulations such as the infamous Know Your Customer proposal and the Bank Secrecy Act. These regulations require banks to spy on their customers for the benefit of law enforcement and possibly make decisions based racial and ethnic notations. Colombian? Nigerian? It's better for the bank teller to protect herself from overzealous regulators by filing frivolous "Suspicious Activity Reports."

This policy undermines public confidence in both the financial institutions and the police. Proposals to extend these spying mandates for law enforcement to lawyers and accounts will only exacerbate these tensions.

We must look at the racial consequences of our policies: Disproportionate sentences based on type of drug injection that are more likely to lengthen sentences of blacks; Drug Enforcement Agency racial profiling seminars; racist drug courier profiles used by U.S. Customs, etc. The effects of these policies are seen in the environment that manifested itself in race riots in my hometown, Cincinnati.

Driving home from visiting for Easter, my (white) brother was pulled over outside Cincinnati because of a warrant for a traffic violation-an erroneous warrant, actually. Fortunately, my (white) brother did not have much of a problem. Unfortunately, many others have reason to feel less trusting of the police. We need to re-evaluate our drug war policies. We could start by respecting states' rights and getting the Federal government out of a war on its own citizens that has worked and is not going to work.

Buy After Prohibition: An Adult Approach to Drug Policies in the 21st Century, published by the Cato Institute for only $15.16 in hardcover or $8.95 in paperback

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • Monday I join the Republicans by Jack J. Woehr (March 5, 2001)
    Fed up with hypocrisy on the drug war, life-long Democrat Jack J. Woehr says he's joining the Republicans. Their leadership may not be much better than that of the Democrats, but in Colorado there isn't that much choice
  • Drug war very effective -- at bloating police, prison 'industries' by Vin Suprynowicz (February 19, 2001)
    If the drug war is good at one thing, writes Vin Suprynowicz, it's job creation
  • It's time to legalize drugs by Gary E. Johnson (February 5, 2001)
    New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson makes his case that the war on drugs has been lost and it's time to reassess the situation in this excerpt from After Prohibition: An Adult Approach to Drug Policies in the 21st Century

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