No Comment — May 13, 2010, 2:08 pm

Is Reason Winning the War on Drugs?

Libertarians argue that the criminalization of recreational drugs like marijuana cannot be justified in a society that legalizes alcohol and tobacco and relies extravagantly on commercial pharmaceuticals. They also argue that enforcing this prohibition has a net negative impact on society. They have built a formidable case and appear to be steadily winning support—current polling data suggests that a majority of those under 49 favor decriminalization, and an overall majority will emerge in favor in the near future.

No writer has made stronger contributions to this debate than Radley Balko, who has paid special attention to police violence in the war on drugs. Balko has recently posted a must-see video of a raid by a drug enforcement unit in Columbia, Missouri (posted below for ease of access). Here’s Balko’s description of what happened:

On February 11, the Columbia, Missouri, police department’s SWAT team served a drug warrant at the home of Jonathan Whitworth and Brittany Montgomery. Police say that eight days earlier they had received a tip from a confidential informant that Whitworth had a large supply of marijuana in his home. They say they first conducted a trash pull, and found marijuana residue in the family’s garbage. During the raid, police shot and killed the family’s pit bull. At least one bullet ricocheted, injuring the family’s pet corgi. Whitworth, Montgomery, and their 7-year-old son were at home at the time. The incident was written up in the Columbia Daily Tribune, noted on a few blogs that cover drug policy (including a post I put up here at Reason), and then largely forgotten for several weeks.

On April 28, I received an email from Montgomery. She had seen my post at Reason and read an account of some of my reporting on SWAT teams published in Reader’s Digest. She said she was reading to her son in his bedroom at the time of the raid. Her husband had just returned home from work. Police fired on their pets within seconds of entering the home. “I’ve never felt so violated or more victimized in my life,” Montgomery wrote. “It’s absolutely the most helpless and hopeless feeling I could ever imagine. I can’t sleep right … and I am constantly paranoid. It’s a horrible feeling… to lose the safety and security I thought I was entitled to in my own home. Nobody protected us that night, my son and I were locked in the back of a police car for nearly four hours on a school night while they destroyed my home.”

Raids like this one have occurred thousands of times across the country. Indeed, the only thing that’s unusual about this raid, as Balko notes, is the fact that every embarrassing minute of it was captured on video that the police themselves took. Balko’s superb book Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America systematically documents and catalogues the cases.

Another work that makes the case effectively is Bill Haney’s film American Violet, which was released one year ago but lamentably drew little attention. It tells the story of a twenty-four-year-old African-American mother of four whose life is turned on its head when she is caught up in a similarly absurd drug raid. The film offers an inside look at the American criminal justice system and shows how the tremendous power it vests in prosecutors can be horribly abused. It is based on events that actually occurred in Hearne, Texas, in the fall of 2000—one of a great number of “anti-drug” campaigns in Texas that were used as cover for racist harassment. While these campaigns were raging, George W. Bush was governor of Texas and John Cornyn was the state’s attorney general. Both distinguished themselves by their abject indifference to the abuse.

Law-enforcement officers visit high-school civics classes around the country giving anti-drug talks and describing the campaign they wage in the war on drugs. It would be appropriate to show all those graduating high-school seniors the tape of the raid in Columbia, Missouri, or ask them to watch and give their reactions to American Violet, because the issues raised are far more complex than that typical police lecture supposes. Moreover, as Gideon Lewis-Kraus noted in the October issue, many of the factual premises advanced in support of the war on drugs simply don’t stand up to scrutiny. Balko and his allies have won this battle, largely by demonstrating how this prohibition has been abused and corrupted by law enforcement. America’s ready for a second end to prohibition.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2016

With Child

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Standing Rock Speaks

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Prose by Any Other Name

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The New Red Scare

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Separated at Birth

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Priest in the Trees

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
With Child·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. 'Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.'"
Photograph (detail) by Lara Shipley
Article
Swat Team·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"As we shall see, for the sort of people who write and edit the opinion pages of the Post, there was something deeply threatening about Sanders and his political views."
Illustration (detail) by John Ritter
Article
Escape from The Caliphate·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"When Matti invited me on a tour of the neighborhood, I asked about security. 'The message has already been passed to ISIS that you’re here,' he said. 'But don’t worry. I guarantee I could bring even you in and out of the Islamic State.'"
Photograph (detail) by Alice Martins
Article
In This One·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. 'Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.'"
Illustration (detail) by Shonagh Rae
Article
“Don’t Touch My Medicare!”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Medicare’s popularity, however, comes with almost no understanding of what the program is and how it works."
Illustration (detail) by Nate Kitch

Rank of Richard Nixon masks among the top U.S. costumer’s best-selling political masks over the last five years:

1

A small meteorite injured an adolescent German.

It was reported that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called Trump to discuss issues relating to women and families, and Trump handed the phone to his daughter.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Who Goes Nazi?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."

Subscribe Today