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.

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