Daniel Chong, an engineering student at the University of California at San Diego, went to a 4/20 party thrown by some friends. He got stoned, fell asleep, and was still present the following morning when agents of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration stormed the house. Although it was clear that Chong had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time, the DEA threw him into a cell. Then they forgot about him, leaving him without food or water for four days:
Mr. Chong was left alone in the 5-by-10-foot holding cell, with no food, no sink and no toilet—only a blanket. He said he could hear footsteps as agents walked by, other cell doors opening and toilets flushing. He kicked the door, screaming for water. But no one came. After the first two days, Mr. Chong said, he began to hallucinate, imagining “little Japanese cartoon characters telling me what to do.” He clawed at the walls, convinced that they contained messages about where to find water.
Three times he drank his own urine. The only sustenance he had, he said, was a packet of white powder that he found wrapped in the blanket, which turned out to be methamphetamine. On the fourth day, he said, the lights in the cell went out. Eventually, his hands still cuffed behind his back, he broke his eyeglasses with his teeth, as he contemplated killing himself. On his arm, he tried to carve a message: “Sorry Mom.” He also swallowed a piece of the glass, which cut his esophagus.
The DEA’s special agent in charge in San Diego extended his apologies to Chong, but Chong hired an attorney and is now seeking $20 million in damages. The incident vividly sums up many of the severe flaws in judgment traditionally exhibited by the agency, which routinely tramples on the civil rights of its victims. It also tends to resort quickly to extreme violence, including the use of lethal force on suspects—and recently (and bizarrely) on pets.
The DEA and its local-law-enforcement imitators love to consider their work as military in nature, frequently using war analogies when discussing their operations. However, they don’t follow the basic rules of respect for civilians that lie at the heart of the laws of war. Drug cops have flooded American prisons with small-time users, giving the country one of the largest per-capita prison populations on the planet. And for all of that, law-enforcement officials appear to have succeeded more in transforming the drug trade into a massive, organized criminal operation than in effectively combating it.
The agency and its strategies, which together comprise America’s second effort at prohibition, may be the most completely failed ideas that the Seventies brought to America. Yet the American political sector seems incapable of accepting the now-plentiful evidence of their failure. The DEA has about 11,000 employees and a budget of about $2.5 billion dollars. Members of Congress looking for fat to trim from federal expenditures ought to be taking a close look at the agency. Its value-to-damage ratio is likely the worst in our entire government.