Battlefield Conversions

Reason talks with three ex-warriors who now fight against the War on Drugs

Like any war, the War on Drugs has its good soldiers -- a varied bunch, coming from all walks of life and filling all ranks. They include eager volunteers, from the drug czars at the top of the command chain to the beat cops, Drug Enforcement Administration and Customs Service agents out in the field. The war also has reluctant conscripts, such as state and federal judges compelled by mandatory minimum sentencing rules to enforce laws that many see as counterproductive and unjust.

Increasingly, the War on Drugs also has what its partisans might consider traitors -- former soldiers who have become convinced that U.S. drug policy is ineffective, immoral, or some combination of the two. Reason National Correspondent Michael W. Lynch recently spoke with three such figures who were once integral cogs in the drug war machine.

The Cop: Joseph D. McNamara

Joseph D. McNamara started out as a grunt in America's battle against drugs. "It was sort of like the body count in Vietnam," says McNamara about the petty arrests for heroin he made as a Harlem beat cop in the late 1950s. "The department loved to count these drug arrests and release statistics to show we were winning the war." In 1969, he spent a year as a criminal justice fellow at Harvard Law School. Eventually, he ended up earning a Ph.D. in public administration. "I wrote my dissertation in 1973 and predicted the escalation and failure of the drug war -- and the vast corruption and violence that would follow," recalls McNamara. "I never published it because I wanted a police career and not an academic career."

That's exactly what he got. He served as chief of police in Kansas City from 1973 to 1976. In the bicentennial year, he moved on to become the top cop in San Jose, California, a post he held until he retired in 1991. He currently hangs his hat at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, where he conducts seminars on the War on Drugs for law enforcement officials. The author of six books, including the drug war detective novel Code 211 Blue, the 66-year-old McNamara is working on a new book titled Gangster Cops: The Hidden Cost of America's War on Drugs.

Reason: How did you get involved in what is now called the War on Drugs?

Joseph D. McNamara: I got involved as a foot patrolman in Harlem way back in 1957. A few years later the heroin epidemic swept through Harlem and was devastating. And so the police did what the police do: We arrested everyone in sight. It soon became apparent that it wasn't reducing drug use or drug selling. My eyes were really opened one day when my partner and I arrested a heroin addict. The addicts gathered on the top floor landings of buildings, which we referred to as shooting galleries. We used to routinely bust them for possession of hypodermic needles and also for the big crime of having cookers with residues of heroin.

One day an addict asked if we could give him a break. He said, "I'll give you a pusher if you let me go." We followed him down Lenox Avenue in uniform and in a marked police car. As he talked to one man after another, it struck me how little impact the police had on the drug problem. If we hadn't known what he was talking about, we would've thought they were just two men talking sports or the weather or whatever.

Reason: Is this why police rely on informants and sting operations?

McNamara: Since the police can't do their job the way they do it with other crimes, they resort to informants and to illegal searches. This is a major problem underlying police integrity throughout the United States.

Last year, state and local police made somewhere around 1.4 million drug arrests. Almost none of those arrests had search warrants. Sometimes the guy says, "Sure, officer, go ahead and open the trunk of my car. I have a kilo of cocaine back there but I don't want you to think I don't cooperate with the local police." Or the suspect conveniently leaves the dope on the desk or throws it at the feet of the police officer as he approaches. But often nothing like that happens.

The fact is that sometimes the officer reaches inside the suspect's pocket for the drugs and testifies that the suspect "dropped" it as the officer approached. It's so common that it's called "dropsy testimony." The lying is called "white perjury." Otherwise honest cops think it's legitimate to commit these illegal searches and to perjure themselves because they are fighting an evil. In New York it's called "testilying," and in Los Angeles it's called joining the "Liar's Club." It has lead some people to say L.A.P.D. stands for Los Angeles Perjury Department. It has undermined one of the most precious cornerstones of the whole criminal justice process: the integrity of the police officer on the witness stand.

Reason: What role do institutional interests play in the drug war?

McNamara: One year when I was police chief in San Jose, the city manager sent me a budget that contained no money for equipment. I politely told him that when you have a police department, you have to buy police cars, uniforms, and other equipment for the cops. He laughed, waved his hand, and said, "Last year you guys seized $4 million dollars. I expect you to do even better this year. In fact, you will be evaluated on that and you can use that money for equipment." So law enforcement becomes a revenue-raising agency and that takes, in too many cases, precedence over law enforcement.

Reason: From the perspective of the working police officer, how has the War on Drugs changed over the years?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.