At around 6pm on January 27 of last year, 80-year-old Isaac Singletary spotted a couple of drug dealers attempting to do business on his front lawn. It wasn’t the first time. Singletary, described by relatives as territorial and a bit crotchety, did what he’d done in the past. He grabbed his gun, and walked out on to his lawn to scare them off. Problem is, this time the men weren’t drug dealers. They were undercover Jacksonville, Florida police posing as drug dealers. They had come on to Singletary’s property to bait possible drug offenders. When he brandished his gun, the police shot Singletary four times, once in the back. He died a short time later. A subsequent investigation by Florida’s attorney general cleared the officers who shot Singletary of any wrongdoing.
Singletary wasn’t a drug dealer. Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford described him as “an honest citizen trying to do good.” Florida Governor Charlie Crist visited Jacksonville a few days later. When asked by a reporter about Singletary’s death, Crist euphemistically called it one of the “challenges in fighting crime.”
Singletary is far from the first innocent person to die for the war on drugs, and he’s nowhere near the last. But let’s call Singletary’s death what it is: collateral damage. Like the collateral damage of military wars overseas—innocents inadvertently killed by bombs, bullets, and missiles aimed at legitimate targets—Singletary's a victim only because he happened to live in close proximity to the government's intended target, in this case, drug offenders. And like the civilian casualties of military wars, Singletary’s death won't do a thing to cause the people who run this war to rethink their priorities. Because for them, the ultimate goal is more important than the innocent lives they may take along the way. As Governor Crist said, Singletary's death is really little more than a "challenge" on the journey to a drug-free Florida.
But whatever you may think of the legitimacy of some of America’s military wars, past or present, they’re waged under at least the pretense that they’re necessary to defeat a foreign aggressor that poses a real threat to U.S. security. The drug war’s aim is to stop people from getting high.
When Richard Nixon first uttered the phrase “war on drugs” in 1971, he chose his words carefully. Government declarations of war signal to the country that the threat we’re facing is so perilous, so grave, so existential, that in order to defeat it, we should prepare to give up some basic freedoms, to make significant sacrifices, and—yes—to accept the inevitable collateral damage we may endure on our way to victory. It so happens that to Nixon, that threat was dirty hippies smoking marijuana and urban blacks strung out on heroin.
It was during the Reagan administration that the “war on drugs” got a lot more literal. Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign was backed by an administration of culture warriors ready to settle remnant grudges from the 1960s, an aggressive justice department, and an eager and compliant Congress. Every 1980s celebrity overdose or high-profile drug abuse story (many of which turned out to be false or exaggerated—see the infamous “crack baby” myth, or the Washington Post’s retracted series on “Jimmy,” the 8-year-old heroin addict) sent both parties scrambling to see who could pass the most odious and draconian new drug bill. The climax came in 1986, when Maryland basketball phenom and Boston Celtics draft pick Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose. Eric Sterling, who helped write much of that legislation and is now an activist for reforming the drug laws, likened the frenzy to a stampeding herd of wildebeests. From journalist Dan Baum’s terrific history of the drug war, Smoke and Mirrors:
Sterling had once seen a film shooting Tanzania; a million wildebeest grazing peacefully, until one of them started running. Assuming danger, a few more joined in, and in no time, the whole heard was stampeding wildly, trampling the sick and the slow, laying waste to the flora and fauna alike in a senseless headlong panic. Those images kept occurring to him as he watched Congress in the weeks following Len Bias’s death.
The wildebeests have been charging in a blind gallop ever since. Through the Reagan, Clinton, and both Bush administrations, both major political parties have exacerbated and expanded what is arguably the most destructive and wasteful government policy of the last 40 years.
Culture11 asked me to write a piece outlining the drug war’s collateral damage. That’s a tall order. The drug war touches nearly every area of American life—certainly all facets of U.S. public policy. But here are a few areas where drug prohibition has done the most damage:
In the 1980s, the “war” part of the drug war got very real. America’s long (and wise) constraint on using the military for domestic policing began to blur, as states deployed National Guard troops to search for marijuana hidden in fields and forests and, in some cases, to patrol drug-riddled inner cities. The line between cop and soldier further blurred when President Reagan authorized active-duty elite military units to train with narcotics police, and then again with the exploding use of paramilitary SWAT teams in America.
Only a handful of police departments had SWAT teams in the 1970s, and they were only deployed in total a few hundred times per year. That number soared to around 4,000 per year by the early 1980s. There are around 50,000 SWAT deployments per year today in America, and they’re primarily used to serve drug warrants.
By the late 1980s, Congress had opened up the Pentagon’s cache of surplus military equipment for civilian police departments across the country to scavenge, again driven largely by the drug war. Millions of pieces of equipment designed for use on the battlefield—including guns, tanks, armored personnel vehicles, helicopters, grenade launchers, and armor—would now be used on American streets, against American citizens. Parallel to the rise of SWAT teams was the rise of the “no-knock raid” which sent cops barreling into private homes to look for dope, a particularly aggressive and violent method of policing, that has since left behind a predictable trail of tragedy.
As many police officers internalize the mentality that they’re fighting a “war,” police-community relations have soured, and many officers have adopted the “us or them” mindset typically seen in soldiers. Here’s former Kansas City and San Jose police chief Joseph McNamara, in a 2006 op-ed for the Wall Street Journal:
Simply put, the police culture in our country has changed. An emphasis on "officer safety" and paramilitary training pervades today's policing, in contrast to the older culture, which held that cops didn't shoot until they were about to be shot or stabbed. Police in large cities formerly carried revolvers holding six .38-caliber rounds. Nowadays, police carry semi-automatic pistols with 16 high-caliber rounds, shotguns and military assault rifles, weapons once relegated to SWAT teams facing extraordinary circumstances. Concern about such firepower in densely populated areas hitting innocent citizens has given way to an attitude that the police are fighting a war against drugs and crime and must be heavily armed.