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But the drug war breeds corruption more mundane ways, too. Politicians and prosecutors want statistics—lots of arrests, big busts, and lots of drug seizures. The temptation for even well-meaning cops to take shortcuts looms large. We saw this in Atlanta in 2006 when a botched drug raid led to the death of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston. Subsequent investigations revealed that not only did police in that case lie about nearly every aspect of Johnston’s case, but that lying on search warrants to make the quick bust was common among Atlanta’s narcotics cops.
The cops in the Johnston case also lied about their use of a confidential informant, another common temptation in drug policing. Police abuse of the drug informant system led to the high-profile scandals in Tulia and Hearne, Texas, as well as other scandals in St. Louis, Cleveland, and elsewhere.
The use of street informants is bad enough. But there’s also the problem of jailhouse informants, convicts facing long sentences who testify against drug suspects in exchange for a reduction in their time behind bars. Despite the obvious shortcomings in their trustworthiness—they’re cons who have everything to gain by lying, and nothing to lose—countless innocents have been wrongly convicted on the word of jailhouse snitches.
These inherent problems with the informant system have given rise to the “Stop Snitch’n” movement, which, whatever you may think of it, has revealed the troubling extent to which entire communities in America have completely given up on the people charged with protecting them, even when it comes to helping with investigations of violent crime. Many understandably find the “Stop Snitch’n” movement repugnant, but there’s no question that it’s symptomatic of a larger problem: In many urban areas, the drug war has completely eradicated respect for the rule of law.
Crime, Violence, and Prison
If you look at a graph of the U.S. murder rate going back to about 1915, you’ll notice a few interesting patterns. There’s a spike at around 1919, just at the onset of alcohol prohibition. The graph then takes a dramatic dip in 1933, just after the repeal of prohibition. There’s then another spike in the late 1960s, just as Richard Nixon took office and fired the first shots of his war on drugs. That spike falls in the 1970s as President Carter took a less militant approach to drug prohibition, but then with Reagan’s reinvigorated war in the 1980s, it begins another upward ascent.
This shouldn’t be surprising. Prohibitions create black markets,
and black markets spawn crime. Drug prohibition, then, spawns
violent crime. There’s a reason we don’t often hear about a
Michelob deal gone bad. Because alcohol is legal, there are no turf
wars, no sour deals, no smuggling operations to defend.
One in 100 Americans today is behind bars. That number by far and away leads the world, and is at its highest point in American history. About 350,000 of the approximately 3 million Americans behind bars are there for nonviolent drug crimes (trafficking or possession). It would be impossible to approximate, but countless others are undoubtedly in for violent or property crimes that are by-products of drug prohibition. The drug war has turned entire neighborhoods into, well, war zones. If the temptation of the drug trade can be too much for some police officers, you can imagine the allure for a young urban kid wasting away in an awful public school with few other prospects.
It’s difficult to know what effect the exploding prison population will have on American society going forward, but it certainly can’t be good.
Hundreds of thousands of people who victimized no one will spend a good deal of their lives in prison alongside hardened criminals, then face lives on the outside limited by their status as convicted felons.
One final and emerging class of drug war collateral damage is medical treatment. As the drug war has become increasingly federalized, the federal government has at the same time increasingly nosed in on the relationship between doctor and patient.
The most obvious example is medical marijuana, where the federal government has not only told doctors what they can and can’t prescribe to their patients, it has barred research into the possible medical benefits of marijuana (it then dishonestly claims there is no research providing evidence of said benefits), and asserted the supremacy of federal law when it comes to marijuana-related medical policy—a field of policy America has traditionally (and wisely) left to the states.
Supporters of drug prohibition argue that medical marijuana is merely a ruse to get the drug legalized on a wider scale, and in some ways they’re right. You’d have to be fairly gullible to believe that everyone sporting a prescription for marijuana in California right now is in dire need of the drug (and I say this as someone who supports complete legalization).