Rush, by Kim Wozencraft, New York: Random House, 260 pages, $18.95
Suppose that cops had to murder people to solve homicides or break into homes to prevent burglaries. Anyone who believes in the rule of law would be appalled by such a state of affairs. Yet in the drug war, it's routine: Police officers must violate the very prohibitions they are enforcing in order to enforce them.
This point, so obvious that it's generally ignored, is vividly illustrated in Rush, Kim Wozencraft's absorbing novel based on her experiences as an undercover narcotics officer in Texas. Because she understands the realities of the street and is familiar with the nitty-gritty of law enforcement, her implicit critique of the drug war (she now favors legalization) is in many ways more powerful than the arid arguments of academics and policy analysts.
The lawbreaking that Wozencraft describes is distinct from the more dramatic corruption of cops who are tempted by the vast sums of money involved in the illegal drug trade. It's due instead to the need, in the absence of victims, for police officers to become the complainants by seeking out and purchasing drugs. To maintain credibility (and, in some cases, to save their lives), they have to take drugs as well. Suspicious dealers often insist, sometimes at gunpoint, that customers sample their wares at the time of sale.
Rush's protagonist, Kristen Cates, whose experiences closely parallel the author's, discovers this dirty little secret after joining the police department of a small Texas city. At 21, Kristen is keen to appear tough, but she is unsophisticated about drugs. During her first undercover operation, her partner and soon-to-be lover, Jim, straightens her out when she tries to simulate drug taking: "You'll get made in a stiff minute. Listen to what I'm saying here. Simulation is a word that comes in handy in court. We're out there to buy dope."
Kristen quickly learns to "be anything you have to be to make the case and keep your ass from getting shot." The necessity soon becomes a reward. During and after her first cocaine buy, she snorts some lines with a state agent, who tells her: "It's like this. We're out here risking our lives to keep fucksticks off the streets. But the job has a few fringe bennies." Later Kristen becomes familiar with the effects of a bewildering variety of pills and adept at injecting heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine—all in the line of duty. The irony of all this is powerful enough that little is needed beyond exposition, but Wozencraft sometimes can't resist underlining the point, as when she intersperses excerpts from her law enforcement oath with candid descriptions of what the job really involves.
Still, Wozencraft's chronicle of her own chemical seduction illustrates a simple truth that is conspicuously absent from most of what passes for drug education: People don't take drugs because they've been possessed by the devil or overpowered by a magical potion. They take drugs because drugs make them feel good. "You can tell yourself you are doing it because you have to, to make the case," Kristen says. "Because it's better than sex or it makes sex better. Because you feel like it today. But no matter what you tell yourself, how you explain it, there's only one reason. You are after the rush."
Given a sufficient reason—a cost high enough to outweigh the benefit—people will stop or curtail their drug use, as Kristen does and Wozencraft did. But what constitutes a sufficient reason varies from person to person. For some people in some situations, almost no reason is good enough.
The more strung out Kristen and Jim get, the more they come to resemble the people they are setting up, the thinner their rationalizations become. At first it's easy for Kristen to imagine that she's putting away schoolyard pushers and other nasty characters. Some of the defendants have committed crimes against person and property. But many are guilty of nothing other than ingesting certain chemicals and selling them to Kristen or Jim upon request. Beneath the fog of her growing drug dependency, it dawns on her that there is no moral justification for betraying such people. But the police chief is pushing for more cases, and she and her partner oblige by continuing to entrap smalltime dealers.
Her sense of guilt becomes acute during the "bustout," when the police reel in all the defendants that Kristen and Jim have been building cases against. Witnessing the arrest of a dealer who will later get a life sentence, she says: "He trusted me. They had all trusted me.…I hadn't counted on growing close to so many of the defendants. They'd believed I was their friend. I had pretended to be their friend. I felt like a snail, spreading ooze in front of me so that I could slither ahead another inch or so, not really getting anywhere, just going for the sake of moving forward. I sat there wondering if there was any way I could rationalize all one hundred and twelve arrests, knowing that I couldn't.''
But while it's easy to incriminate druggies, netting the bigger fish requires some creativity. Under pressure from the police chief, Jim and Kristen fabricate evidence against a pornographer and suspected dealer, which ultimately leads to a bloody reprisal and their own conviction on perjury charges. Wozencraft describes the impact of these experiences, along with the depredations of Jim's and Kristen's addictions, in compelling prose, remarkably free of self pity or lecturing.
Which is not to say that the book lacks a moral perspective. Accounts of police corruption can too easily turn into excuses for nihilism, not only denying the classification of certain people as good or evil but rejecting the categories themselves. Certainly Wozencraft tears down the distinction between drug users who carry badges and those who don't: "The difference between them and me was that I understood there was no difference."
But she is also firm in her indictment of those who know the score and look the other way, such as the police chief. The real villain of the book, he wants to stay squeaky clean and advance his career while benefitting from other people's dirty work. Wozencraft also has harsh words for the decent, middle-class citizens who demand a war on drugs but don't want to know what it entails.
Kristen describes the attitude she encounters when she tries to tell them the real situation: "This is Texas, not New York City. This kind of thing can't happen here. Leave us alone. We have bills to pay, children to raise; you took the job, now just do what you have to to keep the drugs out. And do it quietly. We don't want to hear about it. The lawn needs edging."
Wozencraft does not shrink from accepting her share of responsibility. Neither in the book nor in the news media (she was profiled by the Washington Post and appeared on the "Donahue" show) has she sought to minimize her own crime, for which she served 13 months in federal prison. But the success of Rush—the movie rights went for $1 million, unusual for a first novel—will give supporters of drug prohibition an excuse to dismiss her as just another felon seeking undeserved celebrity. They will also suggest that her story is atypical and that no lessons can be drawn from it about the morality of the effort to suppress drug use. They don't want to hear about it.
Jacob Sullum is assistant editor of REASON.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Lines of Duty".