How Can You Win the Future If You Don't Invest in Violence?


Last year I noted that the supposedly vital programs shielded from President Obama's domestic spending "freeze" included the drug control budget. That remains true this year, despite an increasingly dire fiscal outlook, although his proposed increase (PDF) has dropped from 3.4 percent to 1.2 percent. (In Washington, that's practically a cut.) Drug policy reformers complain that the federal government continues to spend about twice as much on enforcement as it does on "treatment and prevention." Since I have little faith that the latter sort of anti-drug boondoggle is more effective (or even less coercive) than the former kind, I tend to focus on the fact that the most demonstrably disastrous parts of the federal budget, including a program that Obama once called "an utter failure," continue to enjoy funding hikes during these supposedly straitened times. 

Still, you might think a president who describes himself as a "strong believer that we have to think more about drugs as a public health problem" would do something to translate that thought into action, even if it involved nothing more than symbolic tinkering with the drug control budget. But in a recent interview with The Daily Caller's Mike Riggs, drug czar Gil "It's Not a War" Kerlikowske explains that the president's kinder, gentler perspective on drug use, which Obama says requires "shifting resources," doesn't really. "It's not always about the money," Kerlikowske says. Or as he put it in a December interview with The Nation, "rebalancing" drug policy "shouldn't be an either/or, to take away money from interdiction or some other part." Why reconsider your spending priorities when things are going so well?

Kerlikoswke likewise wriggles out of Riggs' opening question, in which he notes that, despite the drug czar's preference for nonmartial terminology, enforcement of drug prohibition sure looks like a war, what with all the armed, uniformed men bursting into people's homes in the middle of the night, shooting their pets, killing bystanders, and generally wreaking havoc. Kerlikowske's response:

Well, it might, but I guess the difference that I see is the level of violence in the United States and the training that law enforcement goes through. Whether they're dealing with an armed robbery or taking down a drug house, and given the number of officers who are shot and killed anymore, and the type of weaponry that is out on the streets, I don't think there's any way to approach it from a safety standpoint that wouldn't involve this.

In other words, police officers serving drug warrants would be risking their own lives if they stopped shooting old ladies, chasing ministers to death, and killing dachshunds. This justification reminds me of Radley Balko's remark that soldiers consider it an insult to describe such SWAT-related offenses as resulting from "militarization" of the police, because the military is more careful about protecting noncombatants. More fundamentally, it's the government that introduces violence into this situation by using force to stop people from getting high in arbitrarily proscribed ways. The more aggressively it pursues this policy, the more violence there will be. So here's my idea for "rebalancing" the drug control budget: eliminate the enforcement part.

I advocated ending the war on drugs as part of Reason's November forum on "How to Slash the State." Radley has much more on the subject of drug war brutality here and here.