Civil Liberties

Eric Garner, Another Victim of the War on Drugs

Government policy contributes to police abuse.


When a grand jury refused last week to bring an indictment in the death of Eric Garner, the New Yorker who died from a policeman's chokehold, the outrage across the political spectrum was nearly universal. Left and right, libertarian and collectivist: Everybody was, for once, in agreement. For a moment or two.

Then fissures began appearing. One of them concerned the role New York's cigarette taxes played—or didn't—in Garner's death.

You can make a good argument, as several commentators did, that the city's outlandishly high taxes contributed to Garner's death. Those taxes have created a huge black market in cigarettes, and the cops were busting Garner for selling "loosies," or individual cigarettes, on the street. Not long ago, New York enhanced the penalty for selling loosies, and "an order to crack down on the illegal sale of 75-cent cigarettes in Staten Island came directly from police headquarters, setting off a chain of events that ended in Eric Garner's death," the Daily News reported.

The suggestion that high taxes might have helped kill Garner enraged those who like them. When Sen. Rand Paul made the point, for instance, he was swiftly and widely pilloried. The very idea was "really ludicrous," scoffed Salon's Joan Walsh. Paul will "always be an anti-tax libertarian first and foremost," she continued, "before he's a civil rights libertarian." People who order their priorities differently than she does are such jerks.

To be fair, Michael Brown was not killed for selling untaxed cigarettes in Ferguson. Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old gunned down in heinous abandon by a Cleveland police officer, was not selling untaxed cigarettes. John Crawford, shot to death by a police officer in a Beavercreek, Ohio, Walmart, was not selling loosies. Neither was Rumain Brisbon, who was killed last week by an officer in Phoenix. Amadou Diallo, perhaps the most famous victim of homicide by cop, was not selling loosies when four New York officers pumped 41 shots into him back in 1999. There's more to the issue of excessive force than taxes.

But New York's cigarette taxes are not merely a revenue source. They are also a mode of social engineering. At more than $5 a pack, they are meant to discourage smoking. It's even possible that, despite the relative inelasticity of demand for cigarettes, New York would collect more revenue if it discouraged smoking less. In this regard high cigarette taxes represent another facet of the war on drugs.

And there is no doubt that war disproportionately harms African-Americans. Blacks and whites use drugs at roughly similar rates, but blacks make up three-fifths of people serving time in prison for a drug offense. Half of all drug arrests are for marijuana, which whites and blacks also use in similar rates, yet the ACLU reports that blacks are 3.7 times more likely to be busted for marijuana than whites are. The Brookings Institution notes that while the number of black Americans arrested for property and violent crimes has fallen over the past three decades, the number arrested for drug-related crimes has skyrocketed. Therefore, a question: What is the racial breakdown of those arrested for selling loosies in New York?

And here's another question: How many people have been killed by police officers over, say, marijuana offenses?

Earlier this year, Jason Westcott was killed by a police SWAT team. The officers were executing a search warrant for marijuana; they ended up executing him. In one widely publicized case three years ago, police officers investigating possible marijuana offenses raided the home of Jose Guerena, a Marine and Iraq War veteran, and shot him at least 60 times.

In 2012, Chavis Carter was shot and killed with his hands cuffed behind his back in the rear of a police car. He had been arrested for marijuana possession. Last year, police in North Carolina shot and killed Jaquaz Walker during an undercover marijuana sting, and Los Angeles officers killed an armed 80-year-old man during a raid on a pot-growing enterprise. This year alone, roughly three dozen people, including some innocent bystanders, have died as the result of confrontations that would not have taken place if pot were legal.

Did marijuana prohibition kill those people? Or would the Joan Walshes of the world find that notion ludicrous (perhaps even "really ludicrous")? It seems reasonable to surmise that the war on marijuana increases the number of occasions for the police to use force, with sometimes deadly results. After all, you don't hear about too many people gunned down by the cops for selling roses on the street corner, do you? So if it is reasonable to surmise that about marijuana, then why not about tobacco, too?