Police Abuse

The War on Drugs Drug Spurred America's Current Policing Crisis

Police strategies have changed dramatically in the past few decades—and not because of soaring crime. America's War on Drugs is a prime culprit.


While growing up around Philadelphia in the 1970s, I had a number of interactions with police—none of which were particularly harrowing. On the night before Memorial Day, for instance, a friend and I were drinking beer (yes, we were underage) in a cemetery by the Delaware River when we saw lights flashing and were approached by officers.

Apparently, the police had gotten a tip that someone might be stealing the brass placards from the gravestones and we were in the wrong place at the wrong time. We didn't have any ID, so my friend handed a stuffed animal with his name on it to the officer. The policeman laughed, realized that we weren't up to any serious mischief, made sure we were OK to drive home, and sent us on our way.

Quite frankly, I couldn't imagine that scenario playing out in the same benign way today. I thought of that interaction as I've watched the angry, nationwide protests unfold over the disturbing death of George Floyd, where a Minneapolis officer placed his knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Many of my conservative friends, especially those who grew up in the world similar to the one I described above, have been caught off-guard by the depth of anger.

Even if some left-wing activists used the crisis to promote riots and mayhem, such mass protests do not happen in a bubble. Tens of thousands of people don't take to the streets because of outside agitators, but because they are angry about things they've often experienced themselves. And many Americans—especially in minority communities—have experienced the brunt of an overall policing approach that has become overly militaristic.

Police strategies have changed dramatically in the past few decades—and not because of soaring crime. Despite recent spikes, crime rates now are much lower than at any time since the 1960s, and police can absolutely take some credit for that. I'm not naïve here. Police abuse has been a problem as long as there have been police. I've read about the segregated South and the way police routinely terrorized African-Americans. But something significant has happened in the years following my cemetery experience.

I point to the nation's War on Drugs as a prime culprit. Recent commentary has correctly focused on various reasons for our current policing mess. Just as teachers' unions make it impossible to fire bad teachers, police unions make it impossible to fire overly aggressive and even corrupt officers. Then "limited immunity" protects cops from being sued even when they violate people's constitutional rights.

The federal 1033 program provides decommissioned military-style hardware to police departments. So, instead of sending a beat cop to deal with a routine arrest or disturbance, police nowadays like to bring out the toys—i.e., those tank-like vehicles, SWAT teams and flash-bang grenades that are more appropriate for invaders than peace officers.

But few people have talked about the war on drugs, which started in the 1980s, and conditioned police departments to behave in this more militarized way. Police first took this approach during alcohol Prohibition, as others have noted, and then stepped up the efforts after America's leaders looked for ways to combat a spreading drug epidemic. This issue isn't only about race, of course, given how aggressive police behave even in suburban Southern California. But these ham-fisted policies fall disproportionately on minority communities.

One of the earliest drug-war policies is "civil asset forfeiture," which lets law enforcement quickly snatch the proceeds of drug kingpins. Police don't need to prove that you did anything wrong before they confiscate your car or other property. The police agency merely needs to assert that the property was used in the commission of a drug crime.

"Today, the old speed traps have all too often been replaced by forfeiture traps, where local police stop cars and seize cash and property to pay for local law enforcement efforts," wrote two federal officials who helped create the program, in a 2014 Washington Post column. "This is a complete corruption of the process, and it unsurprisingly has led to widespread abuses." It's led to widespread anger, too, as police mainly seize poor people's cars rather than cartels' assets.

It wasn't hard to predict what would happen when police take on a siege mentality and are provided with military hardware and exempted from constitutional limitations. In a 1996 editorial, William F. Buckley's conservative National Review wrote that "the war on drugs has failed" and is "encouraging civil, judicial and penal procedures associated with police states."

Twenty-four years later we're seeing the fruits of those policies, even if most observers don't see the connection. By all means, let's review police-disciplinary procedures, union protections, racial bias, and other causes of police abuse—but let's not forget the way the drug war has often turned minor interactions like the one I had into violent confrontations.

This column was first published in the Orange County Register.

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  1. Not to mention which, it encourages disrespect for the law. “The government that governs least governs best” isn’t just an empty platitude – there’s a limited number of things we can all agree are wrong and the more laws you pass the more apt you are to find people who disagree with the law. Get enough people who disagree with this law or that law, and the whole “respect for the law” thing breaks down. It’s why police became militarized in the first place, because too many people were thumbing their noses at the police and the state had a choice, wisely choose to back off on the laws or begin to treat the people as the enemy. Nobody’s accusing the state of being wise.

    1. This is a big problem that no politician wants to even recognize as a sentence. When government is small, most people can agree on the basics, and there is little incentive to mind other people’s business; you’ve got enough to do with real life without bothering with other people’s problems. But the more government does, the more it interferes in more people’s lives, and at some point, people begin to realize that it’s more profitable, both emotionally and financially, to sic government on their neighbors, competitors, and anyone who annoys them, than to just mind your own business.

      The government we have today has made it almost imperative to mind everybody else’s business. No matter how much we all benefit from government in our own ways (subsidies, tariffs, lessened competition from regulation), we also find plenty of reasons to despise government getting in our way, or favoring others instead of us.

      All that anger has to come out somewhere.

  2. It wasn’t hard to predict what would happen when police take on a siege mentality and are provided with military hardware and exempted from constitutional limitations.

    It’s hard for so many to see it now, decades after its results are evident.

    What’s truly shameful is that SCOTUS after SCOTUS have aggressively abandoned upholding the people’s constitutional protections in complete deference to legislative and executive anti-drug goals.

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  3. It was the beginning of the end with no-knock search warrants. I remember when the ruling came down, and not even really understanding what it was to become, the sense that this was evil was palpable. Home invasion (let’s not mince words here) for sake of making a bust? That’s a police state. No other way around it.

    And then the policing errors, wrong addresses, people shot in bed started to bubble to the surface. Nobody’s perfect was the retort. Fuck you, no- if you are going to barge into someone’s home, guns blazing, you had better triple checked your information, or give the populace the same discretion when they shoot back.

    And all these fucking bodies to keep someone from flushing a dime bag.

    We should have reached the conclusion that the drug war and all its attendant paraphernalia was a mistake decades ago.

    And now we have a population more sympathetic to rioters than police.

    You dun fucked up.

  4. And we can thank Joe Biden for the 1994 crime bill, and for the disparity in crack vs. flake cocaine sentencing, and for the 1033 Program.

  5. I’m pretty sure even in the 70s you had to have a license to drive.

  6. The drug war is one of the great crimes against humanity.

  7. No doubt the drug war was a terrible idea, but things are better now than they’ve been in a long time. Why is this happening now? Why didn’t we have these massive national protests back when recreational marijuana was still illegal in California, Oregon, Seattle, and other places where they’ve had looting and arson? Were there no unjustified police abuses caught on camera before?

    It would be silly to ignore the fact that the United States has experienced the steepest and quickest economic contraction in its history. Anyone looking at the recent reactions against the police wouldn’t be looking at them objectively if they didn’t account for the fact that 40 million Americans lost their jobs over a period of eight weeks, and they were also effectively locked into their homes for months at a time. Looking at things objectively doesn’t come naturally, though. Seeing what we want to see comes naturally.

    1. Why didn’t we have these massive national protests back when recreational marijuana was still illegal in California, Oregon, Seattle, and other places where they’ve had looting and arson?

      “Obviously legal marijuana causes rioting. Time to ban it again after this failed experiment!”

    2. Today we have a POTUS who is wiping out Progressive ‘regulations’ at lightning speed. The War on Drugs is an unmitigated failure by the proggies but the largest reason to employ police in the USA.

      The is the FBI taking advantage of the COVID crisis to install a puppet POTUS. One who will double down on the progressive agenda, including the War on Drugs.

      Biden is compromised. The FBI has Hunter by the sack and Biden will give them anything they want to keep his son out of prison.

      This is a coup. The swamp is striking back at Trump by using their proxies (BLM, ANTIFA, CNN, Comcast) to create confusion and divide our people.

      If they can’t, Trump wins and if Trump wins a bunch of FBI scum are going to prison.

      1. And Hillary and Obama were supposed to be in prison by now, too!

        But who knows? Maybe this is a Leftist coup, or perhaps there’s a mysterious fire burning in the Reichstag. Speaking generally, what I see is the second coming of the Bolsheviks on one side, and authoritarian statist bootlickers on the other. A ‘victory’ for either is a defeat for liberty.

        As for ending the failed War on Drugs and reversing police militarization? I’ll believe Trump – or any politicians – are going to repeal the Drug War when the Amendment of Repeal of Prohibition is passed…oh, wait. Scratch that! “When the ink on the Executive Order is dry,” let’s say. As for the standing army that are our police forces, Trump could start by, say, reversing his reinstatement of the 1033 Program.

        1. I totally agree.

          Both sides are corrupt as hell.

          Anytime the government goes to war against itself is a win for liberty.

          We need to stoke those fires get the govt agents to turn on themselves instead of killing us.

        2. If a victory for either side is a defeat for liberty, then is the best thing for now for the fight to keep going on indecisively? (Which probably will mean more violently.)

  8. And the war continues…politicians [like Biden] have backtracked and claim to no longer support it, but nothing has changed as to how police continue enforce it. As with vice wars, it just seems to be too much a part of their funding and mandates, and no one in authority ever wants to relinquish anything.

    1. ^This.

      The war on drugs is over. Police lost. They are not willing to accept that and are supported by the FBI which is been in open revolt against POTUS (civilian control of government) since before the 2016 election.

      The point is to ditch the only POTUS who the FBI cannot control.

      The enemy here is not BLM or ANTIFA. Those are the pawns.

      The enemy behind this is the US police state and the FBI is at the top of the coup.

  9. My first encounter with police was quite the opposite. Grew up in a rural unincorporated town. This was probably around 1960, before Vietnam, before race riots, heck, the town was so lily white I doubt there was any racial animosity simply because no one knew there should be.

    I was 10, brother 5, and we were walking to the library about 10 minutes away. Next to the library was a sheriff’s substation, which I believe they only used at end of shift; it was not permanently manned. Just as we passed it, a deputy’s car pulled up. Being a 10 year old showing off for his little brother, I turned around, stuck my thumbs in my ears, and waggled my fingers. Proper response would have been the same, or a laugh. Instead one of them went on a rant about how hard they worked, how dangerous their job was, how they deserved respect.

    In 1960!

    I do not remember his partner’s reaction. I was dumbfounded. Haven’t trusted cops since, and consider myself lucky to have learned that lesson so early.

    1. My dad was a Korean War vet. He taught me early (before I was 10) the differences between soldiers, sheriffs and police.

      I followed him and am a veteran myself and as such I support my local sheriff.

      Police are an anti-American, Progressive lie that needs to be stamped out of existence along with the FBI.

      The difference is in the oath which sets the tone and objectives of the individual who speaks it.

      My oath and the sheriff’s oath is to the Constitution. Police and the FBI swear to uphold the laws of whatever government is currently in charge. These oaths are in conflict and only one recognizes the legitimate authority of the American people to govern themselves.

      Support your sheriff. Defund the police.

      1. This was a deputy. Where did that power-mad control freak fit in your pantheon?

        1. In a dumpster where all the power mad control freaks belong.

      2. ‘Cause oaths are magical.

        Good for people who take their oaths to uphold the constitution seriously. But I think they are a minority.

        1. Agreed. Most are veterans or active duty military.

  10. I remember all too well in the early 1990s many of my “progressive” friends and Democrat politicians they voted for vocally supported aggressive police tactics, the drug war, and the death penalty, and tacitly continued to do so, until Trump came along. If Hillary were president, George Floyd would be just another statistic, Confederate monuments would still be standing, and there would be no mention of defunding the police.

    1. Unfortunately, I think this is true. The older I get, the more I realize how much bias the news shows in making some things extremely important and in burying others.

      After the “oh but this is different” comments about COVID-19 when it came to George Floyd protests and memorials, I’m now convinced that COVID-19 will completely disappear if Biden wins and will come roaring back if Trump wins. The actual case numbers won’t change at all, but we’ll have totally different coverage.

  11. Excellent article, but I have to ask: why is this way down at the bottom of the front page, while an article about Juneteenth day is front and center? A rollback of the trillion+ dollar, utterly failed Drug War and the police militarization and carceral state it has underwritten would be a tangible victory for ALL Americans. Encouraging the celebration of yet another made-up PC holiday while the country is burning strikes me as somewhat less important.

  12. The war on drugs will go down as the worst policy decision in modern history. One day we will look back and say,”why did we do that?”

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