Monday, October 26, 2009

Herding Junkies

Peter Moskos of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition takes a look at what the drug war means from a law enforcement perspective.

As a police officer, I responded when citizens called 911 to report drug dealing. Those calls didn't tell me much, though, because I already knew the drug corners. And what could I do? When a police car pulls up to a drug corner, the corner pulls back. Dealers, friends, addicts and lookouts walk slowly away.

I didn't chase them. If I did, they'd ditch the drugs. What would I do if I caught them? Charge them with felony running? A smart dealer doesn't hold drugs and money and guns. He's got workers for that. Besides, an anonymous call to police doesn't give the legal "probable cause" needed for a search. So I'd walk up, perhaps frisk for weapons and stand there until "my" corner was clear.

But soon enough I'd have to answer another 911 call for drugs. And when I left, the crew would reconvene. One of my partners put it succinctly: "We can't do anything. Drugs were here before I was born, and they're going to be here after I die. All they pay us to do is herd junkies."
Seems like a waste of time. A huge waste of time. At a cost of $50 billion a year. A typical government program. Lots of people getting paid lots of money to make it look like something is being done when in fact hardly anything is being done.

Peter goes on to compare how Amsterdam deals with drugs and compares Dutch drug use rates to American. The Dutch have a significantly smaller problem (per capita) with drugs than America does. And they spend significantly less on enforcement (per capita) than America does.
In another neighborhood in Amsterdam, a man caught breaking into cars was released pending trial. The arresting officer returned to him, along with his shoelaces and personal property, his heroin and drug tools. I was amazed. The officer admitted he wasn't supposed to do that; heroin is illegal. But the officer had thought it through: "As soon as he runs out of his heroin, he'll break into another car to get money for his next hit."

For the addict, the problem was drugs. But for the police officer, the problem was crime. It made no sense, the officer told me, to take the drugs and hasten the addict's next crime. The addict was not a criminal when he had drugs (beyond possessing them); he was a criminal when he didn't have drugs.

I asked the officer if giving drugs to addicts sends the wrong message. He said his message was simple: "Stop breaking into cars!" With a subtle smirk in my direction, he added, "It is very strange that a country as violent as America is so obsessed with jailing drug addicts." Indeed, Dutch policymakers plan, regulate, fix and pragmatically debate harms and benefits. Police in the Netherlands are not involved in a drug war; they're too busy doing real police work.
If only American police were as interested in doing police work. If you take the "herding junkies" quote as some kind of evidence it seems that at least some of them are.

So what does Peter suggest?
Regulating and controlling distribution is far more effective at clearing the corners of drug dealers than any SWAT crackdown. One can easily imagine that in some cities -- San Francisco, Portland and Seattle come to mind -- alternatives to arrest and incarceration could be tried. They could learn from the experience of the Dutch, and we could all learn from their successes and failures.

Regulation is hard work, but it's not a war. And it sure beats herding junkies.
We will eventually come to our senses about drug prohibition just as we came to our senses about alcohol prohibition. The sooner the better.

H/T Drug Policy Forum of Texas

Cross Posted at Classical Values

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