De-Prioritizing Drug Law Enforcement
The disturbing video of the puppycide SWAT raid in Missouri has, not surprisingly, generated a lot of discussion in short order. One of the things I argued in my original post was that the most troubling aspect of the video is how coolly and methodically the SWAT team operates, demonstrating that this sort of raid is standard operating procedure when a SWAT team looks to serve a drug warrant. In the comments, I elaborated on this a little bit by explaining that, as such, my problem with what happened wasn’t so much with the SWAT team itself as it was with the underlying conditions that make the SWAT team’s actions so inevitable, noting that:
1) Drugs can be easily flushed down the toilet, so if we’re going to be serious about enforcing our drug laws, we have to allow no-knock raids. (2) Black markets prevent the peaceful enforcement of property rights, so people involved with that black market are highly likely to be well-armed; they’re also likely to be fearful of somebody trying to rob them of their stash. (3) The combination of (1) and (2) means that service of a search warrant in a drug case involves an inordinate potential for violence, since the suspect will have minimal (if any) warning that the people breaking down his door are cops, and even if that warning is adequate, the suspect will have little opportunity to verify that they’re cops. (4) Therefore, to minimize the suspect’s ability to respond violently, it is necessary to serve drug warrants in the same manner as a special ops mission – nothing can be left to chance, and warrants need to be served under the assumption that the suspect is armed and dangerous. (5) Dogs and 90-year old women get killed, kids terrorized, and parents assaulted.
All because we’ve banned some substances that are for the most part inherently harmful only to the user, and (this is crucial) made enforcement of that ban a top priority.
Mike at the Big Stick responded by suggesting that I was arguing that the violence inherent in drug law enforcement requires that we simply stop enforcing drug laws.
While I firmly believe that ideally, we’ d legalize most drugs, thereby destroying the black market and its inherently attendant violence due to lack of enforceable property rights, I was not suggesting that we entirely cease to enforce those laws as long as they remain on the books.
By emphasizing that militaristic and violent service of warrants is caused by making drug law enforcement a top priority, I was merely arguing that we must stop making enforcement of drug laws such a high priority that we view it as a “War.” This is a far cry from saying that we shouldn’t enforce drug laws at all.
Instead, making drug law enforcement a lower priority means that we recognize that every time we bust a dealer or supplier (or even a network of dealers or suppliers), a new dealer or network is going to rise up to replace them, supply and demand being an immutable law. As such, there is little-to-no deterrent effect involved with busting up dealers or suppliers. The social benefit, if any, of busting dealers is thus purely punitive.
What making drug law enforcement a lower priority thus means is that we’re willing to risk a few dealers dumping their stashes down the toilet because we give them a couple minutes to answer the door rather than waiting five seconds before knocking it down and entering with guns at the ready and in full military gear. There is simply no way in which the added risk of violence this creates is worth the handful of convictions it protects.
I assure you that even the most cold-hearted gangbanger has no desire to shoot a cop in circumstances where his conviction is a foregone conclusion and where no amount of witness intimidation will prevent that. But if he thinks that cop is just someone looking to rob him or even carry out a hit on him and doesn’t have the opportunity to confirm his suspicion? I’d be shocked if he thinks twice about firing. This is true even if the homeowner isn’t a drug dealer at all, but is simply the victim of a vindictive informant.
Making enforcement of drug laws a lower priority also means a greater emphasis on enforcement of the collateral effects of drug Prohibition. It means gaining the trust of communities so that they’re willing to cooperate in violent crime and property crime investigations rather than having the police wage war on those communities.
Basically, if we’re not going to legalize anything, we can at least come to terms with the fact that the deterrent effect of our drug laws is at best limited, and the deterrent effect of aggressively enforcing (as opposed to more or less passive enforcement) them is virtually non-existent.
Simply put, there is no reason why we should treat drug crime as a higher enforcement priority than prostitution. So if a cop sees someone on the street smoking some pot, he ought to still make the arrest (or, better yet, issue a ticket because we’ve decriminalized). If an open-air drug market has drawn complaints from a community, force it behind closed doors or at least disperse it by more actively patrolling the neighborhood, instituting some sting operations or aggressively enforcing loitering laws.
But there’s really no use for massive investigations or for treating drug crimes more seriously than we treat property crime and violent crime. There is no reason that drug crimes should be singled out as a basis for civil asset forfeiture, a cash cow for law enforcement agencies that provides an incentive for agencies to pursue drug cases and warrants on relatively scant evidence. And there is definitely no reason that drug cases should be an exception to basic civil liberties protections.
Perhaps most demonstrative of the skewed nature of making drug crime a top law enforcement priority is that it is one of the few crimes I can think of where law enforcement is willing to waste a sizable percentage of its resources looking for a suspect where no one has actually complained about that particular suspect’s underlying offense. Law enforcement does not generally look for unreported murders or violent crime or for unreported property crime. To be sure, law enforcement has been known to invest resources investigating prostitution even in the absence of a complaint, but does that investment even a fraction of its investment in investigating unreported drug crimes? I quite doubt it.
Think about how skewed our priorities have to be to spend as much of our law enforcement resources on searching for unreported drug crimes as we do, while spending virtually no resources searching for the 60% of rapes that go unreported every year or even working to prevent those rapes from happening in the first place. Is the prevention of rape, which affects one in every six women, really less worthy of law enforcement’s resources than the more than $1 billion we spend on DARE every year?
This is what I mean when I say that, at a minimum, we need to make enforcement of drug laws something other than a top priority. The social problems associated with drugs are similar in so many ways to the social problems with prostitution, yet we could not treat the two crimes more differently. As a result, only the drug laws cause community-destroying violence, the erosion of civil liberties, and widespread violence.
Alas, I suspect the odds of de-prioritizing drug law enforcement are little better than the odds of outright legalization. To be honest, I suspect that a major reason we treat drug crime so much more seriously than prostitution, and really more seriously than the overwhelming majority of crimes is simply that drug crimes are amongst the only crimes that inherently involve a federal interest. Prostitution only rarely involves interstate commerce, and when it does, it seems to be of the Eliot Spitzer, wealthy client variety – and no one’s going to mess with the civil liberties of the wealthy and the powerful. Similarly, rape, murder, violent crime and property crime are almost always going to be entirely local in nature.
But drugs? They require a production and distribution chain, especially once you’ve made them illegal in the first place. As a result, drug law enforcement was always going to be effectively the top priority for the federal government simply by virtue of it being one of the few crimes where the federal government will frequently have an interest at stake. Once the feds made drug enforcement such a high priority, it was inevitable that the states would as well – doing so guaranteed (and continues to guarantee) all sorts of federal government goodies.