Police Corruption and the War on Drugs


Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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91 Responses

  1. Avatar MFarmer says:

    One of the ironies of statism is that the basic duties of government are neglected. Perhaps a limited government could focus mainly on excellent public protection, rational laws and an appropriately sized, funded and utilized military rather than a statist system that perverts these basic functions because government has grown in feifdoms and corruption at the top, paying less attention to service, training and rational utilization, causing corruption to drift downwards. A dead fish stinks from the head down. Government has become so convoluted, taking on so many responsibilities, and so politically entangled in special interests, economic planning and political engineering, it can no longer manage well its basic duties.Report

  2. Avatar North says:

    Well support for ending Marijuana prohibition is past the halfway mark now, no? So that’s some small progress at least.Report

    • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      Yep, baby stepsReport

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      Very true, and important. But it took quite a while to get here, didn’t it? Why not earlier, and why now?

      These are the sort of causality questions that always puzzle historians.Report

      • Avatar North says:

        I don’t know myself. Is it a part of an advancement of libertarian principles in some areas or is it merely that people really are beginning to notice how badly the WoD fails at it’s stated goals and lards on bad side effects on top of that. Maybe cannabis is such a useful product that its value is finally beginning to shine through all the kvetching?Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          Cops are arresting middle class people now.Report

          • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:


          • Avatar Kimmi says:

            got citations about 1980’s that they were arresting/roughing up middle class people in spanish harlem. don’t mean that the higher class drug dealers other places weren’t still operating juuust fine.Report

          • Avatar North says:

            That seems perfectly plausible.Report

          • Avatar North says:

            Possibly also the internet is allowing more videos and graphic details of those horrible drug raids and worse the botched incorrect drug raids to be widely disseminated?Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              The quickest analogy to my mind is Prohibition (like, the 18th Amendment Prohibition).

              Why did *THAT* one end?

              It’s because the ethical law enforcement was using its ethical tools against friggin’ everybody. Like *EVERYBODY* everybody. If the cops found out about a speakeasy uptown, they kicked down doors and arrested the folks in there. If the Mayor was in there, they arrested him too. The newspapers had this weird thing going on where they saw printing a headline like “MAYOR ARRESTED!” as the reason they were put on God’s Green Earth and the question of “will this give the mayor’s opposition ammunition?” never came up even once.

              As such, everybody had busybodies putting fingers up their nose. Friggin’ busybodies.

              And Prohibition was repealed.

              The War on Drugs, on the other hand…Report

              • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

                I know a fair amount of well to do folks that will still light up the occasional joint in their beach house or do the occasional line at a party that are not against the War on Drugs. This is because they view the War as focused on drugs being used in Urban Areas, where they believe things need to be cleaned up.

                It is possible that ‘Urban Areas’ can be a euphemism.Report

          • As a friend of mine put it, “your daughter can get cocaine in any world. But only in the world of the War on Drugs can she also go to jail for it.”Report

        • Avatar Plinko says:

          I’d posit that, like attitudes against gay marriages, you’re seeing a combination of population shift (ie old people with hard opinions that marijuana is evil are dying off) and a sort of network effect where as support for marijuana legalization grows from generational replacement, more people also feel comfortable with the idea because they know other people that express those opinions.Report

      • Avatar Mike says:


        More corrupt police right here for you.

        Oh that’s right, you don’t give a crap if they’re the facists on your side, do you, Koch Stooge?Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

          Wow, you’ve sure got me figured out.

          Remember when those demonstrators got pepper sprayed? I laughed and cheered. Then I lit up one of those cigars the Kochs gave me.

          Actually, I called it an outrage. On the front page of this very blog. Three weeks ago.

          Stick around, Mike. You might learn something.Report

        • Just want to double check. When you guys are reading the word “Koch”, you’re pronouncing it “cock” in your head right? It’s much more amusing that way. And it lends itself more-easily to double entendres.Report

          • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

            It’s pronounced “coke,” like the drug rich people take.

            I learned this during the introduction to Cato, where they passed out the stone idols of the Koch brothers and taught us how to pray to them.Report

            • Avatar Kimmi says:

              It’s only pronounced that way if you want to stay on their good side… (which, mind, would be a good idea. you should see what they do to people on their bad side!)Report

            • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

              No Teutonic glottal fricative at the end? That makes the Hitler salute incongruous.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

                The great French general Ferdinand Foch has a name pronounced, roughly, “Foash.” I don’t know whether that was a retrofit, but I sure botched it once when mentioning the avenue named in his honor.Report

        • Avatar Kimmi says:

          Lurk more, post less. 😉
          (and I still think you’re a pawn of the insurance companies)Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        I think people like Radley Balko, and groups like LEAP are starting to be heard more & more.Report

  3. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    I have this theory about outrage and why things like this don’t seem to cause it. You’ve no doubt been in a busy store where there’s one person (sometimes two together) who are raising hell with the manager about something. Sometimes, he or she is really off base and everyone is wishing they would go home. Sometimes, they’re being sort of a dick about it, but the rest of us are thinking that they are right, and we would just never have the yarbles to raise a stink about what they’re complaining about. I think political outrage is like that. Sure, the 10% on the right who are loud and the 10% on the left who are loud are the ones who get all the attention, but there’s an 80% or so that would never raise their voice, who might be of any opinion at all. Of course, I realize this is not a new theory: the “Silent something something”. But I do get the sense from opinion polls that they’re slowly getting as sick of the drug war as us loudmouths.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      Like ‘Hitler’s Willing Executioners’?

      Yeah, there’s that. But do they quietly agree with the policy, or are they apathetic about it? My theory is that most Americans either ignorantly, deliberately, or deliberately ignorantly support the WOD.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. says:

        I did not have Hitler’s Willing Executioners in mind, no.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater says:

          The Silent something something are people who support a policy but refrain from being vocal in that support, no?

          Maybe I misunderstood your comment.Report

          • Avatar Rufus F. says:

            Actually, I was thinking of Ordinary Men, which was about police battalions instead of the whole populace (also a much better book), so your point slipped by me.

            First, I’d say that I don’t think the war on drugs is comparable to the Shoah, for a number of obvious reasons.

            Secondly, what I was thinking of wasn’t so much Nixon’s silent majority as just the idea that most people are quieter and more moderate than the shouting voices that set the debate. Increasingly, I meet people like my father, who’s a moderate Republican who thinks the drug war needs to be ended, but has no idea how to do so. I think the peak of support was in the 80s and is quietly receding, but it might take longer for that to have an effect because most Americans (and probably most people in general) don’t do loud outrage.

            Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I seem to encounter more Americans that quietly despair at the policies than support them.Report

            • Avatar DensityDuck says:

              The problem is that there are so many people whose entire experience with intoxicant drugs is formed by what they see on TV. When they think of drugs, they think of meth-heads getting tackled on COPS, or actresses dying from overdoses on CSI. It’s hard to support legalization when all you know about drugs is that one hit on a crack pipe turns you into a psychopathic homeless person if it doesn’t kill you outright.Report

            • Avatar Stillwater says:

              I agree with you that the majority of people quietly despair at the fallout of the war on drugs. And I’d like to agree with you that this will lead to changes in policy. But …

              One reason is the politics of running on a ‘soft on crime’ platform. But another is that I think most Americans (I’ve no evidence here other than anecdotal) are either outright racists or racially ‘(in)sensitive’ enough to believe that inner city black ghettos are hotbeds of revolutionary violence. That they’re just itching to take our stuff and the gubmint pounding on ’em keeps ’em in check. And that’s one of the primary functions of the WOD.

              But, you know, I’m happy to be wrong about this.Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck says:

                Are you being serious or satirical? It’s hard to tell. (Believe me, I know.)Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                [[Hmmm. I *thought* I was being serious. But now I’m not so sure.]]

                I’m gonna go with Jaybird here, tho along with responsibility I’d add a dimension of fear into the mix.

                Why does the idea strike you as satirical? It’s pretty much what Nixon said when he instituted the policy.Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck says:

                You’re arguing that the war on drugs is entirely rooted in reactionary racism.

                I’d be on board with that if I hadn’t been at a city council meeting for an eminently progressive, urban area, where 90% of the speakers stood up and declared that marijuana dispensaries would lead to street crime, stoned kids, and urban decay.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Well, those two views aren’t necessarily inconsistent, are they?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                It’s an offshoot of welfare.

                “So long as you live under my roof, mister, you’re living according to my rules!”

                We all have responsibilities to each other, after all.Report

              • Avatar Dan Miller says:

                I’d imagine that wanting to eliminate welfare and expand the drug war is a pretty common opinion.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                I imagine it would be. I also imagine that it’d be like finding out that Canada has gay marriage after a while.

                “Huh. Those wacky people that have no responsibilities to me nor I to them.”Report

            • The obverse of this, of course, is the banality of evil.Report

          • Avatar wardsmith says:

            Still I think he meant they didn’t have the “yarbles” to raise a stink. Busy Googling yarbles right now…Report

        • Avatar Kimmi says:

          How about America’s Willing Fucking Executioners?
          St. Louis ring a bell?Report

  4. Avatar Kimmi says:

    Well, sir, it’s simple really.
    What war on drugs?
    It’s a war on the poor.
    The drugs flow freely to whomever “deserves” to get them.

    Kinda like Alcohol and Iran.


  5. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    The problem, I think, is that Prohibition never really went away. It just went underground. The people who think that marijuana should get you sent to prison and the people who want breathalyzer interlocks on your car are the same people.Report

  6. Avatar Jon Rowe says:

    I’m not sure if I want mandatory breathalyzer interlocks; but as a capitalist appreciator of technology I do want some kind of cheap, boiler plate technology, either hand held or available in my car that will tell exactly what my BAC would read IF a cop were to give me a breathalyzer test at that moment.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck says:

      That technology exists and it’s called “a breathalyzer”. There’s nothing that stops you buying one.Report

      • Avatar NoPublic says:

        Although accurate ones are rather hard to come by cheaply. The cheapest fuel cell based models are still ~$200 and the good ones are nearer $500.

        Which, come to think of it, is still less than a DUI. So, there you have it.Report

        • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

          I have a pretty good built-in breathalyzer.

          It’s called, “If I have more than 2 drinks, I don’t drive unless it’s been more than 90 minutes from when I started”.

          If you’re lucky enough not to be carting around about 50 lbs of my body weight, drop that number to 1. If you’re carting around more than 50 lbs more than my body weight, you can probably edge towards 3, but you’re getting risky.

          You don’t need a tool for this, you just need to not be a dumbass.Report

          • Avatar NoPublic says:

            Should you care to test this out, I’d be willing to give you some pointers on how to arrange that. We did a test recently as part of an awareness campaign among beer tasting groups and the results were surprising. Most people over-calibrated their metabolic rate for alcohol by more than 25% (i.e. they were at least 25% more inebriated than they thought they were by their “back of the envelope” testing). That 25% can be the difference between a walk and a felony in some localities.Report

            • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

              Oh, that’s for 12 oz beers.

              I always regard cocktails as potentially full of 80 proof liquor. So a 6 oz highball glass counts 6/1.5 oz = 4 drinks, even if they taste *watery*.

              Never trust your bartender, your own metabolism, or your own perception of how drunk you are.

              *Especially* if you can hold your liquor. I’ve put down a considerable amount of scotch on more than one occasion and still been able to hold a lucid conversation and walk a straight line. I would fail a breathalyzer test by a huge margin. That’s just being utterly practical, totally aside from whether or not I can pilot the car (for the record, I suspect that most people are no worse of a driver at .16 than they are at .08, because most people are just bad drivers to begin with, but that’s neither here nor there). I don’t drive when some other idiot can ram into me by just being a horrible pilot and I can take all the blame because of a readout on a handheld meter.

              I am highly disposed to avoid a felony DUI at all costs.Report

              • Avatar wardsmith says:

                My son’s friends had a breathalyzer (now $59 at Walgreens) back in college. I’d let them party at my house but the first thing they did was give me their car keys. They passed around the breathalyzer to compare how wasted they were getting. My sons were never in the running – they have the Asian gene and get sick if they have too much to drink. A built-in alcohol limiter. I have the Irish gene on the other hand, and can drink prodigious amounts if I want and still function fairly well. Hangovers are another story though. 🙁Report

          • I have the same exact breathalyzer, plus, in Massachusetts, at least, we can request a blood test at the station (door-to-door more than 30 minutes.) I only drink beer and straight scotch ever at bars, so I don’t have to worry about unscrupulous bartenders.Report

  7. Avatar Jon Rowe says:

    Why aren’t they for sale at the Walmart or come standard with cars like CD players used to?

    And if there is ever a breathalyzer app for the IPhone, let the time and date of this comment thread be known for patent novelty purposes.Report

  8. Avatar BSK says:

    “I will never understand why the War on Drugs doesn’t cause more outrage.”

    It is pretty simple. People have bought, hook, line, and sinker, into the notion that drugs are horrible not only for the user, but for everyone around them. From the impacts of the drug trade to the rampages of drug users, no one is immune from the inevitable, unavoidable, and incredibly damaging effects of recreational drug use. Something so evil easily justifies the tactics employed to stop it. See also: terrorism.Report

    • Avatar greginak says:

      I’m for ending the war on drugs. However drug use is actually pretty damn bad for lots of people. lots of those people who believe in the WOD have seen drugs destroy peoples lives. that doesn’t mean legalization isn’t the best answer, but that doesn’t in any way answer the concerns about how terrible drug abuse is for some peopelReport

      • Avatar James K says:

        This is an important point to remember. No policy ever devised was without it’s bad points, nor without it’s good points. It is no criticism to say a policy has a downside, it is only by weighing good against bad that a judgement can be made.

        I very much believe that ending the War on Drugs is a very good idea, but that doesn’t mean that no one will be harmed by ending it.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        Setting up safe, legal drug retailers would allow the government to tax drugs, and the savings from law enforcement & prisons would together be (likely) more than enough money to create a system of help for those who get in too deep. Alcohol destroys a lot of lives too, but we tolerate the bad.Report

        • Avatar DensityDuck says:

          Heck, that’s always what I bring up whenever someone tells me that legal drugs are impossible, that legal drugs would turn every house into a crack house or a meth den. I point out that in California you can buy beer at the gas station, while next door at the grocery store you can buy enough vodka to literally drink yourself to death.

          Either we’ve solved the problem of selling intoxicant drugs to people, or we haven’t; and if we haven’t then what’s all that booze doing at the grocery store?

          (Although it’s amusing that I can buy three liters of vodka and nobody so much as looks at sideways, but I need to ask the store manager’s permission to buy a pack of cigarettes.)Report

  9. Avatar BradK says:

    It is pretty simple. People have bought, hook, line, and sinker, into the notion that drugs are horrible not only for the user, but for everyone around them. From the impacts of the drug trade to the rampages of drug users, no one is immune from the inevitable, unavoidable, and incredibly damaging effects of recreational drug use. Something so evil easily justifies the tactics employed to stop it. See also: terrorism.

    Replace “drug” with “drink” and this statement could have been lifted verbatim from an Anti-Saloon League pamphlet from a century ago.

    Fear sells. (See also: terrorism).Report

    • Avatar Kimmi says:

      …except near everyone knew someone lost to booze in those days. It was most of the menfolk, inna lot of places (called masked depression, if you take my meanin’)Report

  10. Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    What the war on drugs has done:

    There are two types of police–peace officers, and law enforcement officers.

    Let’s say you come out of the bar at closing time. You get in the car and feel a bit dizzy. Obviously, you are not in shape to drive. So you warm the car up for a couple of minutes, shut it off, recline the seat and try to sleep some of it off.

    You wake up to a knock on the window.

    A: The peace officer says, “Sir, what are you doing?”

    “I don’t feel safe to drive, sir, so I figured I should sleep for a bit.”

    Peace officer: “That’s a good idea, sir, but I can’t let you stay here like this. I’m going to call a cab. I’ll log the incident, and you can come pick your car up in the morning. Thanks for being responsible.”

    The next morning you wake up sober, realize you had too much to drink and your judgment was shot, and are grateful the cop helped you get home.

    B: The law enforcement officer says, “Sir, what are you doing?”

    “I don’t feel safe to drive, sir, so I figured I should sleep for a bit.”

    “Are your keys in the ignition? And you’ve been drinking? That’s operating under the influence! You’re under arrest! You’re going to jail to be booked, I’m going to write up the bust for my promotion file, and your car’s going to the impound yard.”

    Twenty-four hours, $200 in impound fees, $600 in legal bills, $250 in bail, a bad meal, a jail cell and a visit with a judge later, you realize why you hate pigs.

    We need more peace officers.Report

    • Avatar BradK says:

      We need more peace officers.

      Indeed. Good luck getting that past the unions though.

      To be fair (and as Jason pointed out), cops are not incentivized to keep the peace and protect the citizenry so much as they are to “collar” a certain percentage of that citizenry — not only for promotional opportunities but just to keep their jobs.

      Ultimately the populace seems content with over-policing, just so long as it applies to the other guy. With the WoD being the pinnacle of this groupthink.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        we got plenty of peace officers here. not so many in the poor parts of town. but that’s the way it always is, ain’t it?Report

        • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

          Oh there are lots of peace officers, but as BradK said, there is little incentive for them to act as such.Report

          • Avatar Kimmi says:

            nah, there’s plenty — it’s called “we who pay the taxes get the nice shiny service”
            I am under no illusions that poor neighborhoods get the same treatment.Report

  11. We are under a “government of laws”, not a “government of men”. But if someone can plant drugs among your belongings, and if you are then required to prove that the drugs are not yours (which you can’t), then you are under a government of men, namely of those who are willing to plant evidence. Therefore the reverse onus of proof cannot be valid in any jurisdiction. So, if you are on the jury in a drug case, and if you are told that the defendant must prove that his/her possession was unwitting, it is your civic duty to put the onus of proof back where it belongs (on the prosecution), raise it to the proper standard (beyond reasonable doubt), and hand down a verdict accordingly. More: http://is.gd/noreverse.Report

    • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      Didn’t a bunch of NY Cops just admit that planting drugs was SOP to meet quotas?Report

      • Avatar BradK says:

        That is what the OP linked to. And I don’t doubt for a minute that NYPD is the only one playing this game. I know, I watched The Shield.

        What would Vic Mackey do?Report

    • Avatar BradK says:

      It might be more accurate to say that we are a Government of Laws as Enforced by Men — with all of their inherent flaws.Report

  12. Avatar mclaren says:

    What if the corruption is the entire point of the War On Drugs? The War On Drugs makes possible wonderful new opportunities for enrichment by police who consider themselves underpaid. Much easier to pocket cash from a drug bust than go through the tiresome routine of justifying and then filling out paperwork to get overtime…Report