The term "war on drugs" was created as an expediency to justify a policy designed not by best practices but by political rhetoric and fear. The phrase is problematic but apt, then, as we try to figure out a way to graciously exit what has quickly become a quagmire. We are now in a moment where both opportunity and a path for law enforcement leaders exists to negotiate an honorable truce and develop an exit strategy to America's longest war through the adoption of harm reduction policies. Now we just need to get decisionmakers on board.
The United Nations recently held a discussion on ways to modernize policing. Seattle Police Interim Chief Jim Pugel spoke about the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, a harm reduction strategy that gives officers the ability to connect low-level, non-violent drug dealers and users with treatment and services as an alternative to jail. The accomplishments of the program are being touted by politicians, civil rights organizations, and most importantly, street-level cops.
Pugel is a disciple of Robert Peel, the 19th Century British legislator whose policing reforms still influence the way we conduct ourselves today. Peel argued that the "test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it." In an email, Pugel added that "helping addicted people out of crime and disorder into a safer place for all is a measure of a caring society, and certainly a caring police department."
Unfortunately, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the world's oldest and largest organization of police executives, which enshrined its opposition to harm reduction in a recent resolution, is resolute about measuring outcomes in terms of arrest numbers and quantity of drugs seized -- visible police actions -- rather than those of efficacy and compassion.
Despite scientific evidence supporting his claim, and in defiance of its stated emphasis on designing best practices around science and research, the IACP rejects even the words of their former president, August Vollmer, who said that enforcement of drug laws was expensive, cruel and ineffective and argued that drug addiction, like alcoholism, was not a police problem but a medical problem.
Vollmer, widely considered to be the father of modern policing, believed in harm reduction and wanted to develop a policy that required the government to dispense opioids to drug addicts as a means to prevent and reduce criminal activity. If this sounds familiar, that's because it is. Similar programs have been working in other countries for years. Even American methadone programs are based on the principles of harm reduction. Yet the ideology of the IACP ignores its counterparts' success and its former leader's wisdom in refusing to manage death, disease and crime by emphasizing public health outcomes.
But hope is not lost. Seattle is joined by police departments such as that of Quincy, Massachusetts, which has saved hundreds of lives by stocking Naloxone, a cheap and effective drug that can reverse opiate overdoses. Together, these criminal justice professionals recognize that the implementation of harm reduction will provide long-term benefits back to our communities, and are slowly righting the direction of this failed drug war, even in the face of an IACP "leadership" actively lobbying to prevent police from carrying a $22 nasal spray proven to save lives.
It's departments like these that will help extricate the police from the drug war by using harm reduction to allow law enforcement to withdraw from an untenable position and allow us to base our measure of success on effectiveness, compassion and our obligation to serve all of those in our communities, including the disenfranchised and stigmatized. It is time to bury the rhetoric of the drug war by exposing how prohibition itself contributes to a multitude of harms in our communities and achieve peace with honor by committing to drug policies based on scientific evidence, best practices and human rights. It's just a shame that some of those sworn to protect us are refusing to lead the way.
Lieutenant Commander Diane Goldstein (Ret.) is a board member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of law enforcement professionals who, after fighting in the front lines of the war on drugs, now advocate for its end.