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John W. Whitehead

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The War on Drugs Has Become the War on the American People

Posted: 11/02/11 06:42 PM ET

Insisting that the "damage done by drugs is felt far beyond the millions of Americans with diagnosable substance abuse or dependence problems," President Obama has declared October 2011 to be National Substance Abuse Prevention Month. However, while drug abuse and drug-related crimes have unquestionably taken a toll on American families and communities, the government's own War on Drugs has left indelible scars on the population.

Just consider--every 19 seconds, someone in the U.S. is arrested for violating a drug law. Every 30 seconds, someone is arrested in the U.S. for violating a marijuana law, making it the fourth most common cause of arrest in the United States.

The foot soldiers in the government's increasingly fanatical war on drugs, particularly marijuana, are state and local police officers dressed in SWAT gear and armed to the hilt. These SWAT teams carry out roughly 40,000-50,000 no-knock raids every year in search of illegal drugs and drug paraphernalia. As author and journalist Radley Balko reports, "The vast majority of these raids are to serve routine drug warrants, many times for crimes no more serious than possession of marijuana... Police have broken down doors, screamed obscenities, and held innocent people at gunpoint only to discover that what they thought were marijuana plants were really sunflowers, hibiscus, ragweed, tomatoes, or elderberry bushes. (It's happened with all five.)"

Take the case of Philip Cobbs, an unassuming 53-year-old African-American man who cares for his blind, deaf 90-year-old mother and lives on a 39-acre tract of land that's been in his family since the 1860s. Cobbs is the latest in a long line of Americans to find themselves swept up in the government's zealous pursuit of marijuana. On July 26, 2011, while spraying the blueberry bushes near his Virginia house, Cobbs noticed a black helicopter circling overhead. After watching the helicopter for several moments, Cobbs went inside to check on his mother. By the time he returned outside, several unmarked police SUVs had driven onto his property, and police in flak jackets, carrying rifles and shouting unintelligibly, had exited the vehicles and were moving toward him.

Although the officers insisted they had sighted marijuana plants growing on Cobbs' property (they claimed to find two spindly plants growing in the wreckage of a fallen oak tree), their real objective was clear--to search Cobbs' little greenhouse. The search turned up nothing more than used tomato seedling containers. Incredibly, police had not even bothered to secure a warrant before embarking on their raid of Cobbs' property--part of a routine sweep of the countryside in search of massive pot-growing operations that had to cost taxpayers upwards of $25,000, at the very least.

Thankfully for Cobbs, no one was hurt during the raid on his property. However, that is not the case for many Americans who find themselves on the wrong end of a SWAT team raid in search of marijuana. For example, on May 5, 2011, a SWAT team kicked open the door of ex-Marine Jose Guerena's home during a drug raid and opened fire. Thinking his home was being invaded by criminals, Guerena told his wife and child to hide in a closet, grabbed a gun and waited in the hallway to confront the intruders. He never fired his weapon. In fact, the safety was still on his gun when he was killed. The SWAT officers, however, not as restrained, fired 70 rounds of ammunition at Guerena--23 of those bullets made contact. Guerena had had no prior criminal record, and the police found nothing illegal in his home.

Tragically, Jose Guerena is far from the only innocent casualty in the government's War on Drugs. Botched SWAT team raids have resulted in the loss of countless lives, including children and the elderly. Usually, however, the first to be shot are the family dogs.

Clearly, something must be done. There was a time when communities would have been up in arms over a botched SWAT team raid resulting in the loss of innocent lives. Unfortunately, today, we are increasingly coming to accept the use of SWAT teams by law enforcement agencies for routine drug policing--and the high incidence of error-related casualties that accompanies these raids--as par for the course.

What's more, the government is providing incentives to the SWAT teams carrying out these raids through federal grants such as the Edward Byrne memorial grants and the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grants. As David Borden, the Executive Director of Drug Reform Coordination Network (DRCNet), pointed out, "The exact details on how Byrne and COPS grants are distributed has not been studied, at least not to my knowledge, but an examination of grant applications by one of my colleagues found that they overwhelmingly focus on the number of arrests made, particularly drug arrests. Byrne grants also fund the purchase of equipment for SWAT teams."

The time has come to put an end to the government's racially-weighted, militant war on marijuana. It is a failed, costly and misguided program that has cost the country billions. As critics rightly point out, the war on marijuana has resulted in a massive increase in incarceration rates, funded criminal syndicates, and failed to restrict its availability or discourage its use. To this end, a growing number of legal scholars are calling to end the prohibition on marijuana and treat it like alcohol by regulating and taxing it at the state level.

As always, the special interests have a lot to say in these matters, and it's particularly telling that those lobbying hard to keep the prohibition on marijuana include law enforcement officials and alcoholic beverage producers. However, when the war on drugs--a.k.a. the war on the American people--becomes little more than a thinly veiled attempt to keep SWAT teams employed and special interests appeased, it's time to revisit our drug policies and laws.

 
 
 

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