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Losing Hearts and Minds in the Drug War

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In the forty years since Richard Nixon declared a "War on Drugs," Americans' perceptions of that war are finally beginning to shift.

Receding support for Prohibition is happening in large part because of virally circulated news accounts and videos of law enforcement's disturbingly harsh tactics in the drug war. My former colleagues are making clear that besides causing thousands of deaths worldwide and costing billions of taxpayer dollars, the drug war's most serious collateral damage has been to undermine the role of civilian law enforcement in our free society.

In one of the most widely viewed videos, a tiny single-family home is descended upon by a Columbia, Missouri Police Department SWAT team. After pounding on the door and announcing themselves, the cops waste no time. They smash open the door and charge into the unsuspecting family's home.

After what sounds like multiple explosions or gunshots, we hear the sound of a dog yelping sharply, as if in pain.

We then hear several more gunshots or explosions amid the general pandemonium.

The camera follows the heavily armed and armored officers inside. We watch as they order a woman and a small child, still woozy from being suddenly awakened, into their living room.

As they are forced onto the floor, a young male is brought into the room. He is handcuffed and pushed against a wall.

"What did I do? What did I DO?" he shouts, as the woman and the child cower on the floor nearby.

We then learn the source of the dog's pained cries.

"You shot my dog, you shot my DOG!" the man suddenly shouts. "Why did you do that? He was a good dog! He was probably trying to play with you!"

He, the woman and the child all break into pitiful sobs.

As of late October, just five months after it was posted, the Columbia police raid video has been viewed nearly two million times on YouTube. The clip quickly ricocheted across cyberspace, generating emotionally charged, outraged calls for the officers to be fired and prosecuted. Or subjected to the same kind of treatment that terrorized their fellow citizens.

Public indignation over the incident intensified when it was learned that the Columbia SWAT team was executing an eight-day-old search warrant, and that the only things seized were a pipe containing a small amount of marijuana residue. Since possession of small amounts of pot had long ago been essentially decriminalized in Columbia, the man was charged with simple possession of drug paraphernalia, a misdemeanor.

The reaction of Fox Business Network's Andrew Napolitano was telling. In a segment about the raid that also found its way onto YouTube, the retired New Jersey Superior Court judge says, "This was America -- not East Germany, not Nazi Germany, but middle America!"

Yet as former Cato staffer Radley Balko, who wrote about the Columbia video, has noted, what's most remarkable about the raid is that it wasn't remarkable at all. The only thing that made it unusual was that it was videotaped and made public, thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Columbia Daily Tribune newspaper.

There are more than 50,000 police paramilitary raids in the United States each year -- more than 130 every day. Virtually all are for prosecution of drug warrants, the vast majority involving marijuana. Many jurisdictions use SWAT teams for execution of every search warrant for drugs.

Just like in Columbia, these drug raids are typically staged in the middle of the night by officers equipped similarly to those depicted in the video: Darth Vader-style Kevlar helmets and body armor, black uniforms, military boots, night vision goggles. The officers are armed with automatic weapons and are sometimes deployed from armored personnel carriers or rappelling from helicopters. Doors are smashed open with battering rams or are ripped from their hinges by ropes tied to vehicles. And, to further disorient those inside, officers are trained to use explosives -- "flash-bang" grenades -- upon entry. The slightest provocation, including any "furtive" moments on the part of the residents, often results in shots fired.

Since drug dealers sometimes use dogs to protect their stash, family pets are shot, kicked, or, in the recent case of a New York City raid, thrown out the window.

At least in Columbia, no human was injured or killed in the crossfire, and (unlike dozens of cases every year across the country), the SWAT team got the address right -- even if the huge stash of drugs and money they thought they'd discover was nowhere to be found.

How did local police departments in a free society ever reach this point?

Nixon's use of the word "War" was no accident. From the outset, Washington's approach to the problems of drug use and addiction has been overtly militaristic in nature.

"It's a funny war when the 'enemy' is entitled to due process of law and a fair trial," the nation's first "Drug Czar," William Bennett, told Fortune magazine. Never known for moderation, he later famously urged repeal of habeas corpus in drug cases and even went on to recommend public beheading of drug dealers.

The federal government has instituted policies that have encouraged local law enforcement agencies to increasingly blur the roles of soldiers and police.

SWAT, a specialized paramilitary force used in especially dangerous situations -- think armed robberies, barricaded suspects, hostages, the Columbine school shootings -- had been in existence before the drug war. But today, their mission is almost exclusively the execution of search warrants in drug cases.

Criminologists Peter Kraska and Louis Cubellis have documented that, as of 1997, 90 percent of American cities with populations of greater than 50,000 had at least one paramilitary or SWAT unit, twice as many as the decade before.

In the post-9/11 era, paramilitary police units have been formed in such unlikely places as Butler, Missouri (population 4,201); Mt. Orab, Ohio (2,701) and Middleburg, Pennsylvania (1,363). Even college campuses like the University of Central Florida have their own campus police SWAT units, operating independently from state and local police departments or civil authorities.

The federal government has given local SWAT units access to highly sophisticated equipment, encouraging its use in an ever-more aggressive War on Drugs.

Beginning with the Military Cooperation and Law Enforcement Act of 1981, the Pentagon gave local and state police access to surplus military equipment for purposes of drug interdiction. By 1997, local police departments around the country had stockpiled 1.2 million pieces of gear, including thousands of military-style M-16 automatic rifles, body armor, helmets, grenade launchers, night vision goggles, even armored personnel carriers and helicopters.

But the military equipment transfers to local police for drug enforcement were just the first step in Washington's intensification of the drug war.

Throughout the 1980s, Congress and the White House together eagerly chipped away at the Civil War-era Posse Comitatus Act, which for more than a century had forbidden use of the military for civilian law enforcement purposes.

Following Ronald Reagan's 1986 National Security Directive declaring drugs a threat to national security, Congress ordered the National Guard to aid state drug enforcement efforts. The effect has been to order the American military to search for marijuana plants.

By 2000, as the Cato Institute's Diane Cecilia Weber documented, Posse Comitatus had been all but repealed with respect to drug interdiction. The first President Bush went so far as to institute a program of "regional task forces" to facilitate civilian-military cooperation in areas of intelligence sharing, equipment transfers, and training of local police in advanced military assault tactics.

A police officer's job is to preserve the peace, to maintain public order on the streets of America's cities. A soldier's job is to fight wars on foreign soil. These are two profoundly different roles.

Tragically, the gradual evolution of local law enforcement into paramilitary units has, over a generation, dramatically changed the culture of police work--in ways the public increasingly and justifiably, finds objectionable.

The shock-and-awe drug enforcement tactics now employed almost a thousand times each week have needlessly injected a high risk of violence into the prosecution of what are almost always non-violent, consensual crimes.

For the innocent bystanders who get caught up in them, the paramilitary raids impose a traumatic and lasting punishment where none is justified. Even for the perpetrators, the raids constitute a reversal of the presumption of innocence (and, as evidenced so vividly by the Columbia raid, a grotesquely disproportionate response to a minor -- or non-existent -- offense).

Fortunately, we are moving closer and closer to a tipping point in the effort to restore sanity to our drug laws and enforcement priorities.

For the first time since Gallup began tracking the issue 41 years ago, fully half of Americans now support legalization of marijuana, with the issue now receiving actual majority support (55 percent) on the west coast.

The changing public attitudes toward marijuana bode well for marijuana policy reform initiatives now being circulated in California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Ohio and Washington State, and for legislation now pending in several state houses to allow medicinal use.

More and more Americans are coming to realize the staggering human toll -- in lives, dollars, and civil liberties -- of the drug war. Some of these awakening Americans are police officers--a rapidly growing minority of cops who realize the harm these tactics have done to the people they've been hired to serve, the risks to their own safety and wellbeing, and the erosion of public confidence and respect for law enforcement this policy has caused.

We owe it to ourselves, and to those whose job is to help make our neighborhoods safe, to put an end to the drug war.