The War on Drugs Made Police More Violent, Narcotics Policy Experts Say
“The 40-year War on Drugs, unwinnable from the start, is a policy failure that has come at great cost, to society generally and to minority communities especially," wrote public policy experts at Rice University's Baker Institute.
Published on June 12, 2020

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As Americans across the country continue to take to the streets and demand that police departments get defunded, drug policy experts have pointed to the War on Drugs as a salient starting point for meaningful reform.

In a new blog post published by Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, authors Katherine Harris and Alfred Glassell argued that America’s obsession with fighting narcotics crimes has facilitated the militarization of domestic policing. And to achieve real reform in law enforcement, Harris and Glassell propose, we must first end the War on Drugs altogether.

“Collectively, proactive drug enforcement has normalized overzealous policing, which leads to unnecessary citizen-police interactions that have the potential to escalate,” the blog post reads. “The simplest and most effective way to end, or at least greatly reduce, these encounters is for the federal and state governments to remove their legal basis by decriminalizing low-level drug possession.”

Whether it is stop-and-frisk encounters in heavily policed narcotics “hotspots,” surging police department budgets, or no-knock drug warrants like the one that led to the murder of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, confronting drug crimes has spurred countless instances of police violence. But rather than stem the tide of deadly drugs like fentanyl, most narcotics policing targets users and low-level dealers, continuing a cycle of incarceration, community disinvestment, and increased policing. 

And the numbers are bleak. According to the nonprofit group The Last Prisoner Project, there are still at least 40,000 Americans locked up for cannabis offenses, despite adult-use cannabis legalization approved in 11 states and some form of a medical marijuana program on the books in 33 states. Furthermore, the organization says that cannabis legalization in the US would "save roughly $7.7 billion per year in averted enforcement costs and would yield an additional $6 billion in tax revenue."

Thus, Harris and Glassell contend, defunding narcotics policing in favor of a health-focused harm reduction approach would benefit both drug users and society as a whole. 

“No one wants to see people continue to die from fentanyl-laced street drugs, but this problem, itself borne from prohibition, can be better resolved through harm reduction interventions, not militant enforcement,” Harris and Glassell wrote. “Ending the criminalization of drugs and the people who use them will not end police violence. But it is part of the hard work of structural change that lies ahead.” 

At one point in the blog post, the authors sum up the failure of prohibition in a succinct sentence: “The 40-year War on Drugs, unwinnable from the start, is a policy failure that has come at great cost, to society generally and to minority communities especially.”

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Zach Harris
Zach Harris is a writer based in Philadelphia whose work has appeared on Noisey, First We Feast, and Jenkem Magazine. You can find him on Twitter @10000youtubes complaining about NBA referees.
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