Drug prohibition has been a fact of life in the United States for roughly a century now. While it was ostensibly designed to protect American citizens from the dangers of drug use, it now has a momentum of its own, independent of that original goal, at which it has failed spectacularly. As the prohibitionist response to drug use and sales deepened over the decades, then intensified even more with the bipartisan drug war of the Reagan era, prohibition and its enforcement have created a constellation of groups, industries, and professions that have grown wealthy and powerful feeding at the drug war trough.
In what will be an occasional series of reports on "The Vested Interests of Prohibition," we will be examining just who profits, how, by how much, and how much influence they have on the political decision-making process. This week we begin with a group so obvious it sometimes vanishes into the background, as if it were just part of the way things are in this world. That is the American law enforcement establishment.
That's right, the cops, the PO-lice. The Man makes a pretty penny off the drug war. How much? In an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times earlier this month, long-time drug war critic Orange County (California) Superior Court Judge James Gray put the figure at $69 billion a year worldwide for the past 40 years, for a total of $2.5 trillion spent on drug prohibition. In written testimony presented before a hearing of the Congressional Joint Economic Committee last month, University of Maryland drug policy analyst Peter Reuter, more conservatively put combined current state, federal, and local drug policy spending at $40 billion a year, with roughly 70-75% going for law enforcement.
By just about any measure, drug prohibition and drug law enforcement have failed at their stated goal: reducing drug use in America. Yet in general, American law enforcement has never met a drug law reform it liked, and never met a harsh new law it didn't. The current, almost hysterical, campaign around restoring the Justice Action Grants (JAG or Byrne grant) program cuts imposed by the Bush administration in a rare fit of fiscal responsibility is a case in point.
The Byrne grant program, which primarily funds those scandal-plagued multi-jurisdictional anti-drug law enforcement task forces, has been criticized by everyone from the ACLU to the GAO as wasteful, ineffective, and ridden with abuses, yet the law enforcement community has mobilized a powerful lobbying offensive to restore those funds. Now, after yet another year where congressional Democrats, fearful of being seen as "soft on crime," scurried to smooth law enforcement's ruffled feathers, the Byrne grant program is set to receive $550 million next year, a huge $350 million increase over this year's reduced -- but not zeroed out -- levels.
"The law enforcement lobby is enormously powerful," said Eric Sterling, former counsel to the House Judiciary Committee, who now heads the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "Law enforcement unions are extremely important in endorsements for state and local elections, especially in primary elections."
"All of these groups are very powerful, and members of Congress are loath to be criticized by them or vote against them," said Sterling.
"Without a doubt, the war on drugs creates a lot of jobs for law enforcement and various aspects of the war on drugs create huge profits for law enforcement," said Bill Piper, national affairs director and Capitol Hill lobbyist for the Drug Policy Alliance. "With those revenues, they can employ more police and continue to expand their turf. The law enforcement lobby is very strong and effective," said Piper. "No one wants to deny them what they want. The Democrats are terrified of them, and most Republicans, too. Everyone just wants to go back to their district and say they're tough on drugs. The law enforcement drug war lobby is a train that is very, very difficult to stop."
Faced with those solemn line-ups of men in blue, American flags fluttering behind them, most politicians would rather comply with the demands of law enforcement than not, whether at the state, local, or federal level. And that's fine with police, who have become habituated to a steady infusion of drug war money.
"Law enforcement at all levels of government has become dependent on the drug war, which in turn is predicated on drug prohibition," said former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, who joined the anti-prohibitionist group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) shortly after his retirement. "They are addicted to the revenue streams that have become predictable and necessary for the day-to-day operations of departments all across the country," he continued.
"State and local governments get anti-crime funding from the federal government, and there are line-items dedicated to things like those regional narcotics task forces," Stamper said. "It wasn't a whole lot of money at first, but over the years we are now talking billions of dollars."
It isn't just departments that benefit from prosecuting the drug war, individual police officers can and do, too. "Both police departments and individual officers have a strong vested interest in maintaining prohibition," said Sterling as he related the story of his ride-along with Montgomery County, Maryland, police a few years ago. After cruising suburban malls and byways for a few hours one cold December night, Sterling and the officer he accompanied got a call that an officer needed back-up.
The officer needing back-up was accompanied by Sterling's then assistant, Tyler Smith, who, when Sterling's car arrived, told him that his (Smith's) cop had pulled over nine cars and convinced four of their drivers to consent to drug searches. In the present case, the officer had scored. The three young men in the car he had pulled over consented to a search, and he found a pipe in the car and a few specks of marijuana in one young man's pocket. By now four different police cars were on the scene.
"Now, all four officers are witnesses," Sterling noted. "That means every time there's a court proceeding, they go down to the courthouse and collect three hours overtime pay. They're almost always immediately excused, but they still get the pay. That's four cops getting paid for one cop's bust, so they have an enormous personal stake in backing up the one gung-ho cop who's out there trolling for busts. Collars for dollars is what they call it," Sterling related.
"I think we need to take into account the fact that individual officers at all levels are character challenged and profit personally from prohibition," said Stamper.
"It's also generally easy police work," Sterling noted. "You start in a position of strength and assertion, you're not arriving at a scene of conflict, you're not stopping a robbery or responding to a gun call; it's a relatively safe form of police activity. You get to notch an arrest, and that makes it look like you're being productive."
And despite repeated police protestations to the contrary, enforcing the drug laws is just not that dangerous. Every year, the National Police Officers Memorial puts out a list of the officers who died in the line of duty. Every year, out of the one or two or three hundred killed, barely a handful died enforcing the drug laws. And those dead officers are all too often used by their peers as poster-children for increased drug law enforcement.
But if law enforcement profits handsomely with taxpayer dollars at the state or federal level as it pursues the chimera of drug war success, it has another important prohibition-related revenue stream to tap into: asset forfeitures. Every Monday, the Wall Street Journal publishes official DEA legal notices of seizures as required by law. On the Monday of June 30, the legal notice consisted of 3 1/4 pages of tiny four-point type representing hundreds of seizures for that week alone.
According to the US Justice Department, federal law enforcement agencies alone seized $1.6 billion -- mainly in cash -- last year alone. That's up three-fold from the $567 million seized in 2003. But that figure doesn't include hundreds of millions of dollars more the feds got as their share of seizures by states, nor does it include the unknown hundreds of millions of dollars more seized by state and local agencies and handled under state asset forfeiture laws. Last year, Texas agencies alone seized more than $125 million.
"Revenue from forfeited assets represents a particularly unconscionable source of funds, particularly when police agencies set out to make busts to create additional funding for themselves," Stamper said. "Even if the money is going to agencies and not into the pockets of individual cops, you still develop that mentality that we're enforcing the law in order to make money. That's not how it's supposed to be," he said.
"Unfortunately, there are many departments that see this as a useful way to deter drug use, even though there is no evidence to support that," said Sterling. "Still, they can justify taking private property as serving an important law enforcement purpose, but there are many accounts of departments that are almost entirely self-funded by the proceeds," he said.
"If Byrne is cut back or zeroed out, and the police agency is fortunate enough to have an interstate highway to patrol, they are in a position to target vehicles and go fishing for dollars," he noted.
"These revenue streams, whether it's Byrne grants or seized cash, create dependency in the departments that rely on them," said Stamper, "and that makes it less and less likely that the police in your community are going to be critical and analytical in questioning their ways of doing business. Does prohibition work, does it produce positive results? The answer is no and no. We have a situation where we are actually doing harm in the name of law enforcement, and it's deep harm, this notion that prohibition is workable. Drug law enforcement is funded at obscene levels, and this is money that could be used for things that do work, like drug abuse prevention and treatment," the ex-chief continued. "It's safe to say that American law enforcement has developed an addiction to the monies it gets from drug prohibition."