Strategies for anti-prohibitionists, pt. 2: the Law Enforcement-Industrial Complex

In part 1 we looked at the moralists who support the prohibition of certain kinds of substances. They are a large and influential group, and their influence extends far beyond their actual numbers. The other key group I had in mind is the law enforcement-industrial complex.

The law enforcement-industrial complex consists: the DEA, local and state police at all levels, federal, state, and local prosecutors, prison systems both public and contracted, manufacturers and suppliers of weapons and armor, and a host of other related “private” concerns who sell law enforcement products to police. Flashbang grenades, Lenco Bearcats, kevlar vests, etc., are all made by companies with a vested interest in the militarization of law enforcement, and while terrorism is the magic word that makes the money pour in, the bread and butter of the industry is the War on Drugs.

I’d be remiss to leave out the President, the US Congress and their equivalents at the state level. By pandering to the law enforcement-industrial complex and the neo-Puritans they acquire and maintain power. Even when giving only verbal support to the neo-Puritans, they give material support to their allies.

The US has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and it’s these people who benefit directly. Their position is much less philosophical. They profit, both materially and intangibly, from prohibition. More money, more power, more gadgets, more career advancement. I’m sure some of them actually believe that certain substances cannot be used responsibly and that the state has a moral obligation to target them, but it’s my intuition that for the vast majority of them that’s just fluff. (In the same way that some KGB agents were probably true believers in the Soviet system, though after the collapse they adapted quickly to other systems.)

As for how to counteract the influence of this group, well, the strategies are considerably more varied. The overall theme is that we all suffer as prohibition is ramped up. However one feels morally about the consumption of certain plants and chemicals, the benefits that prohibition may have pale in comparison to the costs. It’s mainly the work of academics, journalists, and activists that will make a difference.

Very briefly, here are some of the domestic costs:
1. Rights—for everybody—diminish in proportion to the power and influence of the law enforcement-industrial complex. Only last year did the Supreme Court decide that police who had followed a drug dealer into an apartment complex were legally allowed to break down someone else’s door without a warrant because they thought they heard sounds of evidence being destroyed. In this case the people in the other apartment were smoking marijuana, which attracted the attention of the police. They began to flush it down the toilet when the police kicked in their door. They were completely unrelated to the drug dealer the police initially followed, but the Supreme Court said they were within bounds. This kind of case could only come up in the context of prohibition. Now the police are entitled to kick in your door merely on their say-so that they thought they heard evidence being destroyed. Almost all of the major encroachments on first amendment rights since the Drug War began were because of the Drug War. See: Civil Asset Forfeiture.
2. Rights for minorities suffer in particular. The more marginalized people are in society, the less people will look out for them, even the well-meaning NPR-listening bluehairs. Being Hispanic and having a large amount of cash is grounds at minimum for having the cash confiscated, even if it is funds raised by a church for the purchase of church vehicles. Being black is grounds in New York City for being stopped and frisked, even if you’re just walking down the sidewalk. That this is so was not inevitable; prohibition made it happen.
3. Imprisoning so many people imposes many non-monetary costs on society. Beyond the simple costs of paying the police, district attorneys, and prison guards, social welfare is set back even more. A person who has served prison time for non-violent drug-related offenses has a record afterwards that makes it harder for him to find gainful employment. The jobs he is likely to find will be worse, and he, his family, and his community suffer a lifelong drag on his productivity. This is particularly harmful for people on the lower end of the skill spectrum. People argue that a person can avoid this fate by not having anything to do with drugs in the first place, and that’s usually true, and those people may not be swayed by my argument that non-violent drug-related crimes should not even legally be crimes. Let’s think of it this way: does facilitating someone’s getting high deserve an invisible lifetime ball and chain? I think most reasonable people will answer no. (For the moral monsters who answer yes, we can’t waste our precious resources swaying them.)
4. The rule of law is undermined. As I’ve written before elsewhere, many of the people arrested and convicted of drug crimes aren’t even guilty. (I wrote this, I think, in response to a video showing cops planting drugs on a man they pulled over and then immediately arresting him for the possession of said drugs.) This kind of arbitrariness is exactly the opposite of the rule of law. If it can happen once, it can probably happen again, and it probably happens all the time. I was once told by a defense lawyer that cops lie in court so often and so routinely that it’s usually not worth objecting to. The entire culture of law enforcement is infected with this.

Even more important are the international costs. All of the points just given apply to other countries, a hundred or a thousand times more. The War on Drugs is not always a metaphor—from Colombia to Mexico, and in many other places around the world, it is quite literal. Many thousands of people die violent, gruesome deaths every year who would not have without prohibition. “El Chapo” Guzmán, the most powerful drug lord currently living in Mexico, is said to have someone on his payroll in every law enforcement agency in the country. This may be a bit of a stretch in one way, and may fail to capture the damage of prohibition in another. I’m sure there’s a small town in the Yucatán to which he and his agents have never given a thought, but it’s very clearly the case that in some areas the entire police force is working for him or one of his rivals. And not just the police, but the military as well. The Los Zetas Cartel was founded by defectors from the Mexican special forces. Moreover, fighting the War on Drugs has led the US government to support awful regimes in Latin America, corrupting their societies and leaving a trail of bodies behind. Sure, maybe fewer people get high or overdose. Is that worth it?


Author: rfmcelroyiii

Student and instructor of economics.

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