Drug War Ethics: THIS Is Excessive Force…

Radley Balko, a senior editor at Reason Magazine, has been following the law enforcement tactic of paramilitary raids on American homes, some of which go horrible wrong, and many of which raise questions of propriety and proportion. One of the worst of these, a February raid on a family’s home in Missouri that featured the invading authorities shooting the family dog in front of a young child, is immortalized on this frightening video. The father was charged with marijuana possession and child endangerment, presumably because he used drugs in the presence of his.

Balko, who, like everyone at Reason, is a libertarian, uses the incident to press his opposition to the illegal status of recreational drugs. “This is the blunt-end result of all the war imagery and militaristic rhetoric politicians have been spewing for the last 30 years,” he writes…

“—cops dressed like soldiers, barreling through the front door middle of the night, slaughtering the family pets, filling the house with bullets in the presence of children, then having the audacity to charge the parents with endangering their own kid. There are 100-150 of these raids every day in America, the vast, vast majority like this one, to serve a warrant for a consensual crime. But they did prevent Jonathan Whitworth from smoking the pot they found in his possession. So I guess this mission was a success.”

Employing the misguided use of excessive enforcement techniques as proof that the crime itself is not worth enforcing is intellectually dishonest, and far too facile for a commentator as smart as Balko to offer in good faith. If capital punishment is excessively cruel, it certainly doesn’t justify murder. I don’t think we should waterboard terrorists, but that’s not an argument for accepting terrorism. All law enforcement measures have to be reasonable and proportional to the crimes involved, and raids like this one clearly are not.

Still, the “consensual crime” argument, suggesting, as libertarians believe, that as long as there is consent among the direct participants there is no crime, is old, tired, and unpersuasive. Drug use, abuse and addiction in the culture affects far more than the drug users or their suppliers. I am perfectly willing to stipulate that an unattached hermit, accepting no government assistance or aid, with no family or obligations, who goes off in a shack in the woods and gets stoned out of his mind around the clock should be charged with no crime. But when people with relationships, responsibilities and duties in the complex latticework that is society default on them because they like getting high, when their use of drugs encourages minors to do the same to the detriment of their socialization, education, and value to society, and when society itself has to bear the burden of some or all of the harm done to themselves and others by “consenting” parties, the consent isn’t enough. When drug use by others starts having an impact on my welfare and enjoyment of life, then I need to consent…and I’m not consenting.

Yes: paramilitary raids on private homes to enforce marijuana laws are irresponsible, unfair and unethical. Let’s object loudly and stop them. They are no reason, however, to let our drug culture get any more pervasive and destructive than it already is.

10 thoughts on “Drug War Ethics: THIS Is Excessive Force…

  1. Jack,
    And the argument that ALL crimes have victims is just as old, tired, and unpersuasive. I agree it’s foolish to categorize drugs, gambling, and prostitution as “victimless” because, as you correctly point out, innocent bystanders in the way of family, friends, and otherwise can get hurt in the process. However, this is true of any number of other legal activities which we permit as a society; or are you advocating lying be made illegal as well? What about driving?

    Just living one’s life is likely to have negative repercussions on someone and it would be impossible and ill-advised to make them all into crimes. Even acts which are otherwise moral (such as accepting a job offer) is likely to “victimize” someone else (like those who didn’t make the cut). This is an extreme example, I realize, but it does underscore the point that an act can’t be considered a crime just because it has the potential to hurt someone else.

    Finally, (and I’m sure this is another tired argument) much of the victim-hood related specifically to drug use exists as a result of it’s illegality. The potential for drug abuse is, in many ways, no greater than alcohol and though I’ve heard you speak against excessive drinking, you’ve never advocated its outright ban .. what’s the difference here?


  2. Neil, I’d gladly advocate an outright ban for alcohol, except that it is so thoroughly interwoven in our culture and rituals that its extrication now, as it was 90 years ago, is impossible. That is hardly an argument for MORE alcohols (or, for that matter, tobaccos) in our culture, now, is it?

    I’m sure you know how many AA groups there are—where I live there are hundreds, each one representing hundreds of victims of alcohol abuse. A couple genies are well out of the bottle, killing people, destroying lives: you want more? Insanity.
    Honestly, I think the idea is certifiable.

    At least alcohol has uses that don’t require intoxication—it can actually taste good. What value of recreational drugs even begins to counter-balance the harm it causes—to minds, to finances, to jobs, to productivity? I find the arguments, usually by well-to-do, educated, upper-middle class types, essentially selfish. We can just go to rehab, after all—meanwhile, we like our toke. And the 11 year old who starts on weed and blows off school, because the smart and cool and older people say its not really anything bad? Aaah, screw him: we got our high! The is the NORMaL way.

    The second the government says drugs are legal–never mind regulation—that means the culture is giving them the stamp of approval…and exit genies. The fact that it is illegal does cause problems, and that’s not the law’s fault, because the law is accurately reflecting society’s interests. I lay it on the laps of those who undermine the cultural consensus for the most selfish of reasons.

    Driving: it has a productive purpose. It is transportation; it is recreation. We can declare the balance worth the degree of harm. Not even close to a good analogy. Speeding for fun is more similar to drug use. Lying? But lying IS illegal, or is subject to civil liability, when it causes the most harm: fraud, breach of contract, perjury. It’s unethical. So is drug use. If society would work at a consensus that it’s unethical, like lying, then maybe the laws could be made less inclusive or severe.

    Has the drug culture, and the increasing tolerance for rationalizations for it, made life in the US better or worse? Look at Whitney Houston and tell me that it’s been for the better. Corey Haim. John Belushi. We have shared needles spreading AIDS, we have cocaine addicts blowing kids’ college funds. We spend millions trying to stop trade in a substance that persists because too many smart and literate people keep deceiving the culture into the belief that some grad students being able to unwind with a little dope is worth all the destruction that will result from letting conditions exist that would let them do that.

    I’m pretty sure I’ll lose this argument. In 10, or 20 years, the abysmal logic of “if you can’t stop it, legalize it” will result in legal dope, and we’ll have millions of drug addicts causing havoc and being a burden on the rest of us to go with all the alcoholics. But those grad students will have their 6 PM. weed, and it will all be worth it.

    PS: one of the first elected officials who suggested legalizing drugs was Michael Steele. Of course.

  3. Jack,
    All your examples focus on the worst-case scenario and, frankly, that’s no way to regulate. Drugs can have terrible downsides, agreed, but you’re going under the assumption that they’re the normative. I’ve known (and continue to kn0w) any number of functioning individuals who nonetheless engage in recreational drug use but otherwise keep their life in order. Disagreeing with a lifestyle choice because it holds the potential for abuse doesn’t mean it should be stopped altogether.

    The biggest argument for legalization, however, is that of freedom. Even it was assured that one toke of pot or whatever else would be instantly lethal, I would STILL advocate its legalization since any and every one has the right to ingest/smoke/eat/etc anything they so choose. Free societies have to learn to let people make their own mistakes and (hopefully) learn from them; banning something just makes it more taboo and does nothing to stop demand.

    Lying (at least in certain contexts) is entirely legal yet it doesn’t necessarily imply that society has given it the “stamp of approval,” rather, we realize that it would nearly impossible to enforce. The same applies to illegal drugs; the “war” is over. I’m not advocating the use of drugs because prohibition isn’t working, I’m proposing a new paradigm where they can be legal and STILL bad.

    Finally, per your alcohol example, most illegal drugs can have uses too. Marijuana “tastes” good to any number of people, as do others, and the feelings they produce are also enjoyable. Moreover, medicinally, nearly all currently illegal drugs do have legitimate uses medically (opium for pain-killing, pot for nausea, etc). I realize these uses are limited and only work in controlled amounts, yes, but that underscores my point .. how beneficial does something have to be before it’s acceptable? Otherwise we could start prohibiting all kinds of things which carry associated risks.

    Where does it end?


  4. Jack,
    As an addendum, people looking for ways to fuck up their lives (Corey Haim, Whitney Houston, and street junkies) are all driven by the urge to escape or improve reality and will do so by legal or illegal means. Moreover, in the case of Haim, Ledger, or Houston, the majority of their drugs were acquired legally to begin with, meaning that laws of any kind would have proven useless. Junkies will always find a way ..


  5. The biggest casualty in the War on Drugs is the Fourth Amendment. I hope it’s only MIA, but fear otherwise.

  6. My views on pot notwithstanding, I feel the “War on *insertsomethingyoudon’tlikehere*” approach is too heavy-handed to handle societal issues like drug use. I’d rather have neighborhoods, employers, and schools express communal condemnation than the police. It’s too dangerous, for the police, for suspects, and for the rights of innocents.

    RIP Jarrod Shivers

  7. I remember a raid by the Detroit police’s elite anti-drug squad on a “major drug dealer” years ago. The police arrived in a black, unmarked van in the middle of the night. Police dressed all in black and wearing ski masks shot the homeowners dog with a silenced pistol (a ‘hushpuppy’). They then battered the door down (because they had a ‘no-knock’ warrant). They found the homeowner still in bed, threw her on the ground, put a hood over her head, secured her arms and legs, threw her in the van, and left. They then questioned her for 8 hours without an attorney. When a public defender finally arrived, he noticed that the address on the warrant was not the address of the suspect. They went to the wrong house. The suspect was also almost 90 years old.
    As a social worker guided the dazed and confused woman from the police station, one of the officers yelled “Don’t think you’re going to get off on a technicality. We know you did it. We will be watching you.”

    Seeing that made me understand why some people are afraid of the police. It made me wonder what the difference was between this sort of police work and an Argentinian death squad.

    It isn’t the drug laws that are at fault, however. We saw this kind of thing with child molestation in the ’90’s and with sex-offender lists today. Excessive force is a big temptation that must be resisted even when unpopular (but I have no sympathy for the baseball field moron who was tazered).

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  9. It’s so refreshing to hear the other side of the coin from the drug war. So much demonizing has taken us off track with respect to recreational drugs in this country.

    I felt so badly for Pres. Bill Clinton when he was accosted about his recreational drug use and youthful indiscretions. He’s such a good man; what a waste.

    • I have this feeling, Paul, that your tongue is so deeply in your cheek that it’s sticking out from a hole in your cheek, but I can’t be sure. Good job!

      As you know, Good Ol’ Bill was pilloried not for his pot use, but for his unique way of lying about it, a characteristic we came to expect, if not admire.

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