President Trump has made the Blue Lives Matter movement a cornerstone of his presidency. Trump publicly condemned the NFL athletes who took a knee to protest police violence, and has pushed to give local cops more access to military equipment. Meanwhile, his Attorney General Jeff Sessions continues to push the drug war. His latest move has been to rescind Obama-era memos around allowing state-legalized marijuana.
Neither Trump nor Sessions sees the obvious disconnect. Like many conservatives, Trump will stop at nothing to make the job of police officer safer, but the best way to protect cops is to end the war on drugs.
The war on drugs creates violence by encouraging violent people to enter the drug trade. Once they’re in, the black market enriches them. They use the proceeds to secure their turf, funding more conflict. In 2010 alone, illegal drugs represented a $108 billion market in the US. A lot of that money flows to gangs like the Rollin’ 30s Harlem Crips in Los Angeles, who used drug sales to finance their more violent activities like assault and robbery.
Once these criminals are involved in the drug trade, they fight both rival drug gangs and the police. Drug kingpins have an incentive to kill any police with whom they interact, because an arrest can mean decades in prison and killing investigators is an easy way to ensure they do not get caught. Low-level drug offenders lack this incentive, but are often the targets of no-knock raids. No-knock raids, in which police break into a home without announcing themselves, often lead to tragic results for police. Homeowners think their home is being invaded, so respond with violence.
The dangers to police from black markets aren’t just theoretical: we see hard evidence in the Prohibition era. When alcohol was outlawed and black market booze became big business for gangsters, violence against police skyrocketed. I built a database of police killings that shows a clear spike during Prohibition. I used data from the Officer Down Memorial Page, which tracks the death of every officer on the job by year. Some of these deaths are non-violent: police in an accident during work hours, for instance. But when I looked at violent police deaths (assault, stabbings and gunfire) from 1900 to 1950, the results were clear: during Prohibition, 192 police were killed on average each year. In the 14 years after Prohibition ended, that number plummeted to an average of 88 per year. Part of that may be attributed to an improving economy, but another factor was likely that black market alcohol was no longer subsidizing gangs.
Legal markets are mostly crime-free. There’s a reason Colorado hasn’t given rise to the next Al Capone, and it’s not just because marijuana makes people chill. Above-ground markets don’t enrich criminals or encourage violence against police. Elon Musk operates Tesla legally. That means that if police come to his headquarters, he has every incentive to treat them well, rather than ordering Tesla employees to kill them to protect himself.
Even as it creates more crime, the war on drugs redirects police resources away from violent criminals, endangering both communities and police in the process. In spite of the brutality associated with the war on drugs, the criminal justice system often targets low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. For 92.4 percent of people in federal prison on drug charges in 2012, a drug offense (not violence) was the most serious offense for which they were convicted. This ratio has probably improved since the federal government stopped subsidizing drug arrests in 2016, but nonviolent offenders are still swept into prison at alarming rates. Every hour the police spend in sting operations and busts of nonviolent offenders is an hour they cannot spend hunting down murderers.
The war on drugs also creates hostility towards police. In a drug deal, none of the participants welcome police presence; most see the cops as villains who will throw them in prison for enjoying themselves or for making a living. Police tend to concentrate drug raids in certain neighborhoods, which magnifies this resentment as residents repeatedly see friends and family arrested and thrown in prison. This resentment can lead to violence.
Ending the war on drugs would dramatically improve relations between police and poor and minority communities, reducing tensions and violence on both sides. When police punish violent crime, they often leave thankful neighborhoods of would-be victims in their wake. That creates more goodwill toward police, because cops are going where they’re truly wanted. Letting police focus on the crime that actually endangers local residents, rather than punishing dealers and users who have community sympathy, can encourage residents to see the police as benefactors rather than an occupying force.
Finally, the war on drugs creates the next generation of criminals. It steals away parents: in 2015, over 450,000 men and women were behind bars due to drug convictions. When a child’s mother or father is incarcerated, the child is three times more likely to spend time in jail or prison as an adult. Conservatives have long realized the importance of a strong family, but the war on drugs directly harms families. By locking up parents, our drug policy is creating thousands of children who are both more disposed to criminality, and unlikely to have any love for police. This endangers tomorrow’s officers.
The war on drugs is big government at its worst. It costs a budget-busting $50 billion per year, and hasn’t even reduced usage — 66 percent more Americans used illicit drugs in 2010 than in 1970. By creating bad incentives and unintended consequences, it makes more of the very violence it was intended to help stop. While no-one wants to see kids shooting heroin, we should follow Portugal’s example: when they decriminalized all drugs in 2001, drug overdoses and even use fell dramatically. Decriminalizing drugs can help us create a safer, freer nation.