Ferguson’s Overlooked Ties to the War on Drugs

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

A SWAT teamLike many people across the country, I’ve been glued to the TV as tragic events have unfolded in Ferguson, MO. In the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death, violent clashes have erupted between Ferguson’s citizens and its law enforcement. As tensions escalated, many Americans have been shocked to see police dressed in army gear, wielding M-16s and other weaponry that seems straight out of Iraq or Afghanistan.

Police in Ferguson have a duty to protect public safety, but it appears that their response has intensified anger in the streets instead of mitigating it.  Critics have rightfully called the militarization of the county’s law enforcement excessive and counterproductive. What isn’t getting as much play in the commentary is the connection between this conflict and our nation’s War on Drugs.

As the ACLU recently documented, the hyper-militarization of America’s police forces originated in the 1990s, during the Drug War’s heyday. The federal government launched an initiative called the 1033 Program that allows the Department of Defense to transfer military equipment to local law enforcement agencies for the purpose of counterdrug activities. Since the program began, the Pentagon has given away more than $4 billion’s worth of weapons and gear to police forces in all 50 states.

In addition to the Department of Defense, other government agencies have helped law enforcement stockpile items such as body armor, tanks, and even drones in small towns across America. Grant programs through the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security have also provided funding for military goods in the name of anti-drug and counterterrorism efforts.

As we’ve seen in Ferguson, a participant in the 1033 Program, these policies have done little to curb drug activities. Instead, the presence of armored trucks and SWAT teams creates the perception that cops have adopted a “warrior mentality.”  Although there have been moments where police have exercised restraint with protesters, there have been other instances where law enforcement used excessive force. This experience is not unique to Ferguson. In a study of incidents nationwide, the ACLU found that in 62% of SWAT teams deployments, the purpose was a low-level drug search. The reasons for these deployments were not typically the presence of active shooters, hostages, or true emergencies, but simply the belief that a person possessed a limited quantity of a controlled substance.

While we do not know all the facts on the ground in Ferguson, we know that militarization on a national level can often do more harm than good. It has eroded trust between law enforcement and ordinary citizens, and it certainly hasn’t eradicated the drug scourge from our communities.

The Obama Administration has correctly acknowledged that our nation’s drug problem is a public health issue, not solely a law enforcement or criminal justice issue. Efforts to curtail mandatory minimum sentences are commendable, as was the decision to allow thousands of drug offenders to apply for early release. However, the events in Ferguson remind us that vestiges of an outmoded system remain. Militarization is evidence of the old, hardline way of thinking that refuses to see drug addiction for what it is: a disease.

To fight this disease effectively, we don’t need more tanks or drones, but greater investment in prevention, education, and treatment. This is particularly important in marginalized communities where we’ve seen a vicious cycle of poverty, addiction, and incarceration.

Breaking this cycle means treating, rather than punishing those who need help—but it also means dismantling the prejudice that has played a major role in the Drug War. Michael Brown reportedly had marijuana in his system when he was killed, which means he was just like many American teens; 1 in 15 high school seniors smoke pot on a daily or near-daily basis. However, as an African American, he was four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. He was also more likely to be drug searched by a SWAT team, which disproportionately target minorities. Addiction doesn’t discriminate along racial or socioeconomic lines, but our nation’s response to the problem clearly does.

Conflicting eyewitness accounts have made it difficult to ascertain the details of Michael Brown’s death—but it’s clear that the people of Ferguson faced a perfect storm. Sadly, this storm is brewing in many communities across America. Only by scaling back on military tactics and promoting a public health approach to addiction can we deescalate the problem—before more lives are lost.

Howard Meitiner
President and CEO
Phoenix House

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1 Comment

  • Trudy Duffy

    I appreciate the insight connecting these issues to the war on drugs. Recently having become a Board Member at Haven Recovery in Volusia County Florida I am interested in seeking information to influence the organization in taking public stances on issues like this as well as prescription pain medication. It seems to me a coalition of substance abuse treatment providers could lead on these issues and change public perception and influence policy. Dr. Kolodny has shown extraordinary leadership in this area and Phoenix House fortunate to have him serving your organization.

    My sons addiction to OxyContin brought me into this fight. Fighting the stigma of addiction and seeking compassionate treatment for those suffering has become a mission for me.

    Your article helps tie it all together. I hope to attend the FEDUP Rally in Washington to specifically support Dr. Kolodny.