The never-ending evil of the war on drugs

What does it take to have a SWAT team come and raid you and terrorize your family in the middle of the night?  How about some tea leaves in your trash that test positive on a field drug test that is proven unreliable and the fact that you shop at garden stores.  Seriously.  And this was even middle class white people (former CIA employees, even) to boot!  And this is all good with a federal judge, because… drugs.  Ugh!  I swear the depravity of our war on drugs just knows no bounds.  Read the whole Radley Balko piece if you can stomach it.  Some day in the future (I hope) we look back on our horribly misguided war on drugs and just shake our heads and wonder whether people of the time werer suffering from some mass delusion (in a sense, we are).  Of course drugs cause harm, but at this point I would have to say the evidence seems pretty damn clear that the damage we are doing to our society through the “war on drugs” is far worse than the damage from actual drug use.  Balko:

In April 2012, a Kansas SWAT team raided the home of Robert and Addie Harte, their 7-year-old daughter and their 13-year-old son. The couple, both former CIA analysts, awoke to pounding at the door. When Robert Harte answered, SWAT agents flooded the home. He was told to lie on the floor. When Addie Harte came out to see what was going on, she saw her husband on his stomach as SWAT cop stood over him with a gun. The family was then held at gunpoint for more than two hours while the police searched their home. Though they claimed to be looking for evidence of a major marijuana growing operation, they later stated that they knew within about 20 minutes that they wouldn’t find any such operation. So they switched to search for evidence of  “personal use.” They found no evidence of any criminal activity.

The investigation leading to the raid began at least seven months earlier, when Robert Harte and his son went to a gardening store to purchase supplies to grow hydroponic tomatoes for a school project. A state trooper had been positioned in the store parking lot to collect the license plate numbers of customers, compile them into a spreadsheet, then send the spreadsheets to local sheriff’s departments for further investigation. Yes,merely shopping at a gardening store could make you the target of a criminaldrug investigation…

The deputies repeatedly found “saturated plant material” that they thought could possibly be marijuana. On two occasions, a drug testing field kit inexplicably indicated the presence of THC, the active drug in marijuana. It was on the basis of those tests and Harte’s patronage of a gardening store that the police obtained the warrant for the SWAT raid.

But, of course, they found nothing. Lab tests would later reveal that the “saturated plant material” was actually loose-leaf tea, which Addie Harte drinks on a regular basis. Why did the field tests come up positive for pot?  As I wrote back in February, it’s almost as if these tests come up positive whenever the police need them to. A partial list of substances that the tests have mistaken for illegal drugs would include sage, chocolate chip cookies, motor oil, spearmint, soap, tortilla dough, deodorant, billiard’s chalk, patchouli, flour, eucalyptus, breath mints, Jolly Ranchers and vitamins.

Even worse.  The response of our legal system:

Once they had been cleared of any wrongdoing, the Hartes wanted to know what happened. Why had they been raided? What possible probable cause could the police have had for sending a SWAT team into their home first thing in the morning? But even that information would prove difficult to obtain. Under Kansas law, the sheriff’s department wasn’t obligated to turn over any information related to the raid — not to the Hartes, not to the media, not to anyone. The couple eventually had to hire an attorney to get a judge to order the sheriff to release the information. They spent more than $25,000 in legal fees just to learn why the sheriff had sent a SWAT team into their home. Once they finally had that information, the Hartes filed a lawsuit.

Last week, U.S. District Court Judge John W. Lungstrum dismissed every one of the Hartes’s claims. Harte found that sending a SWAT team into a home first thing in the morning based on no more than a positive field test and spotting a suspect at a gardening store was not a violation of the Fourth Amendment. He found that the police had probable cause for the search, and that the way the search was conducted did not constitute excessive force. He found that the Hartes had not been defamed by the raid or by the publicity surrounding it. He also ruled that the police were under no obligation to know that drug testing field kits are inaccurate, nor were they obligated to wait for the more accurate lab tests before conducting the SWAT raid. The only way they’d have a claim would be if they could show that the police lied about the results, deliberately manipulated the tests or showed a reckless disregard for the truth — and he ruled that the Hartes had failed to do so.

And stuff like this just happens all the time.  And because it happens all the time, most of us (Thank God for Radley Balko), just don’t even pay any attention.  If news covered stuff that actually mattered, we’d have stuff like this and the abomination that is civil forfeiture on there all the time and a lot less mayhem and gossip.  But, in the end, this is our war on drugs until we force the politicians to change it or change the politicians in power over this.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

8 Responses to The never-ending evil of the war on drugs

  1. Jon K says:

    I have an acquaintance who had their storage unit raided because “a drug dog hit”. In reality a police officer recognized him because he had gotten in trouble a few years earlier. They came in the middle of the night, cut his lock off, and threw his stuff all over the storage unit. There was nothing illegal in his storage unit. He discovered his storage unit unlocked, a mess, and a warrant taped to the door. The police refused to talk to him about it, and a lawyer told him that nothing could be done.

    I wish the police were held to some standards of accountability and that they paid a price when they invent probable cause. Until the war on drugs ends we will only see police finding whatever they need to do whatever they want. They face no punishment when they are shown to be liars and flippant about the fourth amendment.

    • Steve Greene says:

      Yep. This should not be in a democracy, but our democracy has chosen to be a police state over delusional fears of drugs. Have you read any of Balko’s books?

      • Jon K says:

        I hadn’t, but I have quite an audiobook habit. I just looked at my audible app statistics, and I listened to 17 unabridged audiobooks in December, and the app says I logged 117 hours in Dec, 132 in Nov, 134 in October, and 121 in September. I attribute the dip in December to Fallout 4 being released for PC.

        My dominant cognitive system is auditory – this is why I never take any notes (which always confused those I sat next to in classes. They could never understand how I passed let alone got good grades.) When my narcolepsy was uncontrolled audiobooks were about the only thing I still was able to enjoy, and I haven’t been able to kick the habit. I can read with my eyes at about 800 wpm, but I enjoy listening much more. I also retain information I hear much better. In fact, I converted all of my textbooks and most required readings into audio via text to speech. I’ve been told by doctors that my auditory preference is only shared by about 5-7% of the population. The downside is I can barely visualize anything which is why I failed art all through elementary school and can’t draw even basic figures. If GPS didn’t exist I would never find anything…

        Anyway, Audible has this deal for members that allows me to purchase 3 audiobook credits for 30 bucks. I still had an unused credit and wasn’t sure what to get. I was thinking about listening to the book Antifragile, but after listening to Haidt’s two books I was looking for something on a different subject. I just downloaded Rise of the Warrior Cop, and so far it is really fascinating. I even slowed it down from 1.5 speed to 1.25 which is something I only do when I really like an audiobook.

      • Steve Greene says:

        1) You certainly have an interesting brain :-). 2) Do share your thoughts on Balko when you finish.

      • Jon K says:

        I finished Rise of the Warrior Cop, Balko’s book, Sunday afternoon. I really enjoyed it and think you should strongly consider it for your Criminal Justice class. Balko keeps his libertarianism in check and primarily sticks to verifiable facts and historical events. He starts out explaining the 3rd amendment (the one about standing armies) and makes a strong case that:
        “the Founders and their contemporaries would probably have seen even the early-nineteenth-century police forces as a standing army, and a particularly odious one at that.”

        This is because of the Founders’ memories of how the British tried to enforce general warrants with soldiers, the modern incarnation of which is no-knock warrants. These actions violate the Castle Doctrine, especially because the nation’s police now look and train like a standing army. For Balko, today’s police violate not only the spirit of the amendment but also its intent.

        Balko then explains how the emergence of SWAT teams and the War on Drugs both strongly contributed to the change in police culture that has taken place. Balko gave an interview to that sums up this argument in a nutshell:

        “There’s certainly a lot of overlap between the war on drugs and police militarization. But if we go back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were two trends developing simultaneously. The first was the development and spread of SWAT teams. Darryl Gates started the first SWAT team in L.A. in 1969. By 1975, there were 500 of them across the country. They were largely a reaction to riots, violent protest groups like the Black Panthers and Symbionese Liberation Army, and a couple mass shooting incidents, like the Texas clock tower massacre in 1966.
        At the same time, Nixon was declaring an “all-out war on drugs.” He was pushing policies like the no-knock raid, dehumanizing drug users and dealers, and sending federal agents to storm private homes on raids that were really more about headlines and photo-ops than diminishing the supply of illicit drugs.
        But for the first decade or so after Gates invented them, SWAT teams were largely only used in emergency situations. There usually needed to be an immediate, deadly threat to send the SWAT guys. It wasn’t until the early 1980s under Reagan that the two trends converged, and we started to see SWAT teams used on an almost daily basis — mostly to serve drug warrants.”

        He also has lengthy sections on the increasingly blurry lines between the military and the police. He shows that this can be seen in various ways including, the transfer of military equipment to police forces with no questions asked, SWAT teams training with elite special forces troops, the dangerous idea that returning military combat veterans will automatically make good police officers, and the increasing utilization of National Guard troops (under state authority) for drug enforcement / eradication operations.

        In addition, one of the best parts of the book dealt with how Community Policing grant money beginning in the 1990’s and again with Obama (Joe Biden is a chief author of BURN grants) doesn’t actually fund community policing, but instead ends up funding more SWAT operations and counter narcotics activity. He spends a lot of time explaining how law enforcement gets around efforts of state legislatures to reign in the corrupting efforts of civil asset forfeiture. Basically, a local police force just needs to bring in token assistance from a federal agency like DEA and then the state rules are bypassed and local police departments ‘share’ the money with the feds (usually 80% stays with local law enforcement and 20 goes to feds). Similarly, multijurisdictional task forces – primarily funded with federal grant money – concentrate on cases that will generate revenues as a primary priority. This leads to perverse outcomes like the police waiting for a dealer to sell most of his drugs before taking him down. They like to do this because money is fungible and drugs are not. Similarly, law enforcement is more likely to target drug vehicles leaving a major city instead of entering the city. The reason is because they are more likely to seize large amounts of cash leaving the city, and that is much more valuable to them than seizing drugs that they will have to destroy. He has a very telling anecdote with a female police officer who started a sex crimes unit in her local police force. She struggled to obtain any funding to deal with crimes that actually had victims while she watched the narcotics and swat teams keep getting more and more money.

        There is so much more excellent information in the book that I haven’t mentioned. (The section on botched raids, the Supreme Court basically giving the police a free hand to do whatever they want, the rise – beginning in the 1970’s – of no-knock warrants and their consequences are all particularly insightful.) It really opened my eyes to how much our society has changed for the negative with regard to the powers we have surrendered to law enforcement, the corrupting influence of the War on Drugs, and how the damage to democratic ideals of freedom (for both innocent and guilty) manifest themselves in clearly observable – and sometimes tragically heartbreaking – consequences.

        I realize I have written quite a bit about this book, but I could have written 5 times more. There wasn’t a single issue Balko brought up that I thought was questionable or unnecessary. If you are concerned about the erosion of our civil liberties and how we have enabled the emergence of an insidious police state in a country that believes in individual rights then you should read this book.

      • Steve Greene says:

        Thanks! There’s so many great books on the failure of criminal justice is my problem. If I were teaching a grad seminar, I could easily come up with half a dozen. Will keep this in consideration, though.

      • Jon K says:

        I forgot to mention one of the most surprising things I learned from this book: the proliferation of SWAT teams to even the smallest police forces has gotten out of control to the point that departments with less than 100 officers are now fielding SWAT teams. In fact, UNC-Charlotte’s on-campus police force even has a SWAT team!

        It made me wonder if NCSU does as well, and it made me very curious as to how often said SWAT team is deployed and for what purposes. Perhaps you know where one could find out that information?

      • Steve Greene says:

        Sadly, not surprising. No, I don’t.

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