The FBI recently released their 2012 crime and arrest statistics. Some might be surprised to hear that arrests for non-violent crime, particularly drug violations, far outnumber arrests for violent crime. In fact, the number-one reason people in America were arrested in 2012 was for violating drug laws. Of those arrests, 82% were for possession rather than distribution and 42% of those were for marijuana.
Arrests for marijuana went down slightly this year, but arrests for all drug abuse violations went up. LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) has stated that this might be due to the legalization of marijuana for both medical and recreational use in states across the country. Despite a record number of Americans now stating that they are in favor of marijuana legalization, the behavior of police forces across the nation seems entirely at odds with citizens’ views. The continued implementation of this policy against marijuana and drug use doesn’t just defy public opinion, it ruins lives, corrupts police precincts, and has created the largest prison population in the world.
While over 100,000 law enforcement officials and supporters in LEAP recognize that the War on Drugs is detrimental to the population as a whole and steals the time and effort of police officers away from real crimes, the fact remains that drug arrests continue to dominate the charts and the federal government has fought state legalization and decriminalization tooth and nail. Why?
Robert Higgs’ recent article for the Independent Institute explains the concept of dishonesty in policy-making in the U.S. well. He claims that all government policies succeed in the long run. To be concise, if a program’s stated intentions are not met but funding for it continues to increase without fail for decades, the stated intentions must not, then, be the true objective of such a policy. This seems to be the case with the War on Drugs. As Higgs’ says, follow the money.
Local and state police forces benefit financially both from block grants earmarked for drug law enforcement and the mightily unconstitutional asset forfeiture used to confiscate the property of anyone involved in or unlucky enough to be near a suspected drug-related crime. Under this law, 80% of seizures are unaccompanied by any criminal prosecution.
Monthly quotas are applied within police forces in the U.S., compelling officers to focus on meeting crime rate expectations rather than just protecting the public when necessary.
The money trail does not end at the local and state police, however. The Private Prison industry in America depends on a steady and increasing influx of new inmates, and often contractually obligates states to provide them. The War on Drugs plays no small role in the financial well-being of prisons. Despite a decrease in violent crime over the last several decades, the incarceration rate in the U.S. has tripled since 1980. Almost 50% of inmates in federal prisons are there on drug-related charges, and the U.S. now has the largest prison population in the world by far.
We are raised to believe that the police exist to protect us from those who would do us harm, and that those imprisoned are there because otherwise they would harm us. But the number-one reason police make arrests in our communities is because of non-violent crime. These arrests do harm the people in the lives of those arrested, and disproportionately among those with lower income and in minority groups.
The War on Drugs is not only a failure for the people it promised to help, but it has become a success for those who are profiting at the expense of everyone else. It is disturbing that many of the incarcerated individuals would not be in prison if non-violent actions weren’t treated as crimes and if a “war” filling the pockets of big business and government employees didn’t exist. Perhaps the one beacon of hope lies in the newfound tolerance in the voting booth. Social change tends to predate legislative change and statistics are in favor of ending the profitable-but-corrupt war against marijuana use. What will legalization mean for big business? What of the prison population? And what crime will the police turn to fill quotas in the absence of drug prohibition? Only time will tell.
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