The 1980’s Plan to Win the Drug War

Photo by Dan Skye

The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) tried to explain to Congress in 1988 what was required to halt the “devastating impact of the drug abuse epidemic.” The occasion was a hearing called by Congressman Charles Rangel to discuss the legalization of illicit drugs on September 29, 1988. The political purpose of the hearing before the Select Committee on Narcotics Control and Abuse was to give proponents of legalizing drugs a chance to lay out their proposals in detail and subject them to scrutiny.

The IACP, to no one’s surprise, was against the legalization of any illegal drugs. Their views summed up how law enforcement viewed drug policy reform in the late 1980s, and, frankly, how many in their field still see the issue today.

First, the IACP made it clear that, in their opinion, drug abuse is not a victimless crime, because “the police . . . see firsthand the tragic consequences of drug abuse and the toll it takes on human life, individual dignity and in the pain and suffering that cannot be measured.”

The second major point made in their prepared testimony “Combating the Drug Problem in the United States” is that the police are frustrated and perplexed that society doesn’t take their advice on how to deal with the illegal drug problem, that “common sense measures are overlooked” and “positive action is displaced by inaction resulting from endless debate and . . . analysis paralysis.”

Finally, the third major point was that while police are in full support of prevention, treatment and education programs, “criminals must know that our society has meaningful and significant sanctions it is willing to impose in a swift, certain, fair manner that will serve as an example to others for those who import, distribute or consume drugs.” Extraordinary political courage is required, and our democratic society is at risk because “those basic requisites of punishment have broken down or must be restored in order to fight the enemy in this drug war.”

These comments are important to understand for a couple of reasons.

As suggested above, they describe the way many in law enforcement still view the need to preserve drug prohibition and to oppose marijuana legalization. But if you listen to the emerging debate in the presidential contest, this is also how Donald Trump approaches the issue of terrorism. Forget about debate and nuance, according to Trump, the threat of terror is a simple problem easily addressed by common sense, toughness and punishment.

Back to the 1980s, the IACP laid out a 16-point action plan to combat the drug problem.

Number one on their list was to “emphatically oppose the legalization or decriminalization of drugs.” Their main argument was that “drugs are not bad because they are illegal—they are illegal because they are bad.” Efforts to decriminalize marijuana, for example, are misguided in their view given an increase in the potency of the drug in the 1980s from fiver percent to eight percent because of the use of hydroponics.

When people see jammed court dockets and overcrowded jails and prisons and think this is a sign of failure, the police see this as evidence that they are doing their job, and well. The real problem here, according to the IACP, is not the failure of the drug war but the failure of society to provide the criminal justice system with adequate funding. In other words, they’d like to arrest even more people and would like the resources to do so. (And, indeed, this is what happened in the 1990s when marijuana arrests doubled in the United States, without any impact on marijuana use.)

The IACP was utterly opposed to needle exchange programs as something that facilitated drug use, and further argued that illicit drug users must be “held accountable for their criminal conduct,” because, after all, they are “co-conspirators” with criminal cartels. They believed that law enforcement should get a lot more money and that there should be a cabinet level “Secretary of Law Enforcement” in the federal government in charge of all federal law enforcement agencies. The military should be better utilized to support interdiction efforts along the border. A ”National Narcotics Violator Tracking System” should be created to keep track of offenders who cross state borders and continue to engage in illegal drug activity.

Other measures advocated by the IACP included a death penalty for narcotics-related homicides, tougher gun laws, stronger penalties against drug-related corruption, economic sanctions on countries that do not cooperate with anti-drug programs, the use of the Internal Revenue Service and state tax agencies to take any profit out of drugs and massive reductions in the use of plea-bargaining to resolve drug-related criminal cases.

In other words, the way to combat the illegal drug problem is to have a massive expansion in the number of police, jails and prisons in the United States, use this expansion to arrest millions of people and lock them up.

Again, the similarity between this old discredited approach to the drug war and Trump’s approach to public policy is similar. In this case, rather than terrorism, think about Trump’s approach to illegal immigration. Trump wants to arrest everyone illegally in this country and deport them, and to do this would require a massive expansion in law enforcement and detention centers.

The reasoning is the same.

“Criminals must know that our society has meaningful and significant sanctions.” Extraordinary political courage is required, and our democratic society is at risk because “those basic requisites of punishment have broken down or must be restored in order to fight the enemy….” Those aren’t Trump’s words, but his are a stark echo of this decades-old call for a police state.

Regardless of the era, and regardless of the issue, anyone who understand the history of drug prohibition should understand the danger posed by those who claim that common sense trumps debate and that “positive action is displaced by inaction resulting from endless debate and . . . analysis paralysis.”

This approach to public policy is why we have civilian control over law enforcement, and why we have a democratic society. It is also why a free people maintain a sense of history, so it can learn from past mistakes and avoid repeating them again in the future.

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