Deeper Than We Thought (3): Drug War Myths


Post One and Twostopanfrisk_590_356-1

(This just happened: While writing this post on The New Jim Crow at a coffee shop an African American man asks me about the book and then tells me that he advised his son NOT to bring his car to college because the dad was worried his son would be arrested in the small college town.)

True Crime

True confession: I don’t really like crime shows.  And they seem to be everywhere.   How many different “CSI”s are there?  Well, after more of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow I’m glad that I have not been watching.

As she says: “These television shows, especially those that romanticize drug-law enforcement, are the modern-day equivalent of the old movies portraying happy slaves, the fictional gloss placed on a brutal system of racialized oppression and control” (59).

Why does Alexander say this?

Chapter two discusses the “how” of mass incarceration, getting into the details of the mechanisms of the “War on Drugs” that has led the US to imprison a higher percentage of its population than any other country (last time I talked about how the “War on Drugs” was the transition between Jim Crow oppression and the oppression of Mass Incarceration).

The details are so dense and the content so intense that it is going to be difficult to summarize without just reproducing the entire chapter here.

But I will try under the rubric that Alexander’s chapter is a “Mythbusters” concerning the “War on Drugs” and how it plays out on the streets (next chapter bring it into the court house).

Myth #1: We are getting the Kingpins

High level drug dealers and Kingpins are rarely arrested or prosecuted (and if they are they have the money/lawyers to get drastically reduced sentences).  Rather, the majority of arrests are for minor violations like possession without intent to sell.  And the majority of those imprisoned have no history of violence or of selling drugs.

Myth #2: We are getting the serious drugs

Most drug arrests and convictions have been for marijuana possession not connected with more dangerous or violent drugs.  But even so sentencing has dramatically increased (but that is for the next chapter).

stopAndFrisk-300Myth #3: The Supreme Court is protecting your freedom 

When it comes to the war on drugs the Supreme Court has consistently opened up your person and possessions to law enforcement searches.  Most of the remaining myths are variations on this theme (but with very racial directed overtones).

Going back to British antagonisms, our Fourth Amendment prohibits police from carrying out unwarranted stops and searches on persons or property without probable cause of criminal activity.

In 1968, before the War on Drugs began, the Supreme Court ruled that a police officer could, if s/he had “reasonable articulable suspicion” that someone was dangerous, stop and search them for a weapon.  This became the “stop-and-frisk” rule.

Once the War on Drugs began this “stop-and-frisk” rule was extended (and supported by the Supreme Court) to include any drug related suspicion.

Myth #4: This is a Legal Search (kinda)

Of course the different between probable cause in relation to violence and probable cause in relation to drugs is pretty big, so police cannot just stop and search anyone.  So instead they seek “consent” for a search.  If a police officers stops you and wants to search you, they issue their orders in the form of a question (such as, “Will you put your arms up and stand against the wall for a search?” or, “Will you step out of your car please so I can search for drugs?”).  If obey their command-in-the-form-of-a-question then you have tacitly given your consent

And who besides this guy would refuse such pressure (esp. if you are from the minority culture)(watch out for explicit language). Watch the entire video because it illustrates some points below.

Myth #5: This is a merely traffic stop

In order to facilitate these types of searches police often rely on traffic stops (for any reason: changing lanes without signaling) to then begin fishing for drugs.  Minor traffic violations become the “pretext” for searching for drugs.

I remember in college being stopped for a tail-light or brake-light being out.  I’d have to give license and registration.  And then let go.  But if I hadn’t been white would I have been asked to get out of the car while it was searched.  Yes, probably, as was the case for the above video.

Myth #6: If you don’t give consent you won’t be searched

Maybe you didn’t notice in the video, but the man talked about a dog searching the car.  You see, even if you refuse consent the police can still search your car with a drug-sniffing dog.  The Supreme Court has ruled that walking a drug-sniffing dog around your car is not a violation of the Fourth Amendment, and if the handler interprets the dog as giving off a “hit” signal (again, as in the video), then this becomes the “probable cause” that was lacking.

Myth #7: This is an undirected process

No, unwarranted traffic stops used to fish for drugs has been a nationally coordinated and financed program.  Federal dollars have been used to train police in in pretext traffic stops and how to carry out “consent” searches.

Federal money has been used to train officers “how to use a minor traffic violation as a pretext to stop someone, how to lengthen a routine traffic stop and leverage it into a search for drugs, how to obtain consent from a reluctant motorist, and how to use drug-sniffing dogs to obtain probable cause.”


Ok, so this post has already gotten long enough, and I haven’t even gotten to the good stuff: like why our police for has been militarized (remember the show of force in Ferguson); how it “pays to play” the drug game; and who benefits from the “War on Drugs”.

I try and get to this early next week.

My last thought of the day is that while the “War on Terror” has certainly weakened many of our freedoms here in the US, but this process already started with the “War on Drugs”.  While now it is our phone calls and emails being illegally searched, before it was our cars and persons that were illegally searched.

Stop and Frisk Example:


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