The following editorial was submitted to the Joplin Globe for publication this Sunday, in advance of the film screening on Monday.
In the wee hours of February 11, 2010, police in Columbia, Missouri broke down the door to Jonathan Whitworth’s home searching for substantial quantities of marijuana. When the police forced their way into the home, Whitworth’s dogs, a pit bull and a corgi, began to bark at the intruders. The SWAT team took this as a sign of aggression and fatally shot the pit bull. The corgi was also shot, likely hit by a ricocheting bullet.
After searching the residence, police found a grinder, pipe, and small amount of cannabis. For the possession of a few grams of plant matter, the police had kicked in Whitworth’s door, killed his dog, and traumatized his entire family. The police even had the gall to arrest Whitworth for child endangerment, because of the presence of his seven-year-old son. In reality, the SWAT teams’ reckless discharge of their weapons posed a far greater threat to everyone in the home than a few pinches of pot.
Whitworth’s case is not an isolated incident. For instance, in November 2006, Atlanta police, acting on manufactured evidence of drug dealing, shot and killed Kathryn Johnston, a 92-year-old woman. When police began to break down her door, Johnston apparently (and understandably) believed they were criminals and fired a pistol once in self-defense. The officers responded to this single shot with a hail of 39 bullets. As their mistake dawned upon them, the cops cuffed Johnston, planted drugs in her home, and let her bleed to death on the floor.
The “war on drugs” is not a metaphor. Since Richard Nixon declared drugs public enemy number one in 1971, all levels of government in America have collaborated to militarize law enforcement, slowly turning local police, whose job is to serve and protect the public, into warriors engaged in counter-insurgency tactics in our own neighborhoods.
And what do we have to show for forty years of waging war against our fellow Americans? Drugs are more available, cheaper, and more potent today than they were in 1971; the illicit drug trade dominates strategically important nations, such as Afghanistan and Mexico; and, according to a Rasmussen poll released last week, 82 percent of Americans say we are losing the war on drugs. Even by the low standards of a government program, the war on drugs is an abysmal failure – and an expensive failure at that.
Governments in the United States have spent more than $1 trillion on fighting the drug war. That’s roughly $10,000 for every family of three. A great deal of that money pays to lock up drug offenders. Since 1970, the United States’ incarceration rate has increased fivefold and is now the highest rate in the world. The incarceration rate in Russia – a country that Americans have traditionally and justifiably associated with tyranny and our nearest competitor on this measure – is almost a quarter lower than ours. The land of the free has turned into the world’s most prolific warden.
This article only scratches the surface of this issue, so if you are interested in learning more, please attend the free screening of America’s Longest War this Monday, August 26 at 6:00 P.M. The screening will be held at JB’s Piano Bar (112 S. Main Street) and will be followed by a Q&A with Reason Foundation President and film co-producer David Nott, Trish and Daryl Bertrand of Springfield – whose lives have been fundamentally altered by the war on drugs – and myself. The only way we can begin to address these problems is if we fully understand them. I hope to see you there.