Fixing American policing also requires an end to the war on drugs

By Katharine Neill Harris, Ph.D.
Alfred C. Glassell, III, Fellow in Drug Policy


The death of George Floyd while in police custody on May 25, captured on video in nine brutal minutes, has accelerated calls for police reform. Floyd’s death is one of many killings of unarmed people of color that are a direct byproduct of the militarized and racist system of American policing.

Included in the long list of reforms this broken system needs is an end to the criminalization of drugs and the people who use them. The “war on drugs” is an impediment to reducing unnecessary citizen-police encounters and to cultivating humane treatment of people who use drugs.

 Reducing drug-related encounters

Many hallmarks of contemporary policing, from no-knock searches to civil asset forfeiture, were originally justified as critical to securing a drug-free America. The 40-year war on drugs, unwinnable from the start, is a policy failure that has come at great cost, to society generally and to minority communities especially.

In the context of our current civil unrest, the drug war’s normalization of aggressive policing within a system already mired in institutional racism has increased the frequency of interactions between citizens and police that have the potential to turn hostile or violent.

Breonna Taylor was killed on March 13 when Louisville police executed a no-knock warrant on her home. The warrant was based on detectives’ belief that Taylor’s boyfriend was using her address to receive packages containing drugs. Thinking that the police were intruders, Taylor’s boyfriend fired at the officers, who then fired back, killing Taylor. In Houston in 2019, Dennis Tuttle and Rhogena Nicholas were killed after a botched no-knock raid that was later determined to be based on falsified information from a narcotics detective.

A popular tactic for surprising suspects, no-knock searches are often led by SWAT teams armed with military-grade weapons. Unsurprisingly, they carry a high risk for deadly violence. A New York Times investigation found that between 2010 and 2016 at least 81 civilians, half of whom were people of color, and 13 officers, were killed during the execution of such warrants. In response to the fatal incidents in their cities, Louisville suspended and Houston largely ended the use of no-knock raids, but most jurisdictions still allow them.

No-knock searches are particularly egregious, but less extreme practices are also problematic. Drugs are a routine component of “pretext stops,” which allow officers to stop people for one violation with the intent of trying to uncover a separate violation. Pretext stops occur when officers pull drivers for minor traffic violations with the aim of searching their cars for drugs, or when they use evidence of drug use, such as the smell of marijuana, as justification for a search. Designating certain geographical areas as “hotspot” zones for drug activity is another tactic that increases citizen-police encounters by granting officers broad authority to stop anyone passing through the targeted area.

Collectively, proactive drug enforcement has normalized overzealous policing, which leads to unnecessary citizen-police interactions that have the potential to escalate. The simplest and most effective way to end, or at least greatly reduce, these encounters is for the federal and state governments to remove their legal basis by decriminalizing low-level drug possession.

But localities cannot wait for state and federal leadership to take action. They should work with police departments to deprioritize drug enforcement, as several jurisdictions did in the early 2000s with marijuana possession. Cities and counties should also consider models like Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, which allows officers to divert individuals in possession or under the influence of drugs to social services without making an arrest.

Critics may counter that we need police to stop illicit drug sales, particularly those involving the synthetic opioid fentanyl that has contributed to so many recent overdose deaths. But a recent analysis of over 700,000 drug arrests from around the country found that 60% of cases were for less than one gram, an amount roughly equivalent to the sugar substitute provided in a single Splenda packet. Most drug arrests don’t target high-level dealers and traffickers (arrests involving a kilogram or more accounted for less than 1% of all drug arrests in the study), but rather people who use themselves and/or who sell modest amounts. No one wants to see people continue to die from fentanyl-laced street drugs, but this problem, itself borne from prohibition, can be better resolved through harm reduction interventions, not militant enforcement.

Improving police response to people who use drugs

Drug law reforms must be coupled with improving law enforcement’s response to people who use drugs. Police encounters with people who are under the influence of alcohol or other drugs often occur in response to 911 calls, making some of these interactions unavoidable. Their inevitability makes it that much more important for officers to be willing and able to handle them humanely. Police officers have the right to protect themselves from harm, but citizens do not “deserve” to be treated with force just because they use drugs.

Evidence of drug use is often present in cases of police force. A 2017 investigation in San Bernardino County, California, found that “more than 70 percent of 103 people shot by officers … in a six-year period disclosed or tested positive for substance use.” The autopsies performed on George Floyd found traces of fentanyl and methamphetamine (at this time there is no indication that those drugs played a role in his arrest or death). Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old boy who was shot 16 times by a Chicago police officer in 2014 and whose murder the Chicago police subsequently tried to cover up, had PCP in his system. The autopsy performed on Manuel Ellis, a black man from Washington whose death in March while in police custody was recently ruled a homicide, found evidence of meth intoxication. Meth is one of the most frequently implicated drugs in deadly encounters with police; an investigation into fatal shootings that occurred in Colorado between 2014 and 2019 found that half of all individuals killed by the police had meth in their system.

People who are impaired can present challenges for police. But drug use is also a regular scapegoat for justifying excessive force. Following the 2017 shooting of Philando Castile during a traffic stop in a St. Paul suburb, former officer Jeronimo Yanez defended his actions by claiming that the smell of marijuana led him to fear for his life, an assertion that, if sincere, points to Yanez’s profound ignorance of marijuana’s effects on those who use it.

Many police officers have little firsthand experience with drugs, and may not comprehend the paranoia, agitation and hallucinations that accompany some drug use. (Relatedly, prior substance use should no longer automatically disqualify a person from police work.) A person experiencing these symptoms may behave in ways that police find confusing or unpredictable, which can lead them to (mis)interpret the person as threatening or dangerous.

The San Bernardino study, for example, found that police were more likely to mistakenly assume a suspect was armed when that person had also used alcohol or other drugs. For black males, who are widely perceived as threatening based on their physical appearance alone, the risk that an officer will wrongly view them as dangerous if drugs are involved is likely much greater.

One example of how police can address these challenges is by devoting specialized units for impairment-related calls. Many departments already have dedicated personnel for serious mental health incidents. The Houston Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Response Team, for instance, pairs a patrol officer with a mental health clinician to respond to mental health crisis calls around the city. This approach can be expanded to substance use issues by pairing officers with trained substance use counselors or peer recovery coaches. These specialized units should be sufficiently staffed to respond to a high volume of calls or calls that come in the middle of the night.

A crisis response team’s job is to de-escalate a volatile situation without force, and following the spate of high profile shootings in recent years, police departments around the country have started emphasizing de-escalation training for all officers. This instruction must occur alongside more training in defensive tactics. Martial arts like jiu-jitsu that emphasize grappling and submission holds can teach officers how to deal with someone who is bigger and stronger than they are without resorting to deadly force. Remaining calm is essential to de-escalating a situation, and officers are much more likely to stay cool-headed if they are confident in their ability to protect themselves without weapons.

But for measures like de-escalation training to be effective on a large scale, departments must adopt a philosophical approach to policing that instills officers with the mindset that their primary purpose is to serve as guardians of the public. It is especially critical that marginalized populations, such as people who use drugs, are included as members of this public that are deserving of police protection and respect.

Ending the criminalization of drugs and the people who use them will not end police violence. But it is part of the hard work of structural change that lies ahead.