The Drug War Poisons Community Policing

UnknownEvents in Ferguson expose US law enforcement’s longstanding abandonment of its founding ethical principles. Rebuilding relationships with the people we’ve harmed won’t come easily. 

In the following guest blog, Lieutenant Commander Diane Goldstein (Ret.) looks back on her lengthy career which often engaged in the “war on drugs.”

She is a board member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a group of law enforcement officials, present and retired, opposed to the war on drugs and an organization in which I also support. It first appear August 21, 2014 on

Diane is one of a number of “allies” (including me) that are connecting with one another and banding together to speak out about what must now be done to repair the broken trust between police and those whom they serve.



Unknown-1Take It From a Cop: The Drug War Poisons Community Policing

“The Ferguson riots are the latest high-profile example of the deep schism between American law enforcement and the communities it serves. This schism has been made demonstrably worse by the way the drug war has blurred the police mission. The community policing mission should always be fundamentally different to that of the military—yet that often hasn’t been the case, thanks in large part to wrongheaded policies put in place decades ago

“The long history of racial disparity in the enforcement of our drug policies was greatly exacerbated by the architect of the modern war on drugs, Richard Nixon. His vision was to create a crime- and violence-free society—but his false belief was that black heroin addicts were the primary cause of crime in our communities.

“Nixon once stated to his aide H.R. Haldeman, ‘you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.’

“Nixon’s dream of devising a criminal justice system that targets communities of color through the mechanism of our drug policies was achieved. According to the ACLU report ‘War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing,’ among myriad other sources, law enforcement’s attempt to eradicate drug use in America has hit communities of color the hardest.

“Clearly, the fatal shooting of Michael Brown on August 9 and the ensuing riots in Ferguson are about many different things. But the drug war’s militarization of our cops is the fuel that ignited this conflagration—and continues to spark many others in communities where aggressive policing and harsh tactics, such as ‘stop-and-frisk,’ are wrongly believed to be an effective tool to curb crime.

“I think back with regret to the countless narcotic search warrants that I participated in—without worry or concern about the impact on the people who lived there, and without considering the possible harms our actions were causing.

“I am not naïve enough to argue that if we had a rational drug policy, treating drug use as a public health issue, the relationship between cops and their constituents would be perfect. That is a fantasy as far-fetched as the idea of achieving a drug- or crime-free society—policing, after all, requires making people accountable for their behavior. Yet you can police your community in a fashion that is fair, respectful and based on the values enshrined in the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics.

“Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) speaker and retired police chief Dr. Joseph McNamara once noted the effect of war language on law enforcement professionals:

“’When you’re telling cops that they’re soldiers in a Drug War, you’re destroying the whole concept of the citizen peace officer, a peace officer whose fundamental duty is to protect life and be a community servant. General Colin Powell told us during the Persian Gulf War what a soldier’s duty is. It’s to kill the enemy. And when we allowed our politicians to push cops into a war that they’ll never win, they can’t win, and let them begin to think of themselves as soldiers, the mentality comes that anything goes.’

“There have been countless examples of this in action. Looking back on my 20-year career as a police officer in California, I recall scandals like the Los Angeles Police Department’s 39th and Dalton narcotics raid, where the police committed 127 documented acts of vandalism. Such reckless aggression was a direct reflection of drug war dogma.

“I also think back with regret to the countless narcotic search warrants that I participated in. After searching for any signs of drugs, we would leave the premises not vandalized, but in complete disarray—without worry or concern about the impact on the people who lived there, and without considering the possible harms our actions were causing.

“Public polling gauges the American sentiment on the drug war, yet holds little sway over the prevailing law enforcement belief that drug use is a morally flawed choice. Recent polls by both Pew (2014) and Rasmussen (2013), for example, reveal declining public support for our current drug policies and a widespread belief that the drug war is a failure. But the law enforcement establishment continues to support the mass criminalization of a public health issue for ideological reasons—encouraging our political leaders to cling to an outdated approach that has no foundation in science.

“It’s not just the drug war’s failure to prevent drug use that should concern the police, but its effect on the people we are sworn to protect.

“The drug war has helped to shift law enforcement away from its founding ethical principles, which clarified the roles of the police and the desired relationship with the public they serve. These wise principles, often described as ‘policing by consent,’ were designed by Sir Robert Peel, the historical father of policing, in the 19th Century. They have long served as law enforcement’s guide. One of Peel’s nine principles of policing states that ‘the power of the police to fulfill their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behavior, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.’

“The emphasis on drug war actions has resulted in the systematic subversion of all Americans’ constitutional rights, the corruption of law enforcement and the destruction of the relationships necessary to build strong and healthy communities.

“There is a fight within law enforcement itself over this evolution away from Peelian principles. Police leaders believe that the cornerstone of policing should be trust, integrity and a partnership with the community—yet they often won’t acknowledge how the emphasis on the drug war, with its detrimental effect on communities of color, exacerbates tensions like those we see in Ferguson.

“The ninth of Peel’s principles states that ‘the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.’ Today, law enforcement’s emphasis on actions over results—rewarding drug busts, for example, despite the negligible effect they have on supply—has contributed to many of the negative consequences of the drug war which drug policy reform organizations like LEAP are working to remedy.

“Most notably, this emphasis on drug war actions has resulted in the systematic subversion of all Americans’ constitutional rights. It has resulted in the corruption of law enforcement and helped to destroy the relationships necessary to build strong and healthy communities. We see the damage our policy causes when we continue to arrest 1.4 million drug users and sellers each year but ignore 400,000 untested rape kits in our evidence lockers; when we engage in racial profiling and practices such as stop-and-frisk which do little to alleviate crime; or when we think that the citizens we serve are animals—as captured by CNN during the filming of law enforcement during the Ferguson riots.

“The Greek playwright Aeschylus once wrote, ‘In war, truth is the first casualty.’ His prescient summary of the nature of conflict and power has played out on American soil over the last 40 years as we have strived to make our country drug-free.

“I believe that the actions in Ferguson show that we abandoned Peel and his community-based policing principles long ago, by engaging in a war not on drugs, but on people. All Americans need to ask, What next? Ending the drug war is a necessary step to achieving peace with honor, and to repairing law enforcement’s damaged relationships with those people we have harmed the most.”


  • What about approaching drug abuse as a medical problem instead of one the involves jails and prisons?
  • While it may be difficult to think outside the present “box” we are in, think about tobacco abuse; how our nation turned around tobacco use without having to incarcerate millions of smokers.
  • How could police lead this shift from drug abuse being a law enforcement problem to one that is primarily medical?



  1. Not just the drug war, war against crime itself poisons policing. Police mandate is to maintain and restore peace in the face of crime and conflict, and preventing and detecting crime are only two, out of many, ways of doing it.


  2. I’d ask her the same question I pose to all legalization advocates.
    While I understand that the sky isn’t going to fall if someone smokes a joint, is she really arguing in favor of unfettered access to drugs like heroin, crack, and crystal meth?
    In my opinion, no one has presented any feasible solutions regarding the utter devastation that follows abuse of those drugs. What about the human cost?


    1. Ashley, let’s take it from the top: if we were to make a national effort to reduce/eliminate the use of dangerous drugs FIRST as a medical problem and then secondarily as a legal problem what would/could it look like? I know what you are saying and I said it for many years — but I just want us to rethink our approach and think a ways we could reduce/eliminate/treat those among us who have come to be addicted to these drugs. Could there possibly be a better way?


  3. A place to start would be the introduction of harm reduction practices to law enforcement. We are seeing the evolution by the use of naloxone by many agencies to reverse opioid overdose and save lives. Or better yet look to King County Washington, and the recent innovative program Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) that was recently discussed at the Whitehouse. Treating substance use as a public health issue makes sense and shifts us from a tough on crime policy to smart on crime. I think our communities would agree. And thank you so much for sharing this Chief.


  4. Racism and class economic warfare have poison police relationship with the community long before you had the Drug War and the Prohibition Era and they will continue to exists even when the Prohibition Era had come to an end and with the Drug War coming to an end.




    I want to address your comments as I believe that this conversation is incredibly nuanced. let me start by saying that I lost my bother to an overdose and as a family I understand the devastation of substance abuse.

    When I speak on the issue of what a post prohbition worl may look at I see different control and regulation models. So I don’t ever expect that drugs such as heroin or meth will have unfettered access, but that develop a model based on science versus ideology. For examply the link that I included shows the success of heroin-assisted-treatment (HAT). Rather then send heroin addicts to jail they are sent to a doctor where they recieve their heroin via prescription. What Switzerland and other countries have seen is a reduction in death, disease and addiction rates as well as a corresponding drop in crime as people are not out stealing to support their addiction.

    Or we can talk about the impact of policing on public health. Here is another article I wrote where I point back to our policing history and show that compassionate policing must include a different response towards those suffering from substance abuse.

    But I also see that we need to use science and best practices to formulate our laws and polcies surrounding the issue of drug use and abuse. I would refer to the work of Dr. Carl Hart a neuro scientist at Columbia University who helped change my mind on our drug policy.

    Lastly I loved policing, and its because of my career that I speak out rather then remain silent. We must have this discussion and we must have stakeholders at the table that includes not just law enforcement professional but the constituients we serve including those that use drugs. Drug use is not a moral failing and it wont besolved from just say no tactics, but is a complex issue best treated not through the criminal justice system but as the public health issue it is.

    Here is my email if you have any other questions.


  6. This is just the beginning of exposing the sham that we call a drug war; and a lot of it has been exposed decades ago yet it continues. The Kerry Report exposed the CIA for their involvement looking the other way while drugs were being run by allies. They only covered part of it dozens other researchers most notably Gary Webb exposed much more.

    These researchers provide much better fact checking than traditional media which uses ridicule to dismiss them. Traditional media has reported large portions of this but only briefly and as isolated incidents. Alternative researchers do much better job.

    The government has been acting in a manner that should be considered criminal by any rational standards.

    This is part of class war that doesn’t address many of the root causes for crime, including some that might not seem directly related to so-called drug war like Child abuse contributing to escalating violence as well as more drug abuse, gambling promoted by states and much more.


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