e. magill's Intrigue


Drug War Tyranny and the Unabated Increase of Political Power over Liberty

Are you aware that you can be detained, searched, arrested, and convicted for drug possession if you are the passenger in a car that just happens to have an illegal drug in it, even if you have no idea that the drug is there [1]? Are you aware that you can be searched for weapons if you are the passenger in a car that just happens to have a box of Phillies Blunts in the glove compartment [2]?

Many a drug deregulation or harm reduction advocate, including the one writing to you now, has claimed that the War on Drugs is an unacceptable overdose of political power, police power, and government regulation. The typical reply from the average citizen is to assume that this argument comes from a junkie seeking to alleviate the pressure of his crime or from the paranoia of a conspiracy nut waiting for the hammer to come down on him in the form of a black helicopter.

I assure you that this is not the case. I don’t do drugs (although I will admit to having done them in college) and I am not going to try to convince you that aliens crashed at Roswell or that Elvis is living in New Hampshire with Jimmy Hoffa.

Once I started looking into the substance of our justice system, however, as a requisite of my current employment, I became aware that (1) drug prohibition accounts for or figures into the majority of statutory law and case law dealing with the capabilities afforded to police officers, (2) the Supreme Court has been steadily justifying more and more intrusion into the Fourth Amendment with a vested interest in protecting the citizenry of the United States from the illegal drug trade as reasoning, and (3) the War on Drugs can be a useful and effective tool for politicians on both wings of the current bipartisan spectrum.

These three facts remind me of the words of our forefather, Thomas Jefferson, when he warned us that “the natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.”

Congress has established that the “improper use of controlled substances [has] a substantial and detrimental effect on the health and general welfare of the American people” [3]. Since the Constitution establishes that protecting the “general welfare of the American people” is one of the primary functions of the United States government, this conceit by Congress is a springboard from which all sorts of laws and all kinds of repression in the name of fighting drugs are formed.

Consider that federal law prohibits the manufacture, distribution, dispensation, and possession of many drugs. Therefore, no state can pass a law relaxing drug prohibition without the federal system overriding it (this has already happened in many states where federal agents and officers have made it abundantly clear that our government intends to uphold federal drug laws to the fullest extent possible). In other words, if the people of this country wish to change drug prohibition, they have to effect that change on the federal level.

But it goes even further than that, unfortunately, since international law has made drug prohibition a global fact of life. The United States has signed onto several international treaties, including the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs [4], the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances [5], and the 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances [6]. Our government, without the approval of Congress or the American people, has agreed to force drug prohibition laws into the system, regardless of any outcry from those of us who believe that drug prohibition, like the alcohol prohibition that preceded it, is an indefensible boot that is crushing the liberties we cherish.

It is only natural, then, to ask why. Why has the international community decided to enforce global drug prohibition? Why has the federal government gone along with it? Why are the recreational uses of certain substances illegal?

I cover much of the philosophy behind the War on Drugs, especially the good intentions that can justify it, elsewhere on this site, but the focus of this essay is on the power play, the bad intentions, that can justify it. Drugs can be a convenient excuse to trump the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, and similar laws that exist to protect individual liberties in other countries. Thanks to landmark cases here in the United States, cases like U.S. v. Sakyi, 160 F.3d 164 (4th Cir. 1998) [2], and the recent Maryland v. Pringle, ___ U.S. 02-809 (2003) [1], we know that our Judicial branch will not fight this trend.

In U.S. v. Sakyi, supra, Collins Sakyi, the defendant, was a passenger in a car stopped for a non-functioning brake light. When the driver reached into the glove compartment to retrieve the car’s registration, the detaining officer saw a Phillies Blunts cigar box inside. Because Phillies Blunts cigars--which are completely legal items--are often used by marijuana smokers to roll cigars filled with marijuana and because there is an “indisputable nexus between drugs and guns,” the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals found that there was reasonable suspicion for the officer to search not only the driver and the car for weapons, but also enough to search the defendant, Sakyi. [2]

The court did not feel that this was straining logic a little too far. It ruled that conducting a search on the basis of weapons that might be found on a person suspected of associating with a person who might be using drugs because that person carried cheap cigars in his glove compartment was perfectly reasonable and therefore did not violate Sakyi’s rights under the Fourth Amendment.

One might hope that this kind of abuse of power would be overturned, but the only higher court in the land, the Supreme Court, has taken it even further in one of its recent decisions.

In Maryland v. Pringle, supra, the defendant was a passenger in a car where drugs were found in the center console. All three occupants of the car denied ownership of the drugs and were, as a result, arrested and convicted of possessing them. The defendant in this case, Pringle, was subsequently sentenced to ten years in prison without the possibility for parole, despite disavowing any knowledge of the drugs and not being the legal owner or operator of the motor vehicle containing them. The Supreme Court agreed, not two weeks ago, that this was justified and reasonable, that ten years in prison for being in a car that contains drugs is just punishment, regardless of whether or not there is any knowledge of those drugs. [1]

By this logic, a parent taking his or her child to school, unaware that the child has a bag of marijuana in his or her backpack, is committing an illegal act. This is just one example of where the logic of the Supreme Court can lead.

With each case like these, our country becomes more and more of a police state. While the process may seem slow to the casual observer, consider how recently the formation of federal institutions like the DEA, the drug czar, and of course, the War on Drugs occurred. Our country survived over a century without any substance prohibition at all, and the first true prohibition enacted by our government, alcohol prohibition, gave us organized crime and dangerous bootleg alcohol and failed to prevent widespread alcohol usage. We were wise enough to correct our mistake in that matter, but what followed was a long era of history repeating itself without the benefit of a similar outcome.

Drug prohibition has existed now for as long as alcohol prohibition has been eliminated. That’s a long time for us to become entrenched in a war of liberty against tyranny. The sad truth behind prohibition, the less realized truth our government discovered during alcohol prohibition, is that it grants our government unprecedented power and stands as a wonderful excuse for forcing individual morality. Therefore, when alcohol prohibition was eliminated, drug prohibition thrived behind the scenes. Since the onset, drug proliferation and the damage wrought by it has increased rather than decreased.

Politicians aren’t phased by this, because the War on Drugs is superficially moral and righteous and grants a loophole around troublesome roadblocks against corruption, roadblocks like the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. Besides, public opinion is currently on the side of prohibition, as can be seen by the litigious attitudes towards alcohol, cigarettes, fast food, junk food, or anything else deemed to be “bad” for you.

Because of this, no mainstream politician is eager to do anything to weaken it; the only politicians speaking ill of the Drug War are, for the most part, members of fringe parties--Independents, Reformists, and Libertarians, to name a few--and none of them are considered influential or powerful in today’s machine.

Therefore, since drug prohibition exists in, is propagandized by, and is enforced from the federal level of government, it would take fringe politicians in Congress and/or the Executive before the leaders of our democratic republic will begin to roll back the growing powers granted to them by the War on Drugs.

In addition to that, our federal government would have to cope with the international pressure of other governments--governments that typically are not founded upon the principles of liberty or the democratic experiment--once it begins to deregulate drug prohibition. A few countries, such as Britain and Canada, know about this pressure all too well, and they only relaxed their drug laws by slight degrees.

How many politicians in America would be willing to go far enough to change the reality of the Drug War? It would require dealing with public support that is shaky at best, colleagues who defame you for your beliefs and publicly denounce you for defending drug addicts who kill and contaminate children, a federal system that has been assimilating drug laws for nearly a century, and international pressure the likes of which you have rarely ever seen, pressure that could possibly lead to a real war over drug policy. Dedication to go this far in the defense of a principle is something that is rarely found in a mainstream politician, even if that principle is the one upon which our country was founded.

In next year’s election, look to the candidates in the presidential race and your local congressional race. I’d be willing to bet that the front-runners, the Democrat and the Republican, are both going to approve of the War on Drugs, either vocally or tacitly. Even if the man or woman elected says something against the Drug War, that person will not attempt to change the reality of the situation on the federal level. Due to the pervasiveness of the current bipartisan system in all aspects of politics, our electoral choice in this matter is pathetic.

Considering the history of repression and the subtle ways in which liberty is compromised for the illusion of security, this is a volatile situation of which we all need to be aware. It is certainly not hopeless, especially when one maintains at least a little faith in democracy, but it is potentially fatal to the system when it continues to run amuck.

(This list does not represent the entirety of my research on this subject)
1. Findlaw: Maryland v. Pringle
2. Findlaw: U.S. v. Sakyi
3. 21 USCU 801
4. 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs
5. 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances
6. 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances

-e. magill, 12/23/2003
Copyright ©2003 e. magill. All rights reserved.