Police corruption and the “War on Drugs” II

Posted: November 1, 2011 by viktoriia9 in Police Corruption and the 'War on Drugs'

The War on Drugs can be defined as the use of the criminal justice system to prohibit possession, use, production, sale, import, and export of certain drugs. Research demonstrates that the War on Drugs has institutionalized racism in law enforcement, created the wholesale corruption of government officials and police departments, increased violence, and criminalized the poor (Chambliss, 1995; Oscapella 2001; Skolnick, 1992).

In the article “Another lost war: The cost and consequences of drug prohibition”, William Chambliss argues that current drug policies have not worked because the incidence of drug use and the availability of drugs have not changed significantly since the War on Drugs was instituted. The author states that drug enforcement police are particularly vulnerable to bribes and corruption. Current drug policies make it inevitable that individual police will be tempted to accept bribes. Equally important, however, is the organizational pressure on police units to cooperate with drug dealers. Maurice Punch (2009:1) writes: “It is sociologically unsound to speak of ‘individuals’ in organizations, for there are none”. It is important to consider that the nature of police work, organization, and culture can conspire to encourage the diverse forms of police deviance.

William Chambliss (1995) found that when the police were taking bribes and protecting drug dealers, murders associated with drug dealers were low and the community was unaware that there was a drug market in the city. The police were viewed as doing a good job of “protecting” the community. However, when the police enforced anti-drug laws, crimes of violence increased. Chambliss (1995) argues that when the police cooperate with drug dealers, they give them a “licence” to trade in certain areas of the city. The “licensed” dealers do not engage in violence to protect their territory, because they need only call their partners on the police force and have their competitors arrested.

A search of newspaper articles revealed the following list of cases in recent years:

Toronto: six officers from the Central Field Command Team were charged with twenty two counts of drug related offences.

Chicago: seven officers of the Tactical Unit of the 15th District were indicted in 1996 for robbing and extorting money and narcotics from drug sellers.

Los Angeles: 27 Sheriff’s deputies and 1 police officer convicted in 1994 of skimming millions of dollars of drug money, while members of an elite narcotics unit.

New York City: police and New York State police departments were convicted of falsifying drug evidence.

Denver: two police officers charged with destroying evidence in 80 drug cases

Eugene Oscapella claims that mass demand for prohibited drugs creates a black market that feeds organized crime, increases violence, corrupts enforcement and wastes police recourses. Oscapella (2001) argues that the War on Drugs is a political war, waged not by scientists and doctors, but by police officers and politicians. William Chambliss (1995) suggests that crime and drugs have been used as the weapon by conservative governments to gain political advantage. Chambliss (1995:9) notes that, “crime and drugs were joined on the political agenda, thus making it nearly impossible to argue for decriminalizing drugs without appearing to support crime”.  Therefore, the war on drugs has been one of the biggest winners in political history for politicians.

A number of studies demonstrates that the War on Drugs increases incarceration rates and creates economies that are drug dependent (Oscapella 2001; Skolnick 1992). Chambliss (1995) notes that the War on Drugs in America is a war between the police and minority youth from the “ghetto underclass”. African American, Latino and Aboriginal people are particularly hard hit by the systematic racism inherent in the enforcement of drug laws. Drug arrests and incarcerations are the major contributor to the unprecedented number of people in prison. For instance, in 1992, 58% of the US inmates in federal prisons and over 30% of state prisoners were sentenced for drug offences (Chambliss, 1995). Approximately one-third of these were sentenced for marijuana, with another two-thirds for heroin and cocaine.

William Chambliss (1995) states that prohibitionist policies based criminalization of consumption have not worked. The author suggests to it is time to replace an ineffective strategy with more humane and efficient drug policies. According to Chambliss (1995), the Netherlands has been a leader in the search for alternatives for policing as a solution to social problems associated with the use of drugs. The Netherlands decriminalized possession, use, and sale of marijuana and other drugs. The main rule that governs police enforcement of anti-drugs laws is that the police are a bridge between drug addicts and treatment services (Chambliss, 1995:2). Research conducted by the Public Health and National Police in the Netherlands found that decriminalization of the use, sale, and possession of some amounts of drugs has not led to any increase in usage and has decreased the amount of crime. Switzerland has experimented with alternatives to police-enforced prohibition. Zurich and Geneva established the “needle parks” where addicts can openly purchase drugs. The government provides sterile needles and medical help. Peter Grab (1994) claims that a positive result of these experiments is a significant decline in the spread of AIDS and hepatitis among addicts. Insite is North America’s first legal supervised injection site. It is located on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Canada. This is a safe, health-focused place where people inject drugs and connect to health care services. Research shows that fatal overdoses within 500 metres of Insite decreased by 35% after the facility opened compared to a decrease of 9% in the rest of Vancouver; Insite, clients develop trusting relationships with health care and social workers, making them more likely to pursue withdrawal management, addiction counselling and other addiction treatment services.

These data from experiments with the decriminalization of drugs and safe injection sites suggest that alternative policies less dependent upon prohibitionist methods are likely to prove more effective.


Chambliss, W.J “Another lost war: The cost and consequences of drug prohibition” , 1995, Social Justice, Vol. 22, p 1-15

Oscapella E. “Witch Hunts and Chemical McCarthyism. The Criminal Law and Twentieth-Century Canadian Drug Policy”, 2001, Fraser Institute Digital Publication, p.1 -26

Punch, M. Police Corruption: Deviance, Accountability and Reform in Policing, 2009. Devon: Willan Publishing.

Skolnick J.K. “Rethinking the Drug Problem”, 1992, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences




    The producers of this short film are both recovering addicts who have both spent time living and indulging with drug addiction in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Today they are both clean and sober with multiple years of recovery
    Addiction: Chaos in Vancouver


  2. Mike Larsen says:

    Great post.

    Could you expand on what Chambliss means when he says that the war on drugs is political?

    Is police corruption inevitable in the context of a black market? Are there ways of mitigating this problem?

    Many discussions of police corruption focus on traditional forms of ‘corruption for gain’. Certainly, the war on drugs contributes to this for of corruption. But what about other forms? Does the policing of the war on drugs give rise to increased rates of misuse of force, for example? Many have argued that the war on drugs has been a driving force in the militarization of policing.

  3. Mike Larsen says:

    A news item of interest from Truthout: http://www.truth-out.org/former-narcotics-detective-admits-drug-planting-common/1320333381 .

    “Stephen Anderson, a former New York Police Department (NYPD) narcotics detective, recently testified that he regularly saw police plant drugs on innocent people as a way for officers to meet arrest quotas. While the news may shock many civilians, the custom is so well known among officers that it has a name: “flaking.”

    This practice has reportedly cost the city $1.2 million to settle cases of false arrests.

    “The corruption I observed … was something I was seeing a lot of, whether it was from supervisors or undercovers and even investigators,” said Anderson.

    And if anyone is an expert on planting drugs, it’s Anderson. This is a man who was busted back in 2008 for planting cocaine on four men in a Queens bar.

    “It’s almost like you have no emotion with it, that they attach the bodies to it,” Anderson coolly admitted to a reportedly stunned Brooklyn courtroom. “They’re going to be out of jail tomorrow anyway – nothing is going to happen to them.”

    Forgotten in that detached assessment, obviously, is the horrific experience of being in jail; the financial burden of having to pay up to a $500,000 fine; and, oh, having a criminal record possibly wreck one’s chances of future employment – not to mention dealing with the social stigma of being in jail; the travel restraints; the loss of voting rights; difficulty in finding affordable housing; and dealing with barriers to education (the Higher Education act was amended in 1998 to delay or deny federal financial aid to students on the basis of any drug offense,) among other hurdles too numerous to list.”

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