To End Police Violence, We Must End the War on Drugs

By Sophie Dowdy, Drug Policy Alliance

We are in the midst of an unprecedented moment. Over the past few weeks, people all over the country have mobilized to protest police violence in response to the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, Rayshard Brooks, Carlos Ingram Lopez, and many others at the hands of the police. As we rise up against injustice, many have started to also think about how to build a better future, where communities have found new and better ways to keep each other safe, and the violence of policing is a thing of the past. As we do so, we must think about ending the drug war as a critical component of ending police violence.

Over and over again, we have seen drugs used as pretext to enact racialized violence. As Derek Chauvin knelt with his knee on George Floyd’s neck, one of the other officers on the scene turned to the onlookers and said “don’t do drugs, kids.” Floyd’s drug use was used not only to try to absolve the officers involved, but also to mark him as implicitly deserving of death.

Breonna Taylor, a 26 year old emergency room technician, was shot eight times and killed during a no-knock drug raid of her apartment. Despite the fact that the main suspect in the investigation had already been found, the judge authorised a no-knock warrant based on a tenuous connection to one of the two men involved in selling drugs out of a house 10+ miles away. No drugs were found at her apartment.

Rayshard Brooks, 27, was shot and killed by officer Garrey Rolfe after the police were called on him for sleeping in his car in a Wendy’s parking lot. Despite Brooks repeatedly offering to walk home, the police told him he was too drunk to drive and attempted to arrest him. Brooks took a taser from one of the other officers and was running away when Rolfe shot Brooks in the back three times, killing him.

Carlos Ingram Lopez, also 27, was killed by officers who restrained him face down for 12 minutes, ignoring his pleas for water and for his grandmother, who had called the police concerned that he was acting erratically. Again, the autopsy report tried to minimize the officers’ culpability in his death because of the cocaine that was in his system.

As these examples and many, many others suggest, the perception of drug use is often used to justify and excuse police violence and brutality, especially against Black people. But there is no excuse for police violence. We must hold the officers involved accountable for their actions and refuse to let those killed be blamed for their own deaths. Public safety has to mean safety for all, or it means nothing at all. It is time to defund the police, and to reimagine public safety.

These killings are, at their core, expressions of a racism that is systemic to policing, and they cannot be separated from an ongoing drug war that was deliberately racist from the moment of its conception, and which disproportionately polices and incarcerates Black people. So, what do we do? To start, we must decriminalize all drug use and possession as a step towards ending a drug war that intentionally criminalizes, harms, and kills Black people and other people of color, and we must defund the police.

As a result of prohibition, punishment and surveillance have become default responses to drug use, which should instead inspire supports like housing, employment, healthcare, and treatment for those who want it. If communities were adequately resourced, then the majority of the ‘crimes of poverty’ that police respond to (e.g. sleeping outside, jumping the turnstile, petty theft) would simply not happen.

We need to defund and dismantle the institutions that criminalize drug use and build alternatives that uphold the dignity and autonomy of people who use drugs. A lot of people have already imagined and are enacting different ways of responding to drug use that aren’t punitive but that instead embody values of safety, community, care, and justice. Harm reduction groups, drug user’s unions, and other community-based organizations are doing this work on the ground, providing safer use kits, creating apps that allow people to call someone while they use drugs to stay safe, running safe consumption sites, and so much more. Some are also calling for non-armed professionals, external to the harmful law enforcement apparatus, to be trained in and perform de-escalation in moments of true crisis.

We need to defund the police and reinvest in community care that prioritizes safety for all. We need to rethink the way we respond to drug use. We need to stop killing Black people. In the words of Kassandra Frederique, Managing Director of Policy, Advocacy and Campaigns for the Drug Policy Alliance in her Statement on the Horrific Police Killing of George Floyd, “the drug war did not create institutional racism or disregard for Black life in the US. However, it feeds and bolsters the racist structures that snuff out Black life daily.” Until the drug war ends, there will be no end to violence against and murder of Black people.

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DPA is the nation’s leading organization promoting drug policies that are grounded in science, compassion, health & human rights.

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