Breonna Taylor Travesty Must Renew Focus on the Racist Drug War

    The grand jury’s decision in the Breonna Taylor case is infuriating. It was also, perhaps, inevitable.

    While scholars will spend years debating whether a single indictment for “wanton endangerment”—for imperiling Taylor’s neighbors, not her—was a technically correct interpretation of Kentucky law, the grand jury’s decision fell far short of anything nearing meaningful accountability.

    Of course their conclusion would likely have been different had the victim not been Black. We must continue to fight the racism that helped to drive this injustice, and work to rid our country of the bigotry that all-but-ensured this indefensible outcome.

    Many individuals share the blame. It’s clear the cops involved in the “drug raid” acted with “extreme indifference to the value of human life,” as wanton endangerment is defined. Their superiors are also at fault—both for obtaining the legally questionable warrant and for the egregiously irresponsible way the officers delivered it. Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s decision to mislead the grand jury and deliberately withhold information from the public should also be criticized.

    The circumstances surrounding Taylor’s murder dispels the myth of “a few bad apples.” But it’s also critical we acknowledge culpability extends far past the spoiled bunch. Law enforcement’s institutional rot isn’t the only thing at fault.

    Meaningful change is impossible so long as our drug war apparatus remains intact.

    Responsibility for Taylor’s death also lies with a five-decade-long “War on Drugs” that didn’t just enable state violence, but actively incentivized it… all while ensuring virtual impunity for its perpetrators.

    Taylor’s murder and countless others are a reminder that meaningful change is impossible so long as our drug war apparatus remains intact. No number of  “good cops” can counteract the devastation caused by a drug control strategy whose primary allegiance is to punishment, not the public’s health. For as long as law enforcement can successfully claim drug-related activity demanded their aggressive intervention, police departments will continue to brutalize their constituents.

    Take, for example, the no-knock warrant that foredoomed Taylor’s death. Today, this often-deadly tactic is deployed almost exclusively in service of the drug war—more often than not by the SWAT teams whose domain has shifted from “extraordinary situations” to low-level drug law enforcement. These reckless raids endanger thousands of lives every year (including those of the cops conducting them), all the while making no impact on the country’s drug supply or consumption patterns.

    The same goes for the ex post facto assertions of “excited delirium” that law enforcement authorities often use to justify the extrajudicial killings of people like George Floyd and Daniel Prude. It’s important to note that no reputable medical authority even considers “excited delirium” a valid diagnosis or syndrome. But even if the American Psychiatric Association considered the condition legitimate enough to list in the DSM-5 (it does not), their recommended course of treatment would hardly involve death at the hands of the state.

    And as efforts to blame Taylor and Floyd for their own slaughter sadly remind us, drug involvement doesn’t even need to be proven—let alone pertinent to the facts of the case—for it to be weaponized by police officers and prosecutors, and used to deny victims the justice they’re due.

    And while the civil liberties of cartel bosses and drug kingpins should also be protected, it’s worth a reminder that the most drug war victims are Black and Brown people who—like an outright majority of American adults—have been accused of nothing no more serious than smoking a little pot. Bigotry, not actual behavior, determines who gets called a “criminal.”

    Drug-war dogma has become so ingrained that the mere insinuation of drug involvement empowers law enforcement, politicians and the public to cast victims as villains.

    It’s enraging that Philando Castile—a school cafeteria worker with no criminal record—had been pulled over at least 50 times during the 15 years he’d been driving. It’s unconscionable that his last traffic stop, in July 2016, ended with a Minneapolis police officer firing eight times into his vehicle, killing the 32-year-old man as his girlfriend and her daughter looked on.

    It boggles the mind that the 28-year-old cop who shot Castile managed a straight face when he testified that the (alleged) “odor of burnt marijuana” made him fear for his life. But perhaps the most infuriating element of the entire story is the fact that a 12-person jury (all of whom lived in Minnesota, a medical-marijuana state that decriminalized personal possession back in 1976) bought the officer’s absurd and obviously disingenuous claim.

    Drug-war dogma has become so ingrained in the American consciousness that the mere insinuation of illicit drug involvement empowers law enforcement, politicians and the general public to cast victims as villains, undeserving of the protections explicitly afforded to them by law.

    It’s clear this potent strain of drug war exceptionalism has eroded the very concept of due process, and made a mockery of “liberty and justice for all.” Remember, attorneys and apologists worked to paint Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown as “no angels,” whose occasional cannabis consumption made them responsible for their own extrajudicial killings.

    News coverage surrounding the shooting of Botham St. Jean focused on the fact that (less than an ounce of) marijuana had been found in the apartment where the 26-year-old accountant was eating ice cream when he was shot by an off-duty cop. Despite New York having decriminalized cannabis in the late 1970s, NYPD officers brutally assaulted and illegally arrested 20-year-old Fitzroy Gayle earlier this year, after falsely claiming they spotted him smoking weed in a park.

    It is in this context that the media’s tendency to downplay or ignore the role of the drug war in Taylor’s death, among so many others, is incomprehensible and irresponsible.

    Despite egregious examples of drug war-related misconduct and governmental overreach occuring every single day, politicians have barely lifted a finger to try and counteract the destruction. Our elected officials’ apathy or active unwillingness  to contend with the damage are appalling, but could not continue without much of the public’s tacit consent.

    A 1989 Gallup poll found that the majority of Americans were willing to give up “a few of the freedoms we have in this country” if it meant curbing illicit drug consumption. The outcome of the Breonna Taylor case makes it evident that too little has changed in the intervening years.

    Dismantling the drug war will need to take place outside of police precincts and penal codes. Reform efforts can’t stop at the courts or in Congress. They must also target public consciousness, centering the end of the drug war within the unprecedented energy of today’s racial justice movement.



    Photograph of a mural in Terra Linda, San Rafael, California by Dana L. Brown via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0

    • Natalie is a researcher, organizer and policy professional who currently serves as the Executive Director of The Equity Organization, a national not-for-profit working to advance a more just, equitable and effective approach to US drug policy. Her focus area include issues at the intersection of cannabis policy and the American criminal legal system, especially as they relate to racial justice and equitable economic opportunity. She lives in New York.

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