As a Cop, I Know Police Contempt for Drug Users Is Still Widespread—And It Comes From the Top


    “Don’t bother replacing the injections. Let nature take her course!”

    Comment from a law enforcement-only forum, referencing naloxone provision; June 2018

    It’s sometimes tempting, despite the current administration, for U.S. drug policy reform advocates to imagine that the dramatic change in public attitudes of recent years is ubiquitous. That’s a big mistake, because so many of those who hold the power to inflict harm—in the Department of Justice, but also right down through local law enforcement ranks—remain rooted in an antiquated drug-war mentality.

    We must push back at law enforcement officials who still argue that increasing prosecutions will drive down drug use and overdose. Because while the drug warriors are losing ground on cannabis legalization, they are setting their sights on opioids and other areas—stigmatizing drug users, attacking those who recognize criminalization has failed, and undermining initiatives proven to reduce harms.

    Recent attacks, geared against the implementation of supervised consumption spaces (SCS), emanate from the federal government, and in particular from both Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein. In a New York Times opinion piece last month, titled “Fight Drug Abuse, Don’t Subsidize It,” Rosenstein exhibited his disdain for Americans who use drugs and their loved ones.

    “Unfortunately,” he wrote, “some cities and counties are considering sponsoring centers where drug users can abuse dangerous illegal drugs with government help. Advocates euphemistically call them ‘safe injection sites,’ but they are very dangerous and would only make the opioid crisis worse.”

    The US drug-warrior mentality reflects many troubling things, but what strikes me the most is its lack of compassion for people who use drugs and their families.

    Rosenstein’s piece, wilfully ignoring widespread evidence that SCS save lives, predictably reflects an abstinence-only, anti-harm reduction ideology. Yet his emphasis on law enforcement also reveals his misunderstanding of the impact of prohibition.

    Research shows that prohibition has limited, if any, deterrence value. One study showed recidivism rates for drug offenders at 76.9 percent within five years of release*; another found 66.7 percent were rearrested within three years**. Many more indicate that an emphasis on prosecution does not stop drug use, manufacturing or sales.

    Even more than the research, my personal experiences brought me to this conclusion. I watched my brother struggle with addiction—but also with stigmatization and criminalization—throughout his life, until he suffered a fatal overdose.

    My professional experiences, working in law enforcement on gangs and narcotics, led me eventually in the same direction. As a cop who cares deeply about human rights and the future of policing, it pains me to see attitudes like those expressed at the top of this article still prevalent in law enforcement ranks, when better leadership could be transformative.

    Instead, Rosenstein advocates the same failed tactics that we saw the Justice Department use in California, for example, during the war on marijuana. There, heavy-handed tactics from the federal government merely delayed the evolution of our marijuana policy and laws, while untold numbers of people suffered needlessly.

    “Because federal law clearly prohibits injection sites,” Rosenstein wrote, “cities and counties should expect the Department of Justice to meet the opening of any injection site with swift and aggressive action.”

    Having participated in the campaign to legalize marijuana in California, I don’t believe that Department of Justice threats should be taken lightly. We know only too well how prosecutorial power combined with law enforcement can undermine justice and lead to misconduct and abuses.

    As we have seen, Rosenstein suggests, wrongly, that there is no evidence that SCS work. Not content with this, he also implies that SCS create violence in surrounding neighborhoods, are a threat to public safety, and “normalize drug use and facilitate addiction.”

    In doing so, he ignores research dating back a decade that largely debunks each of his assertions—including evidence that public health strategies don’t normalize drug use. Instead, he cites a stigma-filled anecdote from a politician who drove to Vancouver.

    “For instance,” he wrote, “the area near an injection site in Vancouver, British Columbia, was described by a member of the Redmond, Wash., City Council as ‘a war zone’ with ‘drug-addled, glassy-eyed people strewn about’ and ‘active drug dealing going on in plain sight.’”

    Sessions, meanwhile, recently caused progress towards opening private SCS in San Francisco to slow—though happily, the bill is now on the desk of the Governor, statements such as this could make a difference on whether the bill becomes law.

    After heralding the Trump Administration’s “opioid surge”—doubling down on a prosecution-centred approach to addiction—with the claim: “We’re not just locking up criminals for the sake of locking them up. We are preventing addiction from spreading and we are saving lives.”

    Sessions, Rosenstein and many others ignore the lifesaving success of the 120 SCS venues operating safely in Canada, Australia and 10 European countries. Eight US states currently recognize the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of SCS in reducing overdose deaths, transmission of diseases such as HIV and Hep C, crime and addiction.

    Amid the appalling news of an estimated  72,000 preventable overdose deaths last year, Rosenstein, like his allies, makes the specious boast that those deaths are set to fall thanks to the reinvigoration of a strategy that has failed us for 50 years and more: “The Trump administration is working to reverse those trends. Prosecutions of drug traffickers are on the rise, and the surge in overdose deaths is slowing.”

    It’s clear that the Justice Department, eager to protect its power and self-serving interests, will do everything possible to try to halt progress, on cannabis reform and wider drug policy.

    The US drug-warrior mentality reflects many troubling things, but what strikes me the most is its lack of compassion for people who use drugs and their families. Law enforcement culture, led from the top, continues to lean on stigma and tropes to vilify people who use drugs or have substance use disorders, families who suffer or have lost loved ones to overdose or the prison system, and their advocates.

    This comment, taken from an online police forum this summer, is another example of the stigmatizing language and contemptuous attitudes that I have encountered throughout my career:

    “I hate narcan. However im glad I have it in case a child overdoses on his parents stash or another officer or myself get exposed. But i don’t want to use it on a junkie who is just going to get high again and again. A true waste of tax payers dollars.”

    And of course these attitudes feed into abuses:

    Such sentiments are a direct result of the rhetoric politicians have used ever since the first drug laws were passed in this country. The President merely sticks to the script when he advocates for the “ultimate punishment” for drug dealers.

    Such group-think results in the dehumanization of our neighbors, our friends and our families—above all in poor communities of color. The drug war endangers us all, including law enforcement. It has resulted in untold deaths from overdose and violence, while stripping resources from programs and strategies that would actually enhance public health, equity and police-community relations.


    Innovations and Positive Change

    There is hope. Advocates and institutions are no longer afraid of challenging the power of the federal government. We have facts and science on our side, and we realize that speaking out to combat the lies is essential.

    This report has been largely ignored by the drug warriors. Both its arguments and its source are simply too undermining to their cause.

    As the Chair and a spokesperson for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), an organization comprising current and former officers, prosecutors, judges and other criminal justice professionals, I know that our organization would not exist if criminalization worked to deter drug use.

    I’ve previously written about the perceived conflicts between public health and policing. But it’s important to note that some innovative police agencies advocate for harm reduction initiatives as part of their community policing strategies.

    In 2017, the Police Executive Research Foundation published a report on 10 policing standards of care. Its enlightened recommendations include advocacy for naloxone, public education on addiction to dispel stigma, drug treatment on demand, medication-assisted treatment, Good Samaritan Laws and drug-checking. What’s more, it also calls for public health partnerships to study the “efficacy  of supervised consumption spaces to connect people to treatment and reduce overdoses.”

    This report has been largely ignored by the drug warriors. Both its arguments and its source are simply too undermining to their cause.

    Yet pro-harm reduction attitudes within law enforcement are nothing new. Back in 2010, the police department of Quincy, Massachusetts implemented the use of naloxone by trained officers who were first to arrive at the scene of an overdose. In the process, they transformed the culture of their organization; people whose lives have been saved are now viewed “as family members rather than carry the stigmatized, dehumanizing label of drug addict.”

    The Quincy Model has since spread, and police departments across the country have now saved thousands of lives in this way.

    We’ve also seen the successful implementation of Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) programs around the US in recent years. LEAD allows officers to connect low-level, nonviolent drug dealers and drug users with treatment and services as a pre-booking diversion alternative to jail.

    LEAD’s strategies are evidence-based, taking account of fiscal costs, recidivism rates, client outcomes and participant evaluations. The benefits of such programs fall short of those that full drug decriminalization or legalization would bring. However, until that day comes, they are an important way to reduce the harms of criminalization.

    Those of us involved in law enforcement can simultaneously support justice, a rational drug policy based on compassion, and a true respect for human rights. Connecting policing and positive public health outcomes requires a return to the kind of policing philosophy promoted early on by Chief August Vollmer or Chief Inspector H “Bing” Spear—one that understood the links between substance use, crime and social problems.

    While drug warriors strive to repeat past failures, those of us who demand innovation and positive change must keep pressing to make peace with drugs and the people who use them.


    * Durose, M., Cooper, A., & Snyder, H. (2014). Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 30 States in 2005: Patterns from 2005 to 2010.

    **Beck, A., & Shipley, B. (n.d.). Recidivism Of Prisoners Released In 1983.

    Photo by Jase Ess on Unsplash

    • Lieutenant Diane Goldstein (Ret.) is a 21-year veteran of the Redondo Beach Police Department in California. She is the executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a group of police, prosecutors, judges and other criminal justice professionals who oppose the War on Drugs and advance sensible criminal justice policy solutions.

      Diane is a member of the board of directors of The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter.

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