This May, Paul Armentano, a prominent figure in the coalition to pass California’s Proposition 19 (legalize and tax cannabis), wrote an essay conclusively titled “Only Marijuana Legalization Will End Shocking Police Raids Like the One in Columbia, Missouri”.
Though we personally hope that Proposition 19 passes on Tuesday, we fear Paul Armentano may be too optimistic in his judgment. The SWAT raids that have become as American as apple pie or Cracker Jack do not exist solely because our cannabis laws are cruel and inhumane. These SWAT raids exist as the tip of a hugely lucrative industry, and the militarization of our police will continue regardless of whether or not California legalizes on Tuesday.
It has taken a tremendous amount of effort and sacrifice for activists like Paul Armentano to get America to this historic moment. But cannabis legalization represents the opening skirmish, not the critical battle, of the fight for America.
America is under attack. Our democracy has been stolen and co-opted by the law-enforcement industrial complex, the biggest opponent of cannabis legalization and of criminal justice system reform. This has happened because American law enforcement has become fundamentally corrupted by access to funding mechanisms like civil asset forfeiture, a property seizure process which was used to create a massive source of off-budget funding for the War on Drugs. This money, often taken from people who are never convicted of a crime, is retained by American law enforcement agencies who keep it for themselves, free of civilian oversight or legislative control.
This multibillion-dollar revenue stream is the money that purchases used military equipment (tanks, .50 caliber rifles, and full military assault gear), that is used as seed money for larger federal grants for more military equipment and surveillance technology, and that our police chiefs and sheriffs stash away in their private slush funds, enriching themselves off the labor of others from whom they wantonly steal.
Even when California legalizes cannabis, these laws will be used (are being used!) by the federal government to subvert the will of Californian voters by paying California’s law enforcement to continue enforcement of the federal law. And California is one state out of 50. And the laws regulating cannabis are part of a larger body of federal and state criminal justice law that needs drastic re-evaluation and reform.
If we legalize cannabis in California and perhaps even in other states, a best case scenario may see the end of the use of paramilitary policing strategies for enforcement of cannabis laws. But it is more likely that we will just see the aims of law enforcement shift as they look for a new revenue stream. The SWAT teams will still exist, and their arbitrary use will continue to traumatize children, kill dogs, and brutalize non-violent citizens. Perhaps we will see the use of paramilitary police tactics to enforce compliance with the liquor laws (like this raid on Yale students), or for the prostitution laws (like this Michigan raid). And the tale of Donald Scott, the Californian millionaire shot dead in a SWAT raid initiated because the National Park Service wanted his ranch as an addition to a park, should give pause to those who fear the expansion of police powers to enforce the environmental laws.
It is perhaps most odious that these systemic violations of human rights are perpetrated by law enforcement agencies addicted to the forfeiture money at the heart of the Drug War. But the story is more nuanced; our law enforcement agencies, from the local to the federal level, have realized that they can sustain and increase their funding through engaging in the political process. To this end, America’s law enforcement unions form powerful political coalitions and deploy lobbyists to influence politicians to enact increasingly draconian criminal laws and enact more generous compensation arrangements year after year. Now America’s municipalities, states, and the federal government all face colossal budgetary crises as unfunded pension obligations and wasteful government programs (especially the War on Drugs) confront the cold economic realities of the current recession.
At its core, Proposition 19 and the cause of cannabis legalization is not about cannabis. For Californians, it is about the right of a free people to self-determination. For law enforcement, Proposition 19 is a threat to the industry that provides employment for prison guards, bail bondsmen, sheriffs, probation officers, scientists in the drug testing industry, prosecutors, criminal justice instructors, etc. Law enforcement will not give up their vested interests without a struggle, and we must not let one battle blind us to the war.
For Americans, Proposition 19 provides a focal point for bringing back Constitutional, limited governance. It is vitally necessary for us to end the use of civil asset forfeiture laws and reaffirm the protections guaranteed by our Bill of Rights and most particularly the Fourth Amendment. It is vitally necessary for us to reaffirm the checks and balances on governments at all levels and end the ability of law enforcement agencies to become self-funding. An America wracked by external foes and economic troubles may yet surmount great obstacles, but an America torn apart through the insanity of the Drug War and the corruption of our governance is one that is unlikely to survive unvanquished.