Before I start into this post, I wanted to introduce myself and thank Goldy again for letting me post up here. I normally post as ‘thehim’ at Blog Reload, Effin Unsound and (every once in a long while) at Washblog. I started blogging three years ago after the advent of the Iraq War made me realize how far away this country has gotten from the principles that have made it so great. But for the past 2 years, I’ve focused more on issues of personal liberty, specifically the drug war.
The reason I’ve made this my focus is because after following a number of foreign policy and domestic issues, I saw that the drug war and its inherently counterproductive nature is wreaking havoc in a number of difficult issues that we face today – from illegal immigration, to crime, to our relations with Latin America, to the war in Afghanistan, to the way our nation’s infirmed and elderly are taken care of, to our overcrowded prisons, and worst of all, to our race relations. The drug war costs us billions of dollars every year and accomplishes absolutely nothing. It’s based on an assumption that the government has a duty to protect adult citizens from their own decisions. This false belief has been recognized as a mistake by people as politically diverse as Milton Friedman, George Soros, William F. Buckley, and Ralph Nader. Yet it still continues, because the willingness of politicians from both parties to resort to fearmongering has never been effectively countered with basic reason and common sense.
As this blog deals with Washington State politics, let’s look at some recent local news. Over the past school year, undercover police officers had been attending classes and pretending to be students at three Federal Way high schools. In the end, they were able to charge 3 adults and 11 juveniles with drug offenses. Two of the adults are facing gun charges for illegally selling firearms to the officers. Most of the transactions happened off school grounds once students agreed to help these officers purchase drugs.
I don’t doubt that the high schools in Federal Way have a problem with drug use. Illegal drug markets tend to gravitate towards the path of least resistance. In other words, the decision to make a living by selling illegal drugs is made more often in places where people have less opportunity. But all high schools today have some level of drug use going on. The last undercover operation like this one was at Redmond High in 2003 (you can see what one person had to say about that here).
What was done in Federal Way has been presented nearly unanimously by the local media as a positive thing. It is portrayed as a reasonable response to underage drug use. But the reality is not so neat. In any school where drug use is fairly common, these operations aren’t like finding a needle in a haystack. It’s more like shooting fish in a barrel. Undercover cops, especially female ones, can make just about any student into a drug dealer by making them feel that it would worth their while to break the law for them.
The main question to be asked is how did the cops decide who to target? In my suburban high school 15 years ago, an undercover cop could have arrested about half of the students in my senior class this way. Was it different here? Did these two officers make an effort to find out who certain main dealers were, or were they just content to arrest anyone who had the knowledge of where to find drugs? Did they only focus on a certain ethnic community? Did they only focus on kids who fit a specific stereotype (as what happened in Redmond)?
Probably the most pernicious aspect of stings like this is the belief that it helps those who get caught. I’ve seen this expressed several times, by teachers and school officials, even by one of the arrested teen’s grandfather. This is a greatly mistaken belief. No drug on this planet does more damage to a child’s prospects to succeed in life more than what a trip through the criminal justice system will do. Not to mention that all of the charged students have now been expelled. Depending on how these cases are handled, some of the arrested may find it impossible to receive financial aid for higher education or to be qualified for a number of jobs. All because they were the middleman between a drug supplier and an adult pretending to be a teenage drug user.
Despite these criticisms, I understand the train of thought for Federal Way school officials. They obviously know that drug use is widespread among their high school students. They felt like they had to do something. It’s very difficult to look at a problem like that and accept the fact that, at the local level, there’s nothing that can be done to fix it. This is a problem that needs to be fixed at the state level, by having the Governor and the Legislature finally take a stand against the federal government and start being smart about how we deal with drug use.
The reason that drugs are so readily available in our high schools stems from the fact that they’re illegal for adults as well. As a result, the supply chains exist underground and are controlled by criminals. Compare that to alcohol, where the supply chain is aboveground and heavily regulated by the government. Certainly, kids still get their hands on alcohol, but are there networks of alcohol sellers in high schools, who have large quantities of alcohol that they can sell to other students? Of course not. But this happens with drugs like marijuana, ecstasy, and cocaine, because at the higher levels of the criminal organizations that control those drugs, they could care less if a 16-year-old wants to be part of the network of low-level dealers. That’s exactly why our schools are flooded with these drugs. But if either of those two undercover cops wanted to buy alcohol from other kids, they probably would’ve been told to find someone over 21 to buy it for them.
The media occasionally raises points like these when the topic of the drugs comes up. So far, in relation to what happened in Federal Way, I’ve seen nothing to challenge the prevailing mindset that this sting is an acceptable and beneficial response to the problem of teenage drug use. If we understand that involvement with drugs is a function of having a lack of opportunity, why do we think we’re going to fix it by randomly picking off kids in a high school and giving them less opportunity to succeed in life?