Changing Strategies In "The War On Drugs."

Matt Yglesias has a good post on alternatives to the current “war on drugs” approach to policing:

What we need is less emphasis on drugs and more emphasis on actual problems associated with drugs. For example, consider a town with two crack dealers. Dealer One sells twice as much crack as Dealer Two, but Dealer Two is operating an open-air market that’s a nuisance to the local community whereas Dealer One operates discretely out of his basement and people who aren’t crack addicts don’t even notice him. I think common sense indicates that you go after the guy who’s a nuisancerather than the guy who sells more drugs. But the logic of the “war on drugs” says you follow the drugs.
But arresting a nuisance will accomplish something useful—eliminate a nuisance, and encourage other drug dealers to be less of a nuisance—whereas arresting the guy who moves more product is just going to cause his customers to look someplace else.

There’s actually a fair amount of data to back up Yglesias point; last year the DoJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services released a report reviewing the results of 117 “scientifically rigorous” street-level drug law enforcement evaluation studies. Specifically, the DoJ was comparing the effectiveness of three different methods of policing: “hot spots” policing (the flashy stuff: raids, drug busts, etc.), community-wide approaches (which rely on building relationships within a given community) and geographically focused approaches (similar to the former, but much broader in scope).
The results were pretty straightforward: community and geographically focused approaches were most successful, in large part because of their reliance on “problem-oriented policing.” Although that sounds like a tautology (isn’t policing inherently “problem-oritented), it actually refers to a specific form of policing, in which a police department works with “nonpolice entities” to target the nondrug problems which are associated with open-air drug markets: property crimes, violence, general disorder, etc. What’s more, focusing attention on the problems associated with drugs had the effect of generating “positive effects on drug outcomes,” or a decrease in the scale of drug trafficing.
From what I understand, pursuing something like doesn’t require much in the way of additional resources, but it does require a clear institutional commitment to different methods of policing. Although I don’t expect the Obama administration to move away from the standard set of federal “drug war” policies, there is the chance that the Obama’s rhetoric will open the space for new methods of dealing with drug markets.


Jamelle Bouie is a writer for Slate. He has also written for The Daily Beast, The American Prospect and The Nation. His work centers on politics, race, and the intersection of the two.

You can find him on Twitter, Flickr, and Instagram as jbouie.