This picture isn’t from urban fighting in Iraq a few years back. It’s from Tuesday in Birmingham. More than a hundred officers — local police, sheriff’s deputies and DEA agents — stormed a housing project to conduct seven simultaneous drug raids.
Reporters and photographers from The Birmingham News were along for the ride and recorded the action. The pictures make it look like something from a TV show such as “COPS.”
And what was the result of this massive show of force? Six people were arrested and two weapons were confiscated. That seems to be it. The newspaper said that “the operation was aimed at the ongoing problem of people selling crack cocaine, meth, marijuana and Lortab out of apartments there, and even on street corners.”
So an entire housing project was disrupted with more than a hundred heavily armed officers just to pick up six suspects? All so they can’t conduct voluntary transactions with other people? It seems like an open-and-shut case of state overreach — which is typical of the so-called drug war.
But at least some residents were happy to see police. For instance, 31-year-old Kimberly Coleman told the newspaper that she woke up a couple of weeks ago to discover a bullet hole in her living room window.
“I can’t even go inside I’m so happy right now,” Coleman told the News. “We complain all the time about things going on.”
Coleman has a legitimate concern about violence and it might even be reasonable to think the violence that concerns her is drug-related. Let’s assume so for the moment. If that’s true, doesn’t that mean the government has a legitimate need to stop the drug dealers?
This is the big point that a lot of people miss. The only reason there’s violence around the sale of illegal drugs is that the commerce is illegal. If drugs were legal to sell, the big profits would disappear — and so would the violence.
When it was illegal to sell alcohol in this country, what happened? People still wanted alcohol, so they turned to those who were willing to ignore the law in order to make big profits. This attracted criminal gangs, who warred with each other. The streets were filled with violence at times.
If you talked to people in government and many others at the time, it was a simple law enforcement problem. If the government would simply put more money into law enforcement, the problem could be eliminated. That didn’t work. Prohibition was repealed. Legitimate companies started selling booze again. Criminals moved on to other things — such as narcotics — because they’re only interested in high profits. The violence was over.
If government can claim any legitimate role, it’s keeping violence under control. If there’s violence at that Birmingham housing project where Kimberly Coleman lives, the government has a duty to stop it in the most reasonable way possible. We know from Prohibition that more raids and stricter enforcement don’t work. The only legitimate option is legalization. If there’s a market for something, let it be sold at the local pharmacy or specialty shop. It’s a good bet that the people who run the shops won’t be shooting at each other.
The Birmingham drug raid this week is an example of much that’s wrong with the drug war. Even when it’s handled in the most professional way possible by police — and I’m willing to assume this was — it makes neighborhoods feel more like a mini-police state. Even worse, the enforcement actions are just taking a few minor players out of the picture — and you can be sure that others had taken their place before the day was over.
It’s time for government to admit that it can’t solve the drug problem — mostly because it’s the very entity that created the problem.