The slaying of Chicago Police Officer Brian T. Strouse, allegedly by a
16-year-old lookout for a drug-dealing street gang, is another item of
evidence indicting the war on drugs.
"Drug dealers bring much more violence than we have ever seen in this
country," said Mayor Richard Daley at Thursday's funeral for the 33-year-old
officer. The mayor can be forgiven a little hyperbole during such an emotional
But this city has seen such violence before; in fact, Chicago once was
defined by the violence wrought by a war on alcohol that we called
Prohibition. In those days, drive-by shootings were the work of
tommy-gun-toting gangsters pushing that "demon rum" and other abominations of
the era. That violent war ended in 1933 when Americans finally acknowledged
the self-destructive futility of trying to prohibit alcohol use.
"This is war out here and young men die in war," said Chicago Police
Supt.Terry Hillard at Strouse's funeral, reminding us of how history repeats
Hillard's comments mark law enforcement's attitude about their work in this
city's drug-plagued communities; they are in mortal combat and their enemies
are the black and brown youth who ply their trade in the underground economy
of drug commerce.
We must ask: Who's winning the drug war?
The "war on drugs" policy was officially launched in 1982 by the Reagan
administration and since that time, drug arrests have soared and prison
populations have exploded. According to the Sentencing Project, a sentencing
reform group that does research on criminal-justice issues, drug arrests
reached more than 1.5 million by 1997 and four out of five were for
possession. The group notes those arrests generated an 11-fold increase in the
number of drug offenders in state prisons by 1996.
"Dramatic increases occurred in the federal system as well, as the number
of drug offenders rose to 55,194 [from 4,900 in 1980], representing 60 percent
of all inmates," the group reported in a recent fact sheet on drug policy.
Law enforcement's inordinate focus on fighting a drug war has skewed law
enforcement's crime-fighting priorities, channeling billions in resources to
policies with few social rewards. By imprisoning record numbers of low-level
drug dealers and users, society has created a criminalizing assembly line and
deepened the saturation of prison culture into various inner-city communities.
Many street gangs are created in prison and gang connections are nurtured
and reinforced by the lucrative pipeline linking the jails and the streets.
The 16-year-old accused of killing Strouse belonged to a gang that reportedly
was created in one of Illinois' juvenile facilities.
But even more damaging to the logic of our drug-fighting policies is the
fact that drugs are more available and less expensive than they were before
the war began.
According to the University of Michigan's "Monitoring the Future" survey in
1999, nearly 80 percent of students in the 10th grade and 90 percent of 12th
graders rated marijuana "fairly easy" or "very easy" to obtain. The numbers
were up from 1992. Cocaine was rated "easily available" to 25 percent of the
8th graders. The numbers were up from the 1992 survey.
The United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention found that
"over the past decade, inflation-adjusted prices in the United States for
cocaine fell by 50 percent and 70 percent for heroin." What's more, the agency
also found that the purity of the street heroin (a trendy drug among
increasing numbers of young people) increased to 37 percent in 1997 from 6
percent in 1987. The purity levels of cocaine and marijuana also have
increased in recent years.
Rising purity and lower prices are just more indications of the drug war's
failure. Those mounting failures should convince anyone paying attention that
the war of which Hillard speaks is tearing the nation apart as it enriches its
many profiteers, only some of whom are drug dealers.
So even as the battlefield body count continues to climb, we're unlikely to
see a much-needed cease-fire in our shameless war on drugs.
Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2001 Chicago Tribune