Discouragement from Chicago: A Wise Old Cop Thinks About Drugs

Chicago

I spent the other night in the city, chatting with a cop, buddy of mine, who has seen as much of the criminal-justice system as any man I know. I don’t say he speaks for all policemen, but I think many would agree with him. Some of his comments may be of interest.

“There isn’t a war on drugs. If there was, we lost. It’s over.”

It’s a frequent comment from cops.

His chief doesn’t want to see that in print from one of his guys, even though the chief knows it’s true, so my friend will be Jim for today. Jim is a common sort among cops, mostly conservative but in some ways not. He sees drugs as a scourge, and he believes that we aren’t really trying to do anything about them.

“They’re part of life. They’re like bad weather, except there’s never any good weather. We accept them. The pols talk about getting rid of them and we have “drug-free” zones around schools, which is crazy because that’s where the drugs are. But nobody thinks we’re actually going to get rid of them. Ever.”

I think he’s right. When I was a kid, parents knew that alcohol was out there, and their kids were going to try it, so maybe they told them to be careful and not over do it. Or they said, “Don’t,” knowing the kids would anyway. That’s where we are now with respect to dangerous and, often, highly addictive pharmaceuticals. Standards have changed.

When a form of criminality becomes sufficiently pervasive, he said, it ceases being criminal so much as part of the culture, and you’re faced with putting an impractically large part of the population in jail if you want to enforce the law.

“In Chicago, you’d have half, probably a lot better than half, of every high school in the slam. Mommy and Daddy would be all over the legislature. What are you going to do?”

He says of himself, “I’m a garbage man. Everyday I pick up garbage on the streets. Next day, it’s back. Or there’s new garbage. Garbage men don’t get rid of garbage. They just carry it around. It’s a living.”

Everybody knows that kids in high school have access to drugs. I think most parents don’t know how easy the access is, how many different kinds of chemical are out there, or how great a part they play in the daily lives of many kids. Though most of the dealers he catches are black, because they work on the streets, he doesn’t see drugs as particularly afflicting any group.

“The rich white schools are heavier into drugs than the poor black ones. They can afford better stuff. Do you have any idea how much powder goes up noses in million-dollar houses in Cook County? You might as well try to make rock-and-roll illegal. So many people are so used to drugs that they don’t really care. Cops worry about drugs. Nobody else does.”

He doesn’t favor legalization. The result, he believes, would be countless new users would be created who today don’t have enough interest to use. The threat of arrest and opprobrium are enough to keep the majority of people from experimenting.

“Anybody can get crack. It’s not hard to find someone dealing on the corner. But if you’re middle management in the widget works you don’t know how to make a buy, you’re scared to go to that kind of neighborhood, and basically you don’t really care. Put it on the shelf at Seven-Eleven and you’re going to try. Bang, you’re hooked.”

Yep. If you look at who gets arrested in an afternoon of grabbing purchasers as they drive away from drug markets, you will probably see mostly blue-collar whites in old cars. The rich lawyers have better connections and don’t buy on the street, and don’t use crack. Check the record on the thirty-year-old emaciated blonde you just arrested and you’ll find a lot of priors for possession. She’ll have lost three jobs and be badly neglecting her little boy.

Crack.

Why did Jim spend his life chasing gangbangers and robbers and freelance druggists?

“I wonder that myself sometimes. It’s part because somebody’s got to do it. You can’t let the animals take over completely. But you know something? It’s fun. Sometimes it’s exciting. I get a gun and a badge and they tell me to go play cops-and-robbers. If I can do that, why am I going to spend my life behind a desK?”

Makes sense to me.

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