The Rapid Rise of Drug War Propaganda and the Police State

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The Rapid Rise of Drug War Propaganda and the Police State

by Ari Armstrong, May 28, 2002

A tax-funded television special aired in the Denver metro area encourages people to be suspicious of their neighbors and inform on them to the police based on the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence.

In a country based on freedom, mutual trust and good will toward our neighbors is the cultural norm. A system in which people are encouraged to be ever-suspicious of their neighbors with a ready finger to dial the police is more indicative of a 20th century totalitarian regime; it is not appropriate for our Colorado communities.

The half-hour special is called "The Hidden Threat: The Rapid Rise of Meth Labs." It's hosted by Larry Blunt of News4 and "produced for the public good" by the Greater Metro Telecommunications Consortium, a creation of various city governments. It has been running on Channel 8 since late last year, and it is currently running several times a day. A representative of Thornton said the program is airing "throughout the metro area." In addition, "law enforcement around the state" is using the video, and requests for it have come in from Utah and other locations.

Of course, law enforcement and the public have a legitimate concern over the rise of meth labs. But the ends do not justify the means. Consider this troubling sequence from the special.

Larry Blunt: "So as you can see, methamphetamine is creating problems for all of us. Because meth is so easy to make, this is not a drug problem likely to go away anytime soon. That is, unless the public becomes educated about the signs that a meth lab is operating. Let's look at the signs again."

Cmdr. Lori Moriarty, North Metro Drug Task Force: "They can recognize traffic coming in and out at all hours of the night. They might see that their neighbor at three o'clock in the morning is out smoking on the back patio, because they don't want to smoke within the house because they might blow it up."

Now, I don't smoke, but I've often sat out on porches late at night talking with my friends who do smoke. If that's the sort of activity that our police officers view as suspicious, then we've already come along way down the road to a police state.

In at least three other sections of the program, Blunt appeals to the public to inform on their neighbors.

"So by now you might be asking yourself, 'What can I do about this problem?' Fighting the meth lab problem is going to take keen awareness on the part of citizens, because the signs of a drug lab are not as easy to recognize as they were 20-30 years ago."

"Remember, if you think there might be a drug problem in your neighborhood, call your local police. They'll pass the information along to their drug unit."

"The most important thing to remember if you think someone is making meth -- get away from the place where it's being made as quickly as possible and then call your local police department."

Moriarty adds, "We have to do our part, if we do see something or suspect something, to contact our local law enforcement agencies. We have to protect our children... If we're more educated on what to look for with a meth lab, we might stop ourselves from being contaminated."

The tape shows us what we can expect when the police come knocking. Or without knocking, as the case may be. Near the beginning of the program, in a segment accompanied by music reminiscent of Miami Vice, we see black-clad, combat-helmeted police storm a house and a trailer house. The Drug Task Force operatives race up the stairs and point their military-style rifles at people. One agent tosses a flash-bang device into the window of the trailer.

Of course, the tape shows only the successful raids where meth labs are found. In these cases, the suspects are stripped naked outside and hosed down with cold water. We see part of the naked back-side of one suspect. This is deemed necessary to "decontaminate" the suspects -- to get rid of toxic chemicals. Sgt. Jim Gerhardt tells us, "If they resist [getting hosed off outside while naked], then unfortunately we'll have to apply a little bit of force to make this happen."

No video is shown from raids that targeted the wrong house.

In general, the film presents the act of informing on your neighbor as a natural and expected thing to do, and the occurrence of a military-style no-knock raid as an unfortunate neighborhood curiosity. Never is the awesome power of the police questioned. Never are viewers encouraged to exercise caution before subjecting their neighbors to such brutal, violent, and potentially lethal treatment. The film proceeds from suspicion to raid to glorious drug bust, without ever broaching the possibility that a "suspicious" person -- the guy next door foolish enough to smoke cigarettes on his own porch at three o'clock in the morning -- may in fact be innocent.

Of course, the traffic and cigarette smoking are only a couple of the "signs" mentioned. Hopefully, if pushed both Moriarty and the producers of the show would back off from those statements.

Other signs of potential meth manufacturing include stained walls and floors, scientific glassware, glassware with separated liquids, multiple boxes of cold tablets, and cases of matches. What's in a person's trash can be significant, we are told. A "chemical smell" can also indicate meth production, as can the presence of solvent, alcohol, rubber tubing, and batteries that contain lithium.

Of course, each of those things might indicate meth production. Or they might not. "Scientific glassware" is included in common children's chemistry sets. One of my friends collects strange glassware for his Halloween decorations. From my friends in graduate school, I've heard of chemists who use beakers as beer mugs.

Anybody with children may be in trouble concerning stained floors. My carpet shows a couple of stains -- rust stains. They were created when the previous residents lived here, when water ran down the wall from the air-conditioning unit upstairs and made the carpet wet around metal pieces of furniture.

All kinds of home busy-bodies and handymen keep around solvents, rubbing alcohol, and batteries. When I was a kid, I produced some pretty potent "chemical smells" by keeping around Easter eggs for several weeks too long.

The basic attitude conveyed by the tax-funded video is one of paranoia. Call the police on the first suspicion and let them sort it out.

Obviously, methamphetamine can be a dangerous drug. The video presents compelling evidence that meth is severely damaging to the user. Meth addiction is associated with violent behavior. In addition, the black-market production of meth creates toxic chemicals and potential explosions. All these are very real dangers.

That said, police officers -- peace officers -- need to deal with criminal problems within the confines of a free society. We shouldn't live in constant suspicion of our neighbors. We should be tolerant of strange and unusual behavior. We should respect the presumption of innocence. "The Rapid Rise of Meth Labs," while informative, offers disturbing advice to viewers and totally fails to offer any kind of balanced perspective on the matter.

* * * * *

I called Blunt in part to figure out News4's relationship with the project. After all, the text "News4" appears on-screen directly under Blunt's name.

The benefit seems obvious: News4 got to have its name listed for free on cable television scores of times throughout its market area. In addition, Blunt seems to believe in the project (I was never able to determine exactly how he became involved -- see the final section for more details).

What are the benefits for the city governments that funded the project? Obviously, the costs and risks to those responsible for the project were nil, as the taxpayers picked up the tab involuntarily.

The purpose of government propaganda is generally very simple: it is to expand the power of government agents. Certainly the television program about meth is sensationalistic and it is intended to gain public sympathy for the government's activities.

Colorado's meth problem is a great topic for a television program -- for PBS or for one of the advertisement-based stations. No government body or agency has a legitimate purpose in producing television shows. The whole concept of forcing unwilling taxpayers to fund a government-run television station offends the principles of a free society and a frugal government.

Given the incentive structure of government television production, it is no surprise that the program about meth contains dubious commentary and manifests a skewed, totally one-sided examination of the issues.

The place for government officials to ask for larger budgets is at public hearings and during the election cycle. City governments have no business advancing their agendas through quasi-journalistic documentaries at taxpayers' expense.

Tom Gorman, Director of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, says on the program, "It's not just a drug problem; it's a multi-faceted drug problem that government has got to aggressively combat." It is Gorman's right to advance this view, but not on the taxpayer's dime.

Kevin Merrell of the national Drug Enforcement Agency tells us Coloradans, "I think we need to have some better state laws enacted" including "stiffer penalties on the state side." So we have city governments taxing local citizens so that a federal agent can tell state legislators their business. That's wrong.

Sgt. Raymond Booras says, "When somebody goes in, they buy 15, 20, 50, 100 boxes of cold medication, that's just not normal. It's not illegal at this point -- and hopefully it will be some day in the future -- but at this point although it's not illegal, it is unusual, and it's something I think they should pay attention to." The pronoun "they" is never specified. But again we have city governments using tax money to advocate changes in state law. And again, that's wrong.

One very simple step would simultaneously eliminate these conflicts of interest and save the taxpayers money: shut down the government television stations and programs.

* * * * *

So far, my critiques of the television program about meth have largely assumed the political status quo. A more fundamental libertarian critique may be made of the film and of drug prohibition generally.

I believe two propositions are true, and I'll attempt to establish them at least in a cursory way. First, if methamphetamine were taken off the black market and manufactured by legal drug companies, most of the harmful side-effects of the drug would be eliminated. Second, if it weren't for drug prohibition, methamphetamine probably never would have become a distributed drug.

We'll start with the first point. The film goes to great effort to demonstrate the production of methamphetamine produces serious harms. Indeed, one of the film's introductory remarks claims, "The process of making the drug is more dangerous to people than the drug itself."

Gorman outlines four main harms of methamphetamine. It harms the user. It harms those victimized by the user, especially children and spouses. It harms the environment by producing toxic chemicals. It creates potential explosions.

In addition to pointing out the risk of explosions, Moriarty claims that methamphetamine can "contaminate the neighborhood."

Sometimes propane tanks are used to store other chemicals used in the manufacture of methamphetamine. The film describes these containers as "ticking time bombs." In addition, meth producers sometimes use hotel rooms and even vehicles to produce the drug. Blunt reminds us, "The public is exposed to the chemicals."

Obviously, the problems of toxic chemicals and explosions would be eliminated if the prohibition of methamphetamine were lifted. The environmental harms and explosions are solely the result of the prohibition of the drug, not of the use of the drug.

If the officials who work for metro city governments and police forces really wanted to get rid of the explosions and toxic chemicals associated with the black-market production of methamphetamine, they would advocate the repeal of the drug's prohibition. It's really as simple as that. No prohibition, no explosions. No prohibition, no (uncontrolled) toxic chemicals.

Of course, prohibitionists could still argue that the negative effects to the user and those the user directly victimizes justifies prohibition, despite the ensuing problems of explosions and toxins. But the prohibitionists don't argue that. They simply ignore the issue altogether.

Why is that? Why doesn't the tax-funded video admit -- or at least discuss -- the point that repealing prohibition would eliminate the nasty side-effects of methamphetamine production? I think there are three main reasons.

The first is ignorance. Despite a fairly well-established literature on the matter, the idea that prohibition is what causes the nastiness of black-market production seems never to have occurred to some people.

Second, government agencies expand their power and budgets by promoting and enlarging their wars on (some) drugs. Financial incentives can influence a person's ability to rationalize in subtle but powerful ways. That need not be the case, of course, but it often is.

Third, drug prohibition has become institutionalized. There's an entire subculture of government agents and their ideologies. Blunt tells us that "police agencies are receiving specialized training to battle the methamphetamine problem." This training must entail an overt effort to educate officers about the dangers of the drug -- from the standard prohibitionist's perspective.

Note that I have not called into question the motives of police officers and government agents. I am fully willing to accept Gorman's claim, "It's not just a job to them -- they really, really care." That said, I also believe some police agents are truly mean people. Those who actually enjoy the military-style raids of modern drug task forces shouldn't be peace officers anyway. But by and large, police officers want to do the right thing.

I don't see how anybody could rebut the claim that lifting the prohibition of methamphetamine and allowing it to be produced by legal drug companies would get rid of the problems of explosions and toxic chemicals. (Readers are welcome to try.) The problems of using the drug -- including the problems of users mistreating others around them -- remain.

However, I believe those problems would also be alleviated if the prohibition of methamphetamine were lifted.

If taking meth weren't a crime, neighbors might call treatment clinics instead of the storm troopers. Rather than turn meth users in to the authorities so they can go to prison, we might actually make more of an effort to help them find treatment. I find it interesting that the film never treats even a single meth addict as a human being.

Another major benefit would be the re-allocation of police resources. The film also goes to great pains to demonstrate the severity of the meth problem in terms of taxing police resources.

Booras says, "We don't have the time to investigate all the leads that we have on these things. They've just become a tremendous burden. We now have a full-time lab team... That's all we're doing right now."

Booras adds, "The chemicals and precursors used in the manufacture of methamphetamine are readily available in stores such as hardware stores, Wal-Marts, K-Marts, places that sell a variety of things, such as coolants, alcohols, cold medications, things like that. All those are readily available. They're all legal to possess at this time. All a person needs to do is find a recipe, go out and acquire the necessary ingredients, and go back home and cook it."

Even with the illegality of "precursors," the common house-hold items he lists, does Booras seriously believe that will dampen the drug trade? All that will result is that more cops will make more raids at greater expense to confiscate increasingly ridiculous items. ("I got ten bottles of rubbing alcohol and nine packs of batteries on this one! Strip 'em down and bring out the hose!")

Blunt says, "According to police, people making meth are getting more and more devious in the ways they hide their operations." I.e., the meth producers are getting wise to cops.

Blunt adds, "This epidemic is forcing police and fire departments around the metro area to dedicate resources to fight this problem -- resources that might be used elsewhere." He's right, if by "epidemic" he's referring to the epidemic of prohibitionist laws.

If these hundreds of police officers could be re-assigned, they could directly take on the problems of child abuse, spousal abuse, and other assaults. Is it somehow worse to beat a child if you're high on meth than if you aren't? The entire purpose of the police is to stop acts of violence. That's the job they should focus on. Certainly not all meth users act violently -- probably most do not. Police should focus on those who do act violently, whether they're taking drugs or not.

To summarize, repealing the prohibition of methamphetamine would certainly eliminate the harmful side-effects of the black-market production of the drug, namely explosions and toxic chemicals. It would probably also alleviate the primary harms of the drug by encouraging more drug treatment and by leading to better allocation of police resources.

But this still remains too static an analysis. If no drug had been prohibited, methamphetamine would probably never have become a distributed drug.

According to the video, methamphetamine is terrible for the user. It is "a drug that is twice as addictive as cocaine." According to Moriarty, it can cause people to become "extremely violent." It can impair judgment to the extent that users can pick "open sores" on their bodies.

It's plausible to believe that drug addicts and potential drug addicts will, depending on circumstances, switch between different drugs, at least within a limited range. It's likely, then, that by increasing the price of drugs like cocaine, the prohibitionists created the drug methamphetamine.

The saddest comment of the film is made by Sgt. Dave Zabroski of the Thornton Police Department: "Who'd [have] thought when we started 20 years ago as police officers we'd be dressing up in chemical suits?" Such are the unintended consequences of using force rather than voluntary associations and persuasion to achieve social goals.

* * * * *

Epilogue

In researching the program, I called 4News because of Blunt's association with it. (KCNC News4 is listed on the special as having contributed video segments.) I was patched through to Blunt. One of the background questions I asked was how Blunt got involved with the project. He said, "It was the right thing to do."

He then asked me, "Who are you with? Who do you work for?" I said I am self-employed and I write articles for the Libertarian Party and other organizations. He then said I had a political point of view and said, "You're coming at this with a subjective point of view."

I responded, "Having a political point of view is compatible with being objective." I continued by suggesting that he, too, expressed a political point of view, and I asked him if that implied his presentation was also subjective.

At that point, Blunt became combative. He said, "You're looking for a fight." (I did tell him I thought the show was flawed.) "Maybe you don't have a job." "You're a kid." He said I must not have anything better to do with my time. He told me, "You're going nowhere in life." He said I was nit-picking.

I responded by telling Blunt he was using ad hominem attacks. Blunt kept interrupting me, so I finally said, "I will tell you two specific things wrong with the program, if you'll give me a few seconds." He said he was going to hang up on me, and he did so. I don't expect Blunt's behavior is typical of how employees of News4 interact with the network's customers.

On a brighter note, the representatives I spoke with from the offices of Thornton and Westminster were consistently pleasant, helpful, and professional.

The Colorado Freedom Report--www.FreeColorado.com