Want to make money on the drug war? Start a company that builds military equipment, then sell that gear to local police departments. Thanks to the generation-long trend toward more militarized police forces, there’s now massive and growing market for private companies to outfit your neighborhood cops with gear that’s more appropriate for a battlefield.
Some of this is decades-old news. For over 25 years, the Pentagon has been supplying surplus military equipment to police agencies across the country, largely in the name of fighting the drug war. In fact, in as early as 1968 Congress passed a law authorizing the military to share gear with domestic police agencies. But it was in 1987 that Washington really formalized the practice, with a law instructing the Secretary of Defense and the U.S. Attorney General to notify local law enforcement agencies each year about what surplus gear was available. The law established an office in the Pentagon specifically to facilitate such transfers, and Congress even set up an 800 number that sheriffs and police chiefs could call to inquire about the stuff they could get. The bill also instructed the General Services Administration to produce a catalog from which police agencies could make their Christmas lists.
Ten years later, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Security Act of 1997, a portion of which created what is now known as the 1033 Program. In that bill, Congress created the Law Enforcement Support Program, an agency headquartered in Ft. Belvoir, Virginia whose sole task is to make it easier for Pentagon supplies to find their way to local police stations. In just its first three years, the office handled 3.4 million orders for Pentagon gear from 11,000 police agencies in all 50 states. By 2005, over 17,000 police agencies were serviced by the office. National Journal reported in 2000 that between 1997 and 1999, the office doled out $727 million worth of equipment, including 253 aircraft , 7,856 M-16 rifles, and 181 grenade launchers. In the October 2011 edition of the program’s monthly newsletter (Motto: “From Warfighter to Crimefighter”), the office celebrated that it had given away a record $500 million in military gear in fiscal year 2011.
The increasing role of the National Guard in the drug war also benefits military contractors. The National Guard straddles the gap between a police force and a military force. Over the years, Congress, state legislatures, and state governors have increasingly asked the Guard to take on the role of a domestic anti-drug agency, but to approach the job as the military might. of course supply the guard with everything from uniforms to weapons to aircraft. The National Guard was first recruited into the drug war in the mid-1980s with the Campaign Against Marijuana Production program. But it was during the lat 1980s and early 1990s that the Guard’s role really began to expand. In 1989 Congress first gave the Guard funding for $40 for drug interdiction efforts — $40 million. The next year, funding jumped to $70 million. Two years later it was up to $237 million.
By 1989, fully-armed Guard troops were stationed in front of suspected drug houses in a series of drug raids in Portland. In Kentucky, local residents grew so enraged at Guard sweeps in low-flying helicopters, they blew up a Kentucky police radio tower. In Oklahoma, Guard troops dressed in battle garb rappelled down from helicopters and fanned out into rural areas in search of pot plants to uproot. Guard troops would later tell USA Today Some would later tell media outlets they were told to exaggerate their haul in order to boost federal funding for future efforts.
In September 1990, the San Diego Union-Tribune sent a reporter to cover “the nation’s first counternarcotics school, organized to teach military and law enforcement how to fight the war on drugs together.” The curriculum stressed “the need for law enforcement agencies to wage the war with searches, seizures and arrests, while the military performs surveillance, intelligence and undercover roles.”
By the 1990s, National Guard units were flying anti-drug surveillance helicopters and boarding up crack houses in Washington, D.C.; flying surveillance helicopters and cruising the streets with infrared gear to spot drug houses in Brooklyn; sealing crack houses in Philadelphia; sent to support drug raids in Baltimore; and helping serve 94 drug warrants during a massive, city-wide raid in Pittsburgh. Members of the Pennsylvania Guard assisted in raids of two factories that produced small glass vials. There were no drugs in the vials. But both states had made the vials illegal because they were often used by drug dealers to package crack cocaine. The staff of Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) discovered that the Texas National Guard had received $3 million in federal funding to dress troops up like cacti and position them along the border to hunt for drug smugglers. And in the summer of 1990, an Army helicopter circled overhead as Massachusetts National Guard troops, some of them undercover, assisted police in identifying potential drug offenders at a Grateful Dead show.
According to journalist James Bovard, in 1992 alone National Guard troops across the country assisted in just under 20,000 arrests, searched 120,000 automobiles, entered 1,200 private buildings without a search warrant, and stepped onto private property to search for drugs (also without a warrant) 6,500 times. Col. Richard Browning III, head of the organization’s drug-interdiction effort, declared that year, “The rapid growth of the drug scourge has shown that military force must be used to change the attitudes and activities of Americans who are dealing and using drugs. The National Guard is America’s legally feasible attitude-change agent.”
The next major wave of militarization came after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In the decade since, DHS has handed out billions in homeland security grants with a program far larger and better funded than even the Pentagon giveaways. According to the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), DHS gave out $2 billion in such grants in 2011 alone, about four times the value of gear the 1033 program gave out in its own record year. The money goes for hardware such as armored personnel carriers, high-power weapons, aircraft, and other military-grade gear.
Though these are considered anti-terror or homeland security grants, because the overwhelming majority of cities, counties, and towns that get them will never be subject to a terrorist attack, the equipment bought with them inevitably gets used in the drug war — namely, to perform raids on people suspected of nonviolent consensual drug crimes. (The federal government laid the groundwork for conflating the two issues in 2002 when it ran an ad campaign explicitly arguing that terrorism and the drug war were inextricably linked.)
But most the most troubling thing about the DHS grant program is that it has given birth to the police-industrial complex. As the CIR reported in 2011, military contractors now market directly to police agencies with messages that encourage the mindset that the military and the police are fighting the same battle. And it’s lucrative. The spokesman for Lenco, which makes armored personnel vehicles, told me last year that thanks to DHS, the company has sold at least one of its “Bearcats” to 90 of the 100 largest cities in America. The CIR reports that, “The homeland security market for state and local agencies is projected to reach $19.2 billion by 2014, up from an estimated $15.8 billion in fiscal 2009, according to the Homeland Security Research Corp.”
That not only means that there’s fortune to be made arming domestic police departments for battle, there’s also plenty of money left over to set up lobbying offices in D.C., hire former politicians and their staffs, and generally lobby Congress, the Pentagon, and the White House to ensure that these programs not only stay around, but that they grow in size and influence going forward.
So if you want to make money off the war on drugs, consider starting a company that makes military gear for police departments. There’s a small mountain of government money for the taking. And unlike contracting with the Pentagon, you won’t even need a security clearance.
(Portions of this post were borrowed from my forthcoming book, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, coming on July 9th from PublicAffairs.)
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post to mark the theatrical and on-demand release of “How To Make Money Selling Drugs,” a new documentary by Matthew Cooke that examines the drug trade from a variety of angles. For more info on the film, click here.