In the famous Norman Rockwell painting “Runaway,” seen on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in 1958, a kindly police officer and a pubescent boy sit at a lunch counter, the boy clearly having packed some belongings in a kerchief and run away. It’s a wholesome encounter and one wholly at odds with our modern image of police. That’s because it’s an image that came before the modern drug war.

During our national conversation on police and criminal justice, there will be many reforms proposed that will help increase police accountability and encourage better behavior. We should absolutely reform unions, abolish qualified immunity, and address how police are investigated after excessive force is used. But it is also important that we look to one of the root causes of why the police no longer have that wholesome, Norman Rockwell image. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that, every day, thousands of police suit up to go to war against their fellow citizens.

Drug “crimes” are qualitatively different from other types of crimes, i.e. real crimes. Real crimes have victims, and victims call the police to investigate and hopefully catch the perpetrator. The victim of a robbery calls the police, invites the police into his house, asks them to take evidence, and gives them all the information he has.

When crimes have no real victims, however, policing fundamentally changes. With drug use, the purported victim and the criminal are the same person, guilty of the grave crime of preferring a different intoxicant than the one available at the local bar. Victims no longer participate in catching the criminals, since they are the same person. Police must therefore adopt strategies to catch unwilling “victims” and to interdict the drugs at their source.

Commentary by Trevor Burrus. Originally published at Cato At Liberty.

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