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On Thursday – which was the unofficial stoner holiday of 4/20 – supporters of legal marijuana and opponents of the U.S. "war on drugs" took to the internet to make the case for their causes.
One widely shared image made an unexpected implication – that decriminalizing drugs could be a pro-police move.
It features images of police destroying liquor bottles and marijuana plants, with this text: "Did you know? More American police officers died during prohibition of alcohol than any other time in history. 300 died in 1930 alone. After prohibition ended, police deaths didn't reach 200 a year again until the year Nixon declared war on drugs."
A quick Google search showed us the image has been popping up on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and other websites – and that it has been making the rounds since at least 2015.
The message is clear: When the government bans popular substances, like liquor or marijuana, black market trade makes life more dangerous for those enforcing the ban.
We wondered, however, if the data actually supported that message.
The war on drugs
Marijuana and other drugs had been illegal in the United States for years before the federal government – under President Richard Nixon, as the image correctly states – launched what we now call the "war on drugs."
In June 1971 Nixon declared "a full-scale attack on the problem of drug abuse in America." He called for harsher drug laws and millions of dollars in extra spending, and Congress complied.
Today, spending on the drug war has continued to grow, and the United States has either the largest or second-largest prison population in the world.
Yet marijuana remains popular. A CBS poll released Thursday found 61 percent of Americans favor legalizing pot and 33 percent are opposed. It also found 88 percent of Americans support medical marijuana.
A 2015 National Institute on Drug Abuse survey reported that 22.2 million people – 7 percent of the U.S. population – had used pot within the last month. That’s about twice the rate at which people are abusing the second-most popular drug, illicit prescription painkillers (see fact-checks on opioids here, here and here).
A deadly job?
Comparing Prohibition with the drug war is common in American culture. Just listen to the popular 1988 country song "Copperhead Road" by Steve Earle, about a man from an Appalachian moonshining clan who switches the family business to weed.
But is it also fair to compare police deaths during the two periods?
That’s a little iffy.
It’s correct that 1930 was the deadliest year in U.S. history for police. The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, which tracks officer deaths going back to 1791, says 307 officers died in 1930. It’s also correct that police deaths decreased sharply after Prohibition.
But the numbers behind the claim that "police deaths didn't reach 200 a year again until the year Nixon declared war on drugs" are a bit off.
Nixon began the war on drugs in 1971, but police deaths actually topped 200 the year before that in 1970. And that wasn’t any sort of a spike – the number of deaths had been just below 200 all throughout the late 1960s.
And that’s not the only thing wrong with this claim.
Not all deaths are violent
The image clearly uses the violence associated with organized crime to make its point.
However, not every officer who dies in any given year is killed by someone else in the line of duty. Many officers die from car crashes, illnesses and other causes. Yet the data this viral post cites on police deaths includes all deaths of police officers each year – violent and non-violent, on-duty and off-duty.
In 2007, according to the memorial group, 202 officers died. According to FBI data, 57 of those officers were killed by a criminal while on duty.
That means nearly three-fourths of the deaths that year were not the kind of violent deaths this image is alluding to. And even while on duty that year, an officer was more likely to have been killed in an accident than by a criminal.
Fewer police deaths
We focused on 2007 for a reason. In the last 36 years, only 2007 and 2001 (due to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks) have had more than 200 officer deaths.
Yet the typical person who sees this image might very well believe that 200 or more police officers are continuing to die each year during the war on drugs. In reality that’s only happened 12 times, and only twice since 1981.
Nicholas Kristof wrote in 2015 that toddlers are killed by guns more often than on-duty police officers are, which PunditFact rated Mostly True.
And whatever the cause of officers' deaths in a given period, the war on drugs still doesn’t compare to Prohibition, when for 14 years an average of 252 officers died every year. Since Prohibition ended more than 80 years ago, however, there have been more than 250 officer deaths only twice – in 1973 and 1974.
In fact, during most years from the 1990s until today, the number of officer deaths has been roughly the same as 100 years ago, when there were far fewer officers.
A viral image making the rounds on 4/20 compared the number of police officer deaths during Prohibition to the drug war: "After prohibition ended, police deaths didn't reach 200 a year again until the year Nixon declared war on drugs," the image said.
Those numbers aren’t totally accurate, and the comparison itself is misleading.
For one, it counts many officers' deaths that had nothing to do with the prohibition of drugs or alcohol, like an officer who dies of cancer or in a car crash on vacation. And despite the direct comparison between the deadly years of Prohibition and the war on drugs, police deaths have largely been on the decline for decades even as the drug war continues and the number of officers has grown significantly.
Since the image uses a semi-accurate statistic to make a misleading comparison, we rate this claim Mostly False.
Nixon’s drug war speech, June 17, 1971, "Special Message to the Congress on Drug Abuse Prevention and Control"
The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund website
The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, chart of officer deaths from 1791 to present
The Law Enforcement Action Partnership website
CBS poll, April 20, 2017, "Marijuana legalization support at all-time high"
National Conference of State Legislators, April 3, 2017, "Marijuana overview"
National Institute on Drug Abuse, January 2017, "What is the scope of marijuana use in the United States?"
National Institute on Drug Abuse, June 2015, "Drug Facts: Nationwide Trends"
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