Suspected Drug Users Used as Classroom Subjects

[image by Nick Fisher,]

The California Highway Patrol has been stopping people suspected of using drugs and giving them a choice: either to face arrest or to be used as educational tools in the Drug Recognition Evaluator Program. The DRE Program is designed to help officers learn how to identify what drugs a suspect may be using. Their website includes a photo gallery of visual clues of drug abuse, with its models uncredited.

Much of our legal system bends toward free or near-free labor: even Whole Foods is dependent on prisoners for its cheeses. In California, prisoners get paid 30 cents - 95 cents per hour, before up to fifty percent is deducted for court-ordered restitutions and fines. Since in the city of Fresno, police can stop anyone pushing a shopping cart, this program's use of private citizens as classroom aids seems particularly targeted, like much of the justice system, at the addicted and indigent.

Though drug abuse is more common among white people than those who are black, in California (as in many places) the arrest statistics would suggest the opposite. It’s safe to say that law enforcement is biased toward race-based arrests. That is part of what is so worrying about this program – disproportionate numbers of black and brown people are being picked up off the streets and put in front of officers for examination, with no compensation for their time or labor.

Of course, it would cost money to pay people to appear before a classroom of law enforcement officers, and California famously doesn't have much of that. That doesn't even factor in the cost of prosecuting subjects after forcing them to participate -- for according to Fresno's DRE instructor, Sergeant Gilbert Perisol, those chosen to participate in the program actually still risk arrest: "We don't do a lot of bartering… If I see signs and symptoms of drug influence, you can be arrested."

There may be a solution, though - something that would save the state money, and eliminate any reason for sweeping people off the streets without cause: halt the arrests and prosecution of nonviolent drug offenders.

If we are truly concerned about drug addiction, we can offer rehabilitation. Treatment would respect the fundamental humanity of addicts, and save our state both money and prison space. Of course, people in rehab are not traditionally compelled to work for sub-minimum wage, but evaluation of fair pay is a necessary step forward for California as well.

Harry Waksberg is a Los Angeles-based writer and lazeabout. He and his dog are prison abolitionists.