Trade ‘ya a Sinbad for a Marauder: Drug Fighting, '90s Style (A Stillborn Op-Ed Article)

This was enthusiastically accepted by a major paper but was later rejected after the editor discovered that the paper had run a news story about the program two weeks before and, “it would be inappropriate to use your piece because it makes it appear that we in editorial get our stories from the news side.” Salespersons are at the mercy of their customers which is one reason I didn’t go into business.

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By Gary T. Marx

One of the continuing delights of an American boyhood (and now girlhood), is collecting and trading sports cards. But big changes are underfoot, or better underpaw. The two-legged sports heroes of our youth may soon be joined by Labradors, German Shepherds and Spaniels, if the United States Customs’ new K-9 Trading Card program is successful.

The program honors 81 drug sniffing dogs. Trading cards featuring the dogs are distributed to schoolchildren at “Detector Dog Demonstrations”. This is part of a Customs’ anti-drug outreach program. As a former collector of cards, dog lover and student of social control I had to have a set. The U.S. Customs Office graciously complied, but with a stern warning that they were not to be sold.

The cards are attractive. On the front is a color portrait of a friendly looking dog surrounded by a border of blue stars. The dog’s name is emblazoned on the card in day-glow pink along with the official Customs’ seal in the upper right hand corner. As with two footed heroes, the back of the card contains the all-important vital statistics such as age, weight, year started and current location. In addition the cards report tattoo #, breed, prior locations, and largest or most notable seizure.

I spent a pleasant morning reading the cards and imagining the dogs in action. It was not the same as counting Joe Louis’ knockouts or Ted Williams’ home runs, but it was OK. With names such as Honey Bee, Nacho, Goofy, Rusty, Shane, Sinbad, Maggie and Rocky, the dogs are a varied and engaging lot. The smallest is Sparky, a two year old Spaniel hailing from Chicago, Illinois weighing in at 28 ½ pounds. S’Alka, a 100 pound Labrador/Ridgeback working out of Nogales, Arizona is the largest and Elf, a German Shepherd out of Detroit, Michigan is the oldest at 10.

Their personal bests vary from “awesome Dawson’s” discovery of $1,300,000 in drug money to Jack’s discovery of 92 lbs. of heroin in a shipping container filled with 2,500 boxes of soy sauce. Then there was Sparky’s discovery of 20 grams of marijuana in the sock of a passenger arriving from Jamaica –hardly a world-class performance, but then he is only two.

The dogs are endearing and even heroic, yet I feel ambivalent about this program. It further socializes children to the view that drugs are only a police issue, rather than one requiring education or treatment. It does this in a manipulative manner using appealing dogs with cute names to mask the state’s coercive action. It glorifies the hunt and the chase. The war on drugs mentality is conducive to an “end justifies the means” view and the erosion of basic liberties.

While individual liberties, must be balanced against the needs of the community, warrantless dog sniffing helps to legitimate the idea of broad searches without any specific reason for suspicion, something the Fourth Amendment sought to discourage. If a human can not directly do such a search, why should a human be allowed to direct an animal to do so?

In the case of dogs sniffing for explosives or dangerous drugs this may be justified. But even here it is important to ask about “false positives” –how often are the innocent searched as a result of a dog’s indication without contraband being found? It is also important to ask about precedents. From drug testing to computer matches to video surveillance, the United States is experiencing an explosion of categorical searches in the absence of concrete grounds for suspicion. As technology increasingly makes possible the inexpensive searching of everyone and everything, there will be strong pressures for searches to continuously expand. But our expectations of privacy ought to depend on matters of principle and not on what a technology is capable of doing.

The back of the cards contains this message in bold face:


“Be Alert” –but to what? What are children to report? Do we really want pre-adolescents who will find these most appealing to become junior G-men and women? While a child in a border or port area might infrequently see something suspicious to report to Customs, what about those in Kansas or Montana? Apart from the creation of unduly paranoid worldviews, malicious uses, and retaliation, if children become comfortable as informers in this realm, will that spread to other areas such as politics? It would indeed be ironic for the United States to welcome the demise of the KGB and the Stasi by copying one of their most hated practices.

Yet I don’t suggest abolishing the program. With the current over-emphasis on repressive approaches, educational efforts should be encouraged. Although at a minimum, it would be nice to see cards honoring the innovators in areas of drug treatment and education as well. They are heroic and have statistics too. It would also be nice if the cards encouraged children to discuss public policy issues such as “why does our society encourage the drinking of alcohol but discourage the taking of drugs?” But considered broadly trading cards are surely one of the more innocuous weapons in the war on drugs? Furthermore, giving out cards does not run the risk of sullying the reputation of law enforcement, driving up the price of drugs, encouraging crime, corrupting foreign governments, nor invading privacy, as do many other law enforcement responses. And I must admit to being excited about the 81 cards I now own --anyone want to trade a Sinbad (Labrador tattoo # C-475) for a Marauder (Labrador tattoo # C-383)?

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