Police Group Questions War on Drugs
By Neill Franklin, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition
In late 2000, when undercover narcotics Trooper Ed Toatley was killed in an ambush by a drug dealer, I had no idea that this tragedy would be a turning point in my life. Toatley and I had worked narcotics for the Maryland State Police and, at the time, I was in the 24th year of my 33-year law enforcement career.
Toatley was a great narcotics cop and a true friend. My grief and anger over his death stirred my own long-held but unspoken doubts about the war on drugs. When my friend died enforcing our drug laws, I finally began to confront the hard truth I had been pushing away until that point. As I have come to learn, many law enforcement people, then and now, have the same question: Do our hard-fought efforts do any lasting good against drug use and trafficking?
The answer to that question, sadly, is no. Drug use rates remain virtually unchanged since the start of the war on drugs 40 years ago. But what’s even worse than our drug policies’ ineffectiveness is that the laws actually create additional harms – to police and to citizens, to drug users and nonusers alike. Just think of the violence being inflicted on our cities by the thugs who control the currently illegal market for drugs, and the kids and other innocent people getting caught in the crossfire of warring dealers.
That’s why I decided to become active in the fight to end drug prohibition and to enact new policies that actually control drugs and stop the stream of drug money to gangs and cartels.
Since 2008 I’ve been part of an organization called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, or LEAP. At first, you may be surprised that there is an organized group of criminal justice professionals working to end prohibition and legalize all drugs, but it makes perfect sense to me and the 30,000 other supporters of LEAP.
And it’s not just law enforcers charged with enforcing these policies who are beginning to speak out about the need for change. The entire conversation about the issue has shifted over the last few years. Indeed, it seems that more and more prominent people across the political spectrum are beginning to publicly question the drug war.
For example, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has said, “It’s time for a debate,” suggesting that the U.S. should look to other countries that have modernized their drug policies. George Will, the conservative columnist, said that, “80 percent of the revenue of the Mexican cartels is marijuana. If you really want to go after the Mexican cartels … you’d legalize marijuana.” Fox News commentator Glenn Beck called for the end of marijuana prohibition, following in the footsteps of Republican icons Milton Friedman and George Schultz, who made similar calls decades ago. And on the left, pundits like Bill Maher and Arianna Huffington regularly call for changes to the drug laws.
Even in Congress, Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia has said that legalization should be on the table for discussion by blue ribbon commission he wants to create to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the criminal justice system.
There’s no question that more prominent people than ever before are beginning to question the war on drugs, an issue once considered a political third rail, and I think it’s thanks in no small part to the fact that front-line police officers are leading the way.
Since being founded by just five cops in 2002, LEAP has grown rapidly and we now count among our ranks active duty and retired police officers, judges, prosecutors, prison wardens, DEA and FBI agents, U.S. marshals, and others. We have members in every U.S. state as well as in 80 countries.
LEAP believes not only that the war on drugs has merely failed to achieve its stated objectives, but that it has actually made the drug problem much worse by squandering limited resources on harsh punishments while leaving treatment and prevention programs chronically underfunded. This reactive back-end approach has made law enforcers’ jobs harder. If our drug control strategy focused instead on proactive front-end strategies like preventing substance abuse and helping those who are addicted receive treatment, cops wouldn’t have to spend so much time – and put ourselves at risk – addressing crimes related to drug abuse.
As an educational group, LEAP conveys its ideas in many ways. Our members have made more than 4,500 presentations to civic, professional, educational, and religious organizations, as well as at public forums. We speak to civic groups like the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, Lions, and Kiwanis. We are featured in news outlets like The New York Times, Fox News, and National Public Radio. We put out studies, publish opinion piece, and we have a content-rich web site.
Importantly, we like to remind people that our critique of the drug war is not about the freedom to get high. It is about improving public safety by implementing policies that will start to reverse decades of prohibition’s legacy – our nation awash in drugs and underground drug money, violent turf wars exploding into the streets, and treatment hard to find. By speaking out, our criminal justice professionals are helping to reframe public discourse about the drug war so that more people understand that everyone – not just drug users – has an interest in changing these laws.
To that end, in the past year our members have been invited to testify before state legislatures, city councils, and even before a national Senate committee in Canada.
For example, former New Jersey State Police undercover narcotics detective Jack Cole testified in front of a Rhode Island state legislative committee considering a bill to legalize and regulate marijuana. He told the committee that, “Current drug policy results in our children telling us it is easier to buy illegal drugs than it is to buy beer and cigarettes because no one checks ID while selling illegal drugs.”
And appearing in support of a similar bill to legalize and regulate marijuana sales in California, retired Orange County Superior Court Judge James Gray testified that, “The tougher we get with regard to marijuana prosecution, from my experience as a judge, the softer we get with prosecution of everything else. We only have so many resources, and if we are spending them on prosecutions of marijuana, we are not spending them on prosecutions of rape and homicide.”
Many states and hundreds of communities in the US have already put into place alternatives to the drug war, and others are moving in that direction. California is the venue for this year’s most closely watched challenge to drug prohibition. In November that state’s citizens will vote on a proposal to regulate and tax marijuana like alcohol. If passed, the initiative would strike a big blow against the drug cartels, which take in 50 to 60 percent of their profits from marijuana, according to the White House drug policy office. Instead of all that money going to thugs, the state’s tax collector estimates that regulation would send $1.4 billion per year into California’s tax coffers.
Opposition to regulating marijuana will be fierce from some quarters, but supporters are well organized and are making a powerful case for change. Recent polls on the initiative show majority support, and LEAP is actively recruiting law enforcement support across the Golden State. With a deficit now projected at somewhere north of $20 billion, more than $1 billion in tax revenue will clearly help in California. But, because of the public safety reasons for putting cartels and gangs out of business, the case for legalization and regulation is powerful no matter how the economy is doing.
New ways of looking at the war on drugs are hardly limited to the US. Former Mexican President Vicente Fox now regularly talks about the need to seriously consider legalizing marijuana and regulating drugs to put a stop to the rampant cartel violence that is plaguing his country. Mexico has sadly become a nation in which prohibition’s horrific turf battles are reaching new heights, with more than 20,000 killed in the last three years. When Mexico announced in August 2009 that it was going to decriminalize drugs, it joined Portugal, the Netherlands, and Argentina in taking this path. In Portugal, which decriminalized all drugs in 2001, newly published research from the conservative Cato Institute shows that drug use by 13-to-15-year-olds has actually gone down by 25 percent, to the surprise of those who claim that reforming drug policies will lead to skyrocketing abuse, particularly by young people.
Clearly, more and more people are beginning to realize that the drug war has become a self-perpetuating policy disaster with huge social and financial costs. Prohibition’s big winners are drug gangs and cartels, and the biggest losers are the rest of us.
But make no mistake: Our harsh criticism of drug policies in no way denies the great work done and huge sacrifices made, every single day, by law enforcement officials for decades. The reason the drug war can never succeed is not because police just haven’t tried hard enough, but because the task is impossible. As history has shown over and over, no level of law enforcement skill, commitment, and resources can ever end activities that are very popular and obscenely profitable.
We want to end drug prohibition just as we ended alcohol prohibition in the United States in 1933 because as law-enforcement professionals we understand that ending alcohol prohibition put Al Capone and his liquor operations out of business. Those gangs stopped killing each other over market turf; they stopped killing cops who were asked to intervene; they stopped killing children who got caught in the cross-fire.
When we end drug prohibition, we will take the vast profits out of drugs and in so doing will remove violence from the equation. Think about it: How many people died last year in beer deals gone wrong? What’s more, ending prohibition will free up significant law enforcement resources to focus on violent crime and other genuine threats. Police know all too well that the percentage of solved murders in America has declined significantly in the last 40 years. When we treat drug abuse as a public health issue and not a crime problem, we can start to reclaim the millions of lives, mostly young people’s, that we are today sacrificing on the altar of this disastrous policy.
A lot of people at LEAP have had the experience of introducing folks to these ideas – law enforcement people and others – and seeing their reactions. Those range from “You’re absolutely right” to “What are you guys … thinking?” I know there are people who wonder if LEAP might be some sort of radical group. We’re not. In fact, after 40 years, I believe it’s pretty radical to favor more of the same in the drug war. So I ask people to keep an open mind. Time and again, when people look at the evidence on the drug war that way, there’s one unavoidable conclusion: We have to change what we’re doing.
Now, in my ideal world, it wouldn’t be this way at all. In that world no one would take drugs except for very clear medical reasons. But that’s a far cry from the real world.
This is crucial. Reasonable people can and do differ in their views about how to keep people from trying and using drugs. But if all of us have learned anything in more than 40 years of drug prohibition, it’s this:
Drugs are here to stay.
That means that our task as a society is to figure out how best to reduce the harm associated with their use and abuse as much as possible. It’s clear that drug prohibition isn’t getting us where we want to be. A system of legalized production, distribution, and use – linked with genuine and well-funded education, prevention, and treatment – will prevent thousands of needless deaths, help law enforcement do what it is supposed to do, keep our kids safer, and improve our financial picture.
When the current phase of the drug war started, very few people could have predicted where we would stand in 2010. But today, after all the lives lost and shattered and the money we have spent, illegal drugs are cheaper, more potent, and much more available than they were when President Nixon launched the war on drugs in 1970. Meanwhile, people continue to die from overdoses, gun battles, and adulterated drugs, while drug barons and terrorists thrive. And good cops like my friend Ed Toatley are murdered. But for what?
After 40 years, this is more than a failed public policy. It is unacceptable. At LEAP we believe there is a much better way.
Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (http://www.CopsSayLegalizeDrugs.com), is a 33-year police veteran, having served with the Maryland State Police and the Baltimore Police Department.
> Most people don't think "cops" when they think about who supports marijuana legalization. Police are, after all, the ones cuffing stoners, and law enforcement groups have a long history of lobbying against marijuana policy reform. Many see this as a major factor in preventing the federal government from recognizing that a historic majority of Americans – 52 percent – favors legalizing weed.
Top 10 Marijuana Myths and Facts
But the landscape is changing fast. Today, a growing number of cops are part of America's "marijuana majority." Members of the non-profit group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) say that loosening our pot policy wouldn't necessarily condone drug use, but control it, while helping cops to achieve their ultimate goal of increasing public safety. Here are the five biggest reasons why even cops are starting to say, "Legalize It!"
1. It's about public safety.
While marijuana is a relatively harmless drug, the black market associated with it can cause significant harm. Much like the prohibition of alcohol, marijuana's illegality does not erase the profit incentive – instead, it establishes a risky, unregulated market in which violence and intimidation are used to settle disputes.
"When we ended the prohibition of alcohol, Al Capone was out of work the next day," says Stephen Downing, Los Angeles' former Deputy Chief of Police. "Our drug policy is really anti-public safety and pro-cartel, pro-street gang, because it keeps them in business."
Marijuana trafficking represents a significant chunk of business for black-market cartels. Though the exact percentage of cartel profits from pot is disputed, lowball estimates fall at around 20 percent.
"During my time on the border, I saw literally tons of marijuana come over the border from Mexico," says Jamie Haase, a former special agent in the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement division. "Competition over the profits to be made from this illicit industry has led to the deaths of tens of thousands of individuals in that country, and an ever-increasing amount of violence spilling over into the United States, where the Justice Department estimates Mexican cartels now operate in more than 1,000 American cities."
2. Cops want to focus on crimes that hurt real victims.
In the past decade, police made more than 7 million marijuana arrests, 88 percent of them for possession alone. In 2010, states spent $3.6 billion enforcing the war on pot, with blacks nearly four times as likely as whites to be arrested. That's a lot of police time and resources wasted, says former Seattle Chief of Police Norm Stamper, who had an "aha moment" about marijuana policy while working for the San Diego Police Department in the late 1960s.
"I had arrested a 19-year-old in his parents' home for the possession of a very small quantity of marijuana, and put him in the backseat of a caged police car, after having kicked down his door," recalls Stamper. While driving the prisoner to jail, he says, "I realized, mainly, that I could have been doing real police work, but instead I'm going to be out of service for several hours impounding the weed, impounding him, and writing arrest, impound, and narcotics reports. I was away from the people I had been hired to serve and in no position to stop a reckless drunk driver swerving all over the road, or to respond to a burglary in progress, or intervene in domestic violence situation."
Cops have limited resources, and spending them on marijuana arrests will inevitably divert them from other policing. Adds Stamper, "In short, making a marijuana arrest for a simple possession case was no longer, for me, real police work."
3. Cops want strong relationships with the communities they serve.
Baltimore narcotics veteran Neil Franklin says the prevalence of marijuana arrests, especially among communities of color, creates a "hostile environment" between police and the communities they serve. "Marijuana is the number one reason right now that police use to search people in this country," he says. "The odor of marijuana alone gives a police officers probable cause to search you, your person, your car, or your home."
Legalizing pot, says Franklin, could lead to "hundreds of thousands of fewer negative police and citizen contacts across this country. That's a hell of an opportunity for law enforcement to rebuild some bridges in our communities – mainly our poor, black and Latino communities."
Franklin adds that this would increase citizens' trust in police, making them more likely to communicate and help solve more serious crimes. Building mutual respect would also protect cops on the job. Adds Franklin, "Too many police officers are killed or injured serving the War on Drugs as opposed to protecting and serving their communities."
4. The war on pot encourages bad – and even illegal – police practices.
Downing says that monetary incentives for drug arrests, like asset forfeiture and federal grants, encourage an attitude where police will make drug arrests by any means necessary, from militarized SWAT raids to paid informants who admit to lying. "The overall effect is that we are losing ground in terms of the traditional peace officer role of protecting public safety, and morphing our local police officers into federal drug warriors," Downing says.
Quotas and pressure for officers to make drug arrests – which profit police departments via federal funding and asset forfeiture – also encourage routine violations of the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches and seizures. The NYPD, for example, stops and sometimes frisks well over 500,000 people a year, the vast majority of them youths of color – the basis for a pending federal lawsuit challenging the policy on constitutional grounds. While New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has defended stop-and-frisk as a way to get guns off the street, in fact, it's more often used to arrest kids with small amounts of weed. Stamper adds that legalization would allow police officers "to see young adults not as criminals, but members of their community" – and start respecting those young people's civil liberties.
5. Cops want to stop kids from abusing drugs.
Marijuana's illegality has done very little to stop its use. A recent survey by the National Institutes of Health found that 36 percent of high school seniors had smoked marijuana in the past year. Legalization would most likely involve age restrictions on marijuana purchases, while at the same time providing quality control over product. "The only way we can effectively control drugs is to create a regulatory system for all of them," says Stamper.
"If you are truly a proponent of public safety, if you truly want safer communities, then it's a no-brainer that we have to end drug prohibition and treat [marijuana] as a health issue, like we did with tobacco," says Franklin. "Education and treatment is the most effective and cost-efficient way to reduce drug use."
On the other hand, adds Franklin, "If you support a current system of drug prohibition, then you support the very same thing that the cartel and neighborhood gangs support. You might as well be standing next to them, shaking hands. Because they don't want an end to prohibition, either."
Read more: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/five-reasons-cops-want-to-legalize-marijuana-20130627#ixzz2Ye1D3fMu