Law Enforcement Against Prohibition: Fighting for a Cure to the 'War on Drugs'

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition: Fighting for a Cure to the 'War on Drugs'

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition: Fighting for a Cure to the 'War on Drugs'

The 'War on Drugs' is societal sickness, failing by every metric while siphoning off precious law-enforcement resources and corrupting the body of our nation. A little over a decade ago, five former cops with first-hand experience on the front lines dedicated themselves to ending prohibitionism, a fight in which thousands of law-enforcement personnel have joined since then.

     
Law Enforcement Against Prohibition: Fighting for a Cure to the 'War on Drugs'
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One of my pet political issues has always been the "War on Drugs," as in: What the hell is wrong with the United States? We know from our own history that prohibition doesn't work, and you don't have to dig very deeply to find the corruption, lies, havoc, and needlessly ruined lives the prohibitionist model has wrought. And that's to say nothing of the moral problem with trying to dictate to consenting adults what they may and may not put in their own bodies.

I always felt that the most effective criticism of the "War on Drugs" (I always use quotation marks, so dubious is the phrase) could come from law enforcement. Our judicial system, including the police, has an indispensible part to play in society. But police are arresting more people for drug possession than for any other single crime (according to the FBI, possession was the reason for 12% of all arrests in 2012, 42% of which were for marijuana). Fifty-five percent of the federal prison population are drug offenders. Forty billion dollars per year go to waste.  Someone within the system needed to speak up.

So it was right around 2003 that I was delighted to hear about Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), just the type of organization of which I had dreamt. "Founded on March 16, 2002," says the official organization bio, "LEAP is a 501(c) nonprofit organization made up of current and former members of the law enforcement and criminal justice communities who are speaking out about the failures of our existing drug policies. Those policies have failed, and continue to fail, to effectively address the problems of drug abuse, especially the problems of juvenile drug use, the problems of addiction, and the problems of crime created by criminal control of illegal drug sales."

Finally!

LEAP aspires to nothing less than eradicating the prohibitionist system, not because the organization has some love affair with drugs in general—its members would be the first to say that many illicit drugs are no damn good for anybody—but because in practice the prohibitionist approach does more harm than good.

No-one could be in a better position to see this than those with experience on the offensive side of the front lines of the "War on Drugs."  One of those people was LEAP co-founder Jack Cole. Cole had been with the New Jersey State Police for six years when in 1970 he saw the department's narcotics squad balloon virtually overnight from seven members to 76—including Cole himself, receiving a promotion to detective in the process—as a result of President Richard Nixon's "War on Drugs," even though the supposed enemy was mostly a phantom.

"In order for the feds to continue contributing to the local police budgets, we had to make funding the 'drug war' look like the most necessary investment the U.S. federal government had ever made," Cole says. "How was one to do that when there was so little drug problem in our country? We lied. We, the police, lied about almost everything we did at the beginning of the 'war.'"

Cole worked undercover for three years, helping to make cases against college students and the like who had the misfortune to have their group of friends infiltrated by Cole. People who were picking up $5 or $10 worth of drugs for friends were processed as "big-time drug dealers."

"I just kept making cases on them until I had charges on everyone in the friendship group," Cole recalls. "That was not hard to accomplish because those folks were not drug dealers. They were not making any money on those transactions. They were not even getting their gas money back. They were, as one sensible judge later said, 'simply young people accommodating friends.' [… But] when we had all those arrested folks lined up against the back wall, my boss would come out and say to the reporters, 'You see that? There are a hundred major drug dealers we took out of your community. This is the worst thing that has ever happened to America. Drugs are going to destroy society as we know it. Your only hope is the Thin Blue Line of police. We need more money so we can hire more officers. We need more and better radios, bulletproof vests, faster cars, more powerful guns. We need harsher laws, mandatory-minimum prison sentences, etc. And the reporters would go away to write their articles—stories that nearly scared the public to death. And after the public read them, they said, “Give it to them.' And then we took that money and did even worse things the next year."

Cole spent 14 of his 26 years on the force in narcotics, becoming increasingly disenchanted with the work he was doing. "The drug war was wrong from the start," he now says. "[…] When I retired I felt so bad about my role in implementing that failed policy that I sat down with four other police officers and founded LEAP."

Like many LEAP speakers, Cole speaks dozens of times per year throughout the U.S. and across the globe "to educate the public, the media, and policymakers about the failure of current policies, and to restore the public’s respect for police, which has been greatly diminished by law enforcement’s involvement in enforcing drug prohibition."

Stephen Downing is a typical example of a LEAP speaker. As a young police recruit in the 1960s, Downing "believed the rhetoric and the propaganda that drug abusers were bad for our communities, that they were thieves and all of those things."

Downing moved up the ranks, eventually becoming commander of the Los Angeles Police Department's Bureau of Special Investigations, where he had direct line command over the LAPD’s Administrative Narcotic’s Division, Major Violators unit, a Narcotic Task Forces involving local, county, state, and federal narcotic enforcement units. But the more he and his people worked, the worse things got.

"Following the raids, violent crime went up," he says. "Addict overdose deaths spiked.  The street gangs began to multiply.  The cartels moved in.  I was ineffective.

While he was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the prohibitionist crusade, his epiphany came one night in a helicopter as he flew over the scene of a narcotics sting, as was protocol for such operations when over $100,000 cash was in play. The buy went bad, and the undercover officer posing as a buyer was shot in the face and killed.

"I said, 'He is really dead and a family is without a husband and a father because he's trying to stop an addict from getting some dope," Downing recalls. "'He's not trying to stop a bank robbery; he's not trying to stop a rapist.'"

After retiring as LAPD's deputy chief after a 20-year career, Downing joined LEAP in the hopes of helping find an exit strategy for the "War on Drugs."

"The mere fact that those of us in LEAP have 'been there, done that' gives us the credibility to speak out against a national/global policy that we have come to see as a profound failure," he says. "All of us have personal stories to back that up, as well as personal insights that diminish the myth-driven fear-mongering that is used by those within the criminal justice culture who fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo, in spite of its abject failures and in spite of the fact that everything they do to eliminate 'illicit drugs' from society only grows worse and worse."

LEAP supporters extend beyond the realm of law enforcement. A prominent example is Alice Huffman, president of the California chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

"If we were to take this money that we spend on the 'War on Drugs' that we send out to police departments to have them turn on their own citizens and [instead] invest it in programs of education, of counseling, of health services […] America would be stronger," Huffman says. "[Also,] a lot of the violence would go away. […] We have an obligation to stop this government from this bad policy. It's bad policy. If anyone in America thinks that it's not, just tell them to go look at the facts. Go look at the amount of money. Go look at the amount of lives that are lost Go look at the prison rates. […] I don't like drugs. I never used drugs. But I know something's wrong with this 'war' that we're in, and it has to end."

Part of the reason Huffman has become a vocal opponent of prohibitionism is that, in addition to its many sins, the "War on Drugs" is racist. “The 'War on Drugs' is a failure and disproportionately targets young men and women of color, particularly African-American males," she said in 2010 as she declared her endorsement of California's Proposition 19, which aimed to legalize marijuana for recreational use.

The year 2014 marks the centenary of the first time the U.S. government made a drug illegal. Since then hundreds of substances have been made illicit., and those illicit substances generate an estimated $500 billion per year on the black market, even as the federal government spends somewhere between $15 billion and $50 per year fighting the "War on Drugs" and arrests upward of 1.5 million people for nonviolent drug-related offenses.

In 1925, H. L. Mencken reflected on the fruits of making alcohol one of those substances:

Five years of Prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favourite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.

Alcohol is not a special case of prohibition, save for the fact that it is a rare instance of the government admitting the failure of prohibition and changing course. As a result, we live in a world in which, as Stephen Downing points out, "You don't see Coors and Budweiser distributors shooting it out on the street."

In 2012, New York Times writer Eduardo Porter pointed to one of the Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) own statistics as a measure of just how much of a failure the "War on Drugs" has been: "one gram of pure cocaine […] is 74 percent cheaper than it was 30 years ago."

"This number contains pretty much all you need to evaluate the Mexican and American governments’ 'war' to eradicate illegal drugs from the streets of the United States," Porter wrote. "They would do well to heed its message. What it says is that the struggle on which they have spent billions of dollars and lost tens of thousands of lives over the last four decades has failed. […] A war on drugs whose objective is to eradicate the drug market—to stop drugs from arriving in the United States and stop Americans from swallowing, smoking, inhaling or injecting them—is a war that cannot be won."

It's a truth LEAP began fight for a decade earlier.

"By continuing to fight the so-called 'War on Drugs,' the U.S. government has worsened these problems of society instead of alleviating them," LEAP says. "A system of regulation and control of these substances (by the government, replacing the current system of control by the black market) would be a less harmful, less costly, more ethical, and more effective public policy."

With a stable of nearly 200 speakers like Cole and Downing and a roster of over 100,000 members and supporters, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition's battle against the "War on Drugs" is truly joined. And unlike the "War on Drugs," theirs is a fight that can be won. To find out more about—or even join—LEAP, go to leap.cc

Photo By: Neon Tommy


About the Author

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly, GreaterLongBeach.com, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:  greggorymoore.com

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Last Updated : Sunday, January 29, 2017