President Obama drew a slew of criticism recently when he derisively dismissed a drug reform question during a town hall meeting. Here was the "crazy" question that warranted such a disrespectful response:
"With over 1 out of 30 Americans controlled by the penal system, why not legalize, control, and tax marijuana to change the failed war on drugs into a money making, money saving boost to the economy? Do we really need that many victimless criminals?"
This was the top ranked question on Whitehouse.gov, and yet Obama treated the query as if it came from a pack of giggling stoners. The president chuckled, "I don't know what that says about the online audience...The answer is no, I don't think that is a good strategy to grow our economy." As is so often the case when discussing the War on Drugs, the president offered no proof of this claim. He doesn't have to. The room applauded, while laughing at his little joke. Stupid stoners. Always thinking about their pot.
But what Americans may not know is that many former law enforcement officers have recently stepped forward to speak against the failed War on Drugs. I was recently contacted by members of LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition,) including Jack Cole, a 26-year veteran of the New Jersey State Police where he served 14 years undercover in the Narcotics Bureau. Cole is the executive director of LEAP. Cole explained to me his first epiphany when he realized something was wrong with the War on Drugs.
It occurred to me that I liked a lot of the people I was working on more than some of the people I was working for. I discovered nearly all of the 114 million people in the US above the age of twelve whom DEA says have used an illegal drug (46% of that population) were basically just like me. The only difference was they wanted to put something in their body that I don't want to put in my body.
And Cole doesn't seem impressed by drug czar Gil Kerlikowske's new idea to rebrand the War on Drugs. Cole writes, "A rose by any other name. This is not a war on drugs, it is a war on people; a war on our children, our parents, ourselves. Rebranding won't change things. A new policy is needed to change things; ending drug prohibition."
The War on Drugs isn't failing because of mismanagement. It's failing because the war was hopeless at its creation. When the war began to escalate under Nixon in 1970, "people were less likely to die as a result of the drug culture than from falling down the stairs in their on homes or choking to death on food at their own dinner tables," explains Cole. America was at war with a boogyman -- an expensive boogyman.
We nor our bosses had any idea of how to fight a war on drugs. Our bosses did know one thing though; they knew how to keep that federal cash-cow being milked in their personal barnyard. To accomplish that they had to make the drug war appear to be an absolute necessity. So early on we were encouraged to lie about most of our statistics and lie we did.
When the evidence didn't support their claims, the cops lied, Cole explains. "We exaggerated the amount of drugs we seized by adding the weight of any cutting agents we found (lactose, mannitol, starch, or sucrose) to the weight of the illegal drug. So we might seize one ounce of cocaine and four pounds of lactose."
As Cole and associates continued to lie, the effects on their community worsened over time. The War on Drugs actually brought drugs to the attention of youth, who then saw drugs as a way to escape the realities of their lives. "Many poor young people in the centers of our larger cities looked to the drug dealer as a role model -- and the only way out of the poverty and misery of the ghetto. The dealer was the one person in their communities with the hot cars, hotter women, "money to burn," and leisure time in which to burn it."
Another consequences of the war was the destruction of the African-American community. Cole and his fellow officers began arresting drug users and charging them as drug dealers, and drug users tended to be poor African-Americans. In fact, 13.5% of all drug users in the United States are black. Many more black males have been incarcerated under drug prohibition in the United States than were jailed in South Africa during apartheid. "There are more black and brown men in prison in the United States today than the total number of male slaves populating this country in 1840," Cole says, and adds that "blacks are now serving an average of six years for drug offenses, while whites are serving only four, and 81% of federal drug offenders are black."
The War on Drugs has shattered any trust that existed between African American and Hispanic citizens and police officers. Racial profiling became a constant byproduct of drug-hunting. "Two niggers, two chinks, two greasers or I don't stop the car. Why bother?" were the words of Howard Wooldridge's colleague in the Bath Township Police Department. Wooldridge is another veteran of the War on Drugs. "I believe my profession is no more or less prejudice than others. However, we have a badge a gun and arrest powers. The War On Drugs gives the racists an easy hook to hurt people they don't like. And they do."
There's one area where officers like Cole marked a fair degree of success: the vast amounts of arrests for marijuana possession. Though, even that had unintended consequences. "[It] caused many marijuana dealers to switch to harder drugs that were less detectable and far more profitable, pound for pound." Dealers switched to pushing heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine, far deadlier drugs.
But the solution isn't shifting the focus of the war from marijuana to heroin and meth. The War on Drugs was doomed to fail at its inception because drug crime doesn't function like regular crime. Cole explains,
"[W]hen officers arrested a robber or rapist the number of rapes and robberies declines...But when I arrested a drug dealer the number of drug sales didn't change at all. I was simply creating a job opening for a long line of people more than willing to risk arrest for those obscene profits. It was actually worse than that. I wasn't just creating a job opening; I was creating a safe job opening because it they tried to get the job while the dealer was still on the corner he would probably shoot them. I would suggest to you that whole armies of police cannot stop drug trafficking when the profits are this immense."
Cole's solution to the mess left in the wake of the War on Drugs is simply to end drug prohibition. Legalize and regulate is his mantra. But won't that cause everyone to use drugs? Cole dismisses that theory. "Drugs were not illegal in this country until 1914 and we seemed to get through the first 200 years without that occurring."
An immediate result of ending drug prohibition would be an enormous relief on the US prison system. "[W]e wouldn't have to arrest 1.9 million [citizens] every year for nonviolent drug offenses," says Cole.
In his plans, Cole goes one step further than some drug legalization advocates. "The US government should important or produce the drugs and control them for quality, potency, and standardized measurement." This policy, Cole claims, would virtually end drug overdoses. Just as individuals died during alcohol prohibition by attempting to concoct "bathtub gin," so individuals now die by experimenting with different potencies of drugs. If drugs were monitored by the FDA much like prescription pills overdoses would vastly decline. Once the drugs are made legal, Cole says, the government can tax their sales. That would be one way out of this economic depression.
The benefits of ending the War on Drugs are vast, but one of the most urgent is that no one would be killed by police during drug raids. Cole cites one example, Accelyne Williams, a 75-year-old retired black Methodist minister, who was sitting in his living room reading the Bible when a dozen police - dressed entirely in black - stormed in. The terrified minister ran for his bedroom, but the police tackled him. During the ensuing struggle, Williams experienced a heart attack. That's when police realized they were in the wrong apartment. If police weren't busy harassing innocent people, they could build trust, and start the healing process with the African American community.
Drug legalization isn't just a domestic security issue, Cole emphasizes. It also has international implications.
In 1997 ten kilograms of Reactor-grade plutonium (enough to make an atomic bomb) was valued at $56,000. The "average terrorist" makes his living selling illegal drugs. Heroin, which at the beginning of the war on drugs in 1970 was valued at $400,000 per kilogram, is still worth $70,000 per kilogram today, despite the immense drop in price caused by the glut of supply created by 37 years of a failed war on drugs. That means the "average terrorist" would have to sell about eight kilograms of pure heroin for every ten kilograms of pure weapons-grade Plutonium he wishes to buy. That is not a major problem for the terrorist, as long as we continue the policy of drug prohibition.
But if drug prohibition ended tomorrow, and the government worked to regulate the drugs, terrorists couldn't sell heroin at the inflated market price.
The benefits of legalizing drugs are now undeniable, and everyone from Obama's most zealous supporters to former drug enforcement officials are demanding legalization be considered a valid option. It seems like everyone except the very people elected to shape US policy have awoken to the reality that the War on Drugs is a total failure.