This week, tens of thousands of police officers and their families will travel to Washington, DC to commemorate law enforcers who have lost their lives in the line of duty. To me, a 34-year veteran cop in Maryland, the roster of fallen comrades to be read on Peace Officers Memorial Day is far too long, and especially troubling is that so many of these deaths needlessly resulted from police being charged with enforcing an unwinnable war on drugs.
Deputy U.S. Marshal Derek Hotsinpiller, 24 years of age, never should have died the way he did: gunned down in February when a drug suspect opened fire during a police raid in Elkins, West Virginia.
And in a just world, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Jaime Zapatawould not have been shot to death in his car earlier this year by a drug cartel in San Luis Potosi,Mexico.
Sadly, there's nothing unique or new about such drug war deaths.
A decade ago one of my best friends, narcotics detective Corporal Ed Toatley, died needlessly when he was ambushed by a drug dealer during an undercover drug buy gone wrong in Washington, DC.
Undoubtedly, my friend and these other brave law enforcers paid the ultimate price for awell-intentioned effort to combat drug problems in our society, and we cannot forget theirsacrifices. But, in their honor, we do have to ask: Was it necessary?
In a word: No. Despite a decades-long drug war in which a trillion dollars have been spentarresting, prosecuting and jailing millions of people, drugs today are more prevalent, cheaperand more potent than ever before.
Thinking back to my own law enforcement career, I now realize that the more people wearrested and the more drugs we grabbed, it didn't really make a dent -- never mind a significantimpact -- in the drug trade. We were making ever-bigger busts yet were continually fallingbehind the traffickers. I confess that questions of futility did pop into my head from time totime throughout my career, but I usually pushed them aside quickly. I was caught up in theexcitement of collaring the next bad guy. And many of the guys we took off the street were infact bad.
But, eleven years ago, my grief and anger over Ed Toatley's death made these questions I hadbeen avoiding harder to ignore. Why was it that for each bad guy we took off the streets, therewas always a new one ready to step in and fill the lucrative job opening? Why weren't druguse and addiction rates going down no matter how many tons of drugs we seized? Why doesthe drug trade grow larger, more entrenched, and more deadly despite all we have done for solong?
These issues aren't easy to confront after having spent so many years of my own life trying tohelp solve the drug problem through policing. But, in the interest of being honest with myself, Inow have to admit: It doesn't work and it isn't worth the price so many of my colleagues end uppaying.
So, since 2008 I've been working with LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. We areformer and current police officers, judges, prosecutors, prison wardens, federal agents andother criminal justice professionals who have seen more than enough of the "war on drugs" upclose to know that it's a failure and that we need a new approach.
LEAP believes that the war on drugs is not only ineffective at reducing drug problems but hasactually made them much worse. The drug war has become a massive, self-perpetuating policydisaster with no positive returns (except to the gangs and cartels that control the illegal market)and huge costs - including a large percentage of the lives lost in law enforcement.
In no way does this deny the great work done, and huge sacrifices made, by law enforcementprofessionals for decades. The reason we can never win the drug war isn't because policehaven't tried hard enough or aren't as skilled as we need them to be. It's because the taskwe've asked them to accomplish is impossible. We will never reduce the drug trade throughprohibition. In fact, more of the same will keep strengthening drug traffic.
History shows that no level of law enforcement talent, commitment, and resources can ever end activities that are very popular and obscenely profitable. (Remember alcohol prohibition?)
Ed Toatley and so many other police have died in a war we can't win. How many more willneed to perish before America musters the collective courage to chart a new course? Let'shonor the memories of our fallen colleagues by ending the war on drugs. It's the best step wecan take to ensure that none of them will have died in vain.
Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (http://www.CopsSayLegalizeDrugs.com), did narcotics policing with the Maryland State Police and Baltimore Police Department for over 30 years.