William VanderGraaf is a retired 29-year veteran of the Winnipeg Police Service, and a member of the Canadian chapter of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. LEAP is comprised of former and current police officers and law enforcement professionals from around the world who hope to see all drugs legalized and regulated by the government. You may remember the group from ex-B.C. Supreme Court Justice Ross Landers, a member of the group who we spoke to in our recent doc B.C. Bud, we figured now would be a good time to catch up with LEAP and see how their fight is going.
VICE: Why do you think drugs should be legalized?
William VanderGraaf:Well, prohibition is simply the worst public policy that we've seen in the past 50 years, and it is contributing to many of the problems in our society. The fact is that it's hurting our children, and it’s causing far too many crimes. The intent may have been good at the start, but when you leave these kinds of substances in the hands of organized criminals, you're going to see the kinds of problems we're seeing today.
What about your own experience as a cop led you to that conclusion?
When I started in the police department in '72, the War on Drugs was just starting, and I quickly recognized that there was something wrong with it. We were harassing people for their own vices, so to speak, not for crimes they were committing against other people.
Police involvement in those situations is accomplishing nothing. We're filling up our jails with non-violent people, and to what end? Every time you take a drug trafficker, whether it's heroin or marijuana, off the streets, there's another one or two or three or ten around the corner waiting to take over. The whole thing was essentially a big waste of time. All we did was hurt a lot of families, a lot of poor families, whose fathers and husbands now were going to jail for committing a non-violent act.
Do you think there should be any form of regulation?
Absolutely, that's what LEAP's all about, taking control and regulation away from organized crime. I'm not in a position to say how we should do that at this point in time, that's for politicians. All we're saying at LEAP is that if you want to stop the kind of violence we're seeing in our cities, if you want to stop the overdose deaths that we're seeing in our cities, if you want to stop the crime problem, then you stop criminalizing people for their vices. These are vices we don't like necessarily, but that doesn't make it a crime in my view.
With the legalization of marijuana in the states of Colorado and Washington and talk of marijuana legalization all around the world, do you think public perception towards drugs has shifted?
I think the tide is turning, I think LEAP is a big player in those kinds of changes because of our experience in our various cities around the world. But there's going to be a long way to go, because you can't stop at marijuana if you want to take control of the unintended consequences. Simply put, we're going to have to legalize marijuana and then move onto the rest and make sure we take control of those as well.
So you think that even the more harmful drugs, such as crystal meth, heroin, and bath salts, should be legalized as well?
I think they should be controlled. I'm not so much for the term ‘legalization’ as I am for proper control and regulation and ending prohibition. If they want to do them in a legalized regime under control and regulation then yeah, that's fine. We can't keep having people shot dead on our streets. That's what the people of our cities have to understand, even the non-drug users. I'm not advocating the use of any drugs, but let people use their own personal responsibility, and let's help them instead of criminalizing them.
But wouldn't legalization lead to wider use?
No, I don't believe so. The use of drugs, particularly hard drugs, has remained pretty much static for the last hundred years at about 1 or 1.3 per cent [of the population], and I don't see how legalizing heroin or crystal meth or crack-cocaine is going to dramatically cause an increase in these substances. For the people that are addicted, we have to have a regime where they can get help in a system that doesn't cause them to commit crimes to maintain their habits. I think we can reduce addiction with a properly regulated and controlled regime.
Would you also like to see the government regulate the safety and purity of the product?
Purity of product, well, that's the other thing. In Canada last year we saw ecstasy floating around Vancouver, BC and Alberta and I think there was at least a dozen young people, I mean young teenage kids, who died as a result of organized crime's manufacture of ecstasy. Now, that kind of thing has to stop. I mean, I don't agree with these kids using this kind of stuff, but the fact is that people do, and they are doing it, and we have to make sure that they can get over their experimental stage and survive it.
How did your colleagues in the law enforcement community react to your position against prohibition?
Privately, many police officers agree [with my position], but there’s still a stigma attached to speaking out about drug reform. I would say that when it comes to softer drugs like marijuana, maybe 50 per cent of police are in support of a change to the law in that regard. If you start mentioning other drugs, of course they're still not quite there yet.
You're almost 10 years retired, but what about your fellow LEAP members in Canada who are still active-duty officers? Are they being prevented from speaking publicly about their stance on prohibition?
Absolutely, and I've seen it. Our own president of LEAP Canada, David Bratzer, has been warned by his department repeatedly and has been told to keep quiet. This is what prohibition does to people. It not only creates all this violence, it creates an atmosphere of fear, and David Bratzer is certainly a huge advocate of taking these substances away from organized crime.
A lot of police officers support him, but his executives will not, because they have their own agenda. There's a certain amount of asset forfeiture that plays right into the development of their drug enforcement squad and equipment and what not, because they get money back quite often. That's right across the country and in the U.S. as well. It's kind of like telling a traffic officer he's going to get a dollar for every traffic ticket he hands out.
Are you saying that police departments benefit financially from the War on Drugs?
Well, as I said, there's asset forfeiture laws that they pushed dramatically in these major drug conspiracy situations where there's homes or cars of whatever. The other thing is it gives the perception to the public that they are actually effective and doing something. [Arresting a drug user,] it’s like shooting fish in a barrel for police, and many of them like to have that power.
How and when do you think the war on drugs will end?
The war on drugs will end when the general public has had enough of the unintended consequences. The drive by shootings, the murders, the random killings, mistaken identities, things like that. We're starting to see that [change], and when people become outraged enough at these unintended consequences, they will see that we have to regulate [drugs] to make it safer for everyone, not just the drug users.
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