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Want to Stop Crime? Legalize Drugs, Says Police Organization

Police group say protests in Baltimore and Ferguson are symptoms of the country's failed war on drugs, and ending that policy will help fix broken a police system.

by Colleen Curry
May 27 2015, 9:10pm

Imagen vía AP Photo/Danny Johnston

Nationwide protests against police brutality and calls for police reform during the past two years has led one group of law enforcement officers to agree wholeheartedly that policing needs to change, and so do policies.

The group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, or LEAP, is made up of current and former police officers, federal agents, judges, and prosecutors who are pushing for an official end to the drug war, and what they say are decades of worsening violence between cops and citizens because of the war on drugs.

"It's exacerbating every social problem we have in the United States," said Jack Cole, a retired lieutenant of the New Jersey State Police and current board member of LEAP.

"You name the problem and I can explain the way it's being affected by the drug war," he said.  "Let's talk about the institutionalized racism and brutality in law enforcement. Both of those things are tremendously affected by the war on drugs. What happens when you take police officers who are supposed to protect and serve communities and you train them to go to war?" 

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Cole said that LEAP shares many concerns with those protesting against unfair drug policies, strategies, and tactics that have a negative impact on minority and low-income communities — communities where few other job prospects exist beyond the drug trade.  The focus on minority, and especially African-American neighborhoods results in higher proportions of black men in state and federal prisons on nonviolent drug charges, thus wreaking havoc on families and communities. Moreover, men who are incarcerated on drug charges often have a hard time finding work upon their release from prison, which then makes a return to the drug trade more likely. 

Retired LAPD narcotics officer David Doddridge said that his years knocking down doors in drug raids and arresting young dealers made him start questioning the efficacy of the drug war started by former President Richard Nixon, which led to an infusion of federal cash into police narcotics departments around the country.

"It was a mess: Every night, one of the squads would be banging in doors, chasing people down the street, putting guns to people's ears. It wasn't working. You'd think people would wake up but they didn't," he said. "I was the one that woke up."

The group focuses on many of the consequnces of the drug war from a police officer's perspective: the enormous amount of money and resources spent on drug arrests has distracted police from working real crime cases, and the practice of treating everyone in drug-plagued communities as a criminal has led to more dangerous conflicts between police and citizens.

"There's not enough detectives to handle robbery, burglary or homicide, nor any of the others like sex crimes or juvenile crimes, they're overwhelmed, but narcotics, it's just, 'What do you want? You got it, we'll give it to you," Doddridge said. "The tough thing is the War on Drugs is taking those resources away from real crime."

"It also allows police departments to become more intrusive. When that happens, you're going to have more conflict, more fights, more shootings. The war on drugs exacerbates that scenario," Doddridge said.

Rather than approaching police reform as a piecemeal project, mandating body cameras or taking away certain military equipment for use by departments, policy-makers should look to address the root cause of the problems, they say.

"Changing our drug policy is the first step in making law enforcement return to their roots of working collaboratively with communities versus mindlessly policing them," LEAP's secretary of the board of directors and former narcotics unit leader, Diane Goldstein, told VICE News. "It's not the last step, it's the first."

The group's ultimate goal is for the US to end all prohibitions on drugs and instead legalize and regulate them.

"Once they're legal, we can regulate them, and only once they're legal. We can't regulate things that are illegal," Cole said.

A regulated drug market would allow public health and law enforcement officials to control the quality of the substances, which would help cut overdose deaths and give officials the opportunity to get drug users into treatment, Cole said.

"We can end overdose deaths. Nobody has to die of an overdose on drugs," he said. "In the 14 years I was on the street with those folks, I never once heard of a single person who died of an overdose because they shot more and more dope. They simply died because they didn't know how much that little packet of powder was the drug versus the cutting agent, and with too much of the drug in that packet, you're dead. In an illegal, unregulated market, you'll never know. We think they should know. If they're alive, there's still a chance to wean them off the drug." 

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LEAP's vision for a new, regulated drug market is not a welcome one to other law enforcement groups, reform advocates and government officials, who denounce the idea and say it would be better to improve current drug policies and laws than to do away with them altogether. 

Kevin Sabet, president of Smarter Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) and a former senior advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, says drug legalization would not solve drug addiction or be a magic solution to the issues created by the drug trade. 

"When we think about the problems we've seen with already-legal prescription opiates and the destruction that class of drugs, like painkillers, has had on our communities, even though it's highly regulated — because that's our version of legalization —then you see that destruction,"  Sabet told VICE News. 

Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police told VICE News that even if drugs are legalized, the same criminal elements who profited from the sale of drugs will remain in the business.  

"They aren't going to go overnight from being street dealers to being in Bloomingdales," he said. "You can expect the same people who ran the drug business before it became legal to continue to want to be involved." 

Pasco said most cops don't favor legalization, and that LEAP is not representative of any "significant segment" of law enforcement personnel in the United States. 

"I've never been anywhere that I can recollect as my 20 years as executive director or years before that where anyone would say they favored legalization," Pasco said, adding that the FOP represents about 335,000 members.

Kevin Sabet, who founded SAM with former Senator Patrick Kennedy, said he understands that a broad consensus exists now to move drug policy away from being-overly punitive toward drug offenders and toward a health-based approach, but that there are incremental ways to fix the system without setting dangerous drugs free on the American public. 

"Fix the war on drugs," he said. "Repeal the laws that have a disparity between crack and cocaine, reduce incarceration rates and sentences. It doesn't mean we have to legalize drugs to do that. We don't need to create the Philip Morris of pot or crack to make sure the laws are judicious. Then you're going to have the problem of the solutions causing just as much harm." 

LEAP has 150 law enforcement officers who act as speakers carrying the group's message to law enforcement conferences, civilian meetings, and government hearings, but it also says it has more than 150,000 supporters. The group maintains anonymity for supporters; in the past, officers have been fired from their agencies for their public support of LEAP's message.

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Goldstein and Cole say LEAP's credibility rests on the fact that it's composed of veteran foot soldiers who spent years on the front lines of the drug war, and that this allows their message to be heard by fellow cops, officials, and policy-makers, who can be reluctant to look at the nuanced problems that lead to drug use and the consequences of it. 

"I think law enforcement is, in some places right now, incredibly hunkered down. They are looking at things like the indictments of the Baltimore officers as a personal attack," Goldstein said.

The standardized training that officers receive in police academies, where they are taught to think of themselves as part of a team rather than individuals, has made officers vulnerable to groupthink, she said.

"There's a whole subculture to law enforcement, and it's good to operate in a team and be loyal, but it's bad because we don't recognize how it perpetuates failed policies. A lot of law enforcement is wrapped up in a group-think process, so they're unwilling to really take a look at what is going on and see what their role or part is in it, and how they can change to better serve their constituents," she said.

Police departments and unions also have a lot of money invested in the war on drugs, and have pushed for policies that will keep the money coming to those departments, according to LEAP members.

"A lot of police organizations have a dog in this hunt: money. There's a lot of money wrapped up in the narcotics war. They receive grants from the federal government, they get the vehicles and vests and all this other stuff, and there's a prestige kind of thing too," Doddridge said.

LEAP has seen some progress since the group began in 2002. Twenty-three states have legalized medical marijuana, four have legalized recreational marijuana for adults, and, Goldstein noted, some police departments are changing the way they address prescription pill and heroin users after a flood of overdose deaths made it to the suburb. She cited the police department in Gloucester, Massachusetts, for its policy allowing drug users to turn-in their drugs to the police department and find treatment help.

And LEAP members expressed optimism that public opinion is starting to turn in their favor, with recognition of the problems associated with the war on drugs: overfilled prisons, unfair sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, and the militarization of civilian police forces who are told that they must fight a war against, as Goldstein put it, "an inanimate object."

Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen

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