Neill Franklin spent decades posing as an addict in Baltimore. He now leads Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an organization of cops who think the war on drugs is a massive, costly failure.
All photos by Roc Morin
Sometimes he was Steven Francis Neill, and sometimes he was Neill Franklin. One was an unemployed junky looking to score on the streets of Baltimore. The other was an undercover narcotics agent.
“Eventually, it became somewhat problematic,” the now retired Neill Franklin (which is his real name) explained. “I felt myself getting lost at times between the two worlds. This is one of the reasons for establishing rigid limitations on how long someone remains undercover. We've left some investigators ‘under’ way too long.”
I met Neill for a tour of his Baltimore, the city he grew up in, policed for 34 years, and left upon retirement. As we cruised through a wasteland of abandoned and burned-out houses, it was easy to see why the 55-year-old had moved to the suburbs. Corner boys glared out from under street signs with names suggesting far more idyllic surroundings—Eden, Crystal, and Spring.
We meandered for the next several hours as I interviewed him about the drug war that he helped to wage and now blames for the ruination of the city he once called home. As the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), Franklin—along with 3,500 other former cops, judges, and district attorneys—is on a crusade to make all drugs legal.
VICE: What was it like growing up here?
Neill Franklin: Back in the 60s, all of these wonderful row homes that you see all boarded up and vacant, they had people in them. In my neighborhood, we had doctors, and teachers, and businessmen. We had all of these positive influences within walking distance, but violence chased them away.
How did the violence start?
The drug trade. No, not so much the drug trade, but policing the drug trade. We always had drugs, but we didn’t always have violence in our streets. Back then, there were major drug organizations in the city that divided up different areas among themselves. “That’s your area, this is ours, and if we have problems, we settle them among ourselves.” Violence was bad for business. When the drug war began, though, we started dismantling those organizations. The vacancies that we created were filled by the sons of the men we sent to prison. The sons fought each other over who would fill those vacancies. They went to the street corners, and gangs started developing, and six organizations turned into 600.
So there’s actually an increase in violence after every drug bust?
Yes, that’s exactly right. There’s also an increase in overdoses. People overdose because their dealer got arrested and they have to go to a new dealer. With their old dealer, he always mixes it the same way, so they know what the potency is. Suddenly, though, they’re buying from this new guy and have no idea how potent it is. Too much and they’re dead. The problems of drug use and addiction are real, but the policies of prohibition don’t get rid of them and end up creating a whole bunch of other problems.
Did you consider any of this when you joined the police force?
I had not a clue.
What were your convictions at the time?
I really didn’t have a whole lot. I joined pretty much because my older brother did.
Why did you choose narcotics?
It wasn’t like I was on this mission to rid the world of drugs or anything like that. It was just a very exciting thing to do. I noticed there was this shady group of folks who just kept coming in and out of the basement of the police barracks. They were always pulling up in their Cameros, Trans Ams, and Corvettes. I found out that they were narcs—narcotics agents. I put in for a transfer right away, and that was the beginning of my career in drug enforcement.
So what was your fake identity?
My basic character was that of a wealthy kid, no job, kicked out of the house by his father,= but cherished by his mother, with access to cash at times.
Where did your persona come from?
It’s pretty simple. You watch the folks you’re hanging with, take a little from each, and craft a character. I've always been good at emulating others. A natural ability, I guess.
What was your job as a narc?
All you had to do was frequent your local bars, really. You meet people who are doing drugs, and you branch out from there. You arrest those people and turn them into your informants. Then you get more people.
So you weren’t actually going after specific people?
Well, sometimes I was. There was this one guy they wanted me to get at this place called the Duke’s Lounge. The guy’s name was Gant. He never trusted me, from day one. But Nicky and Angelo were two guys I befriended. We flipped them. Then there was Freddy and Ray Charles Brown. I have no idea what happened to them after we made the arrests. It was only later that I realized that the reason they were sending me into that place was because it was a black club and they wanted the black clubs shut down.
So it was racially motivated?
In most cases I don’t think it was. It’s just easier to bust those guys. You give me a squad of narcs and drug dogs, and we’ll go to some affluent white community. I can walk down the streets sniffing cars, do some knock-and-talks, and I assure you we’ll come across some marijuana parties. I guarantee I can come out of there with some drug arrests. But after the first day, after the mayor’s phone rings off the hook—that’s the end of that operation.
As a narc, did you feel sympathy for any of the people you pretended to befriend?
Some of them, I did. These were good people—just like anybody else. I didn’t think that way back then, but these weren’t people out there robbing stores, hurting people.
What did you think back then?
At the time that I started, I really did believe that some of these people were the scum of the earth. Mostly, though, I was just doing the job I was paid to do. I didn’t think that much about it.
Was there anyone in particular who changed your mind?
No one in particular—just as time went on I came to realize why most of the people use the stuff. I thought, why is smoking a joint any different from someone else sucking down Jack Daniels? Eventually, I started learning about why these policies exist. It really boils down to social control: people controlling other people.
How do you mean?
Well, let’s look at how the drug war began, with Richard Nixon. His main headaches were Vietnam War protesters and the civil-rights movement. You can’t throw people in prison for protesting because of freedom of speech, and you can’t throw people in prison for being black. But you can always criminalize what they do. One of Richard Nixon’s closest aides, H. R. Haldeman, said he remembers Nixon saying that blacks were the real problem and we have to figure out a way to deal with them without appearing to. That was right before he started the drug war.
And did Nixon’s plan work?
Well, look—drug use is relatively the same across demographics. Types of drugs might be different. Methods might be different. But enforcement is obviously different. That’s why we have higher incarceration rates of blacks than Latinos and whites. Generally, blacks lack political and financial power, so there’s no one to push back. There’s no one to come to their defense.
What do you think are the effects of those higher incarceration rates?
You want safer communities? Sending people to prison won’t do it. Think about it—if you put a man in prison, you put his whole family in prison too. You’ve just put that family into financial dire straits. Prisons are not institutions of higher learning. They are institutions of corruption, institutions of violence. People come back to their communities worse off than when they went in. They’ve got a record, so they’re unemployable for the most part except for the drug trade. The drug trade will hire you no matter what. It’s a vicious cycle.
How do you respond to critics who say that drugs destroy families too?
The problem for most people is not the drug itself, but the lifestyle that comes along with the drug in an environment of prohibition. In the world of prohibition, the price of these drugs is hyper-inflated. Therefore, I must rob, I must deal, I must do whatever I can to support my addiction.
What changed your mind about drug policy?
It wasn’t until I retired that I really started taking a critical look at what was going on. A friend of mine was working undercover with the FBI in Washington, DC, and he was assassinated, so that shook me up, got me thinking about how these policies create violence.
His name was Ed Toatley, and he used to be my partner. He was one of those talented black undercover agents the department farmed out to everybody. Ed was working with the FBI, buying cocaine from a mid-level dealer. He had bought from this guy before and was meeting him again for one last buy. This time though, the guy decided he was going to keep the drugs and the money. He came up to the car, reached in, and shot Ed in the head.
What do you say to people who make the argument that legalizing drugs will increase usage?
First thing I ask them is, “If it’s legal tomorrow, what drug are you going to use? Cocaine, heroin, meth?” Bottom line is, no one ever says, “Yeah, I can’t wait to go try meth.” Drugs are so easy to get that anyone who wants to use them can get them already. Even in prison you can get them. In all of America, there is not one drug-free prison. If you can’t keep drugs out of a prison, how are you going to keep drugs out of a free society?
Why do you think there’s such resistance to LEAP’s proposal?
There’s that old adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. People have been doing it this way for so long.
With alcohol prohibition, it only took 13 years for people to figure out it didn’t work.
That’s right. And that’s because, since it was such a short time, people remembered what it was like before prohibition. In 13 years we went from horse-drawn carriages to guys hanging off the sides of automobiles with submachine guns.
Why do you think people view alcohol differently from other drugs?
Probably because alcohol has such a long tradition in our society. But alcohol is far more dangerous than all the other drugs we have out there. Alcohol eats you from the inside out. Heroin doesn’t do that. Cocaine doesn’t do that that. People think it does, but it doesn’t. It’s the cutting agents that are used that cause you the health issues. If you get pure heroin—no adulterants, baby laxatives, and things like that—you’ll live just as long as anybody else.
As a cop, did you have more trouble with people on drugs or people on alcohol?
It was always alcohol. Alcohol and violence go hand-in-hand. As a cop on the street, in my entire career, I never had an altercation with someone on weed alone. Domestic violence calls, it’s always alcohol. Weed, man, they’re the most docile folks.
So I notice the crucifix you have here. You’re obviously a religious man. How do those views inform your work with LEAP?
I honestly feel that the Lord called me to do this work.
What do you think Jesus Christ would say about current drug policy?
He’d be pretty pissed off about it, if you ask me. Jesus Christ was about two things: Number one was forgiveness, and number two was compassion. So if you’re a Christian and you think that these policies are something that your Lord and Savior would embrace, you’ve got another thing coming. Not only that, but how would he feel about us supporting policies that are the foundation for much of the violence and mayhem that we have around the globe today? Loving people—that’s how you get people to treat themselves better.
Roc’s new book, And, was released recently. You can find more information on his website.