Vets Against the (Drug) War
As a Texas prison warden, Richard Watkins saw the drug war’s effects every day.
’If you can’t keep drugs out of a maximum-security prison, you can’t keep them out of schools’
White: ‘I got fed up with the corruption.’
Jack Cole, LEAP’s founding director, today and (at right) during his days as an undercover narc. He believes the drug war has increased police corruption and institutional racism.
Woolridge, left, in his suit, after giving a speech on drug legalization, and right, back on the road riding Sam. He’s been wearing various versions of the t-shirt for six years.
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
This is your society. This is your society on an endless, losing campaign against drugs. NOW DO YOU GET IT?
By Peter Gorman
Howard Woolridge is outside of Utica, N.Y., heading east on horseback on a beautiful late summer day. He’s wearing a t-shirt with the slogan “Cops Say Legalize Drugs. Ask Me Why.” For the last 3,000 miles, he’s been switching off between his two horses, Misty and Sam. But the t-shirt slogan has stayed the same.
The rangy, good-looking guy is also talking on the cell phone to a reporter back in North Texas. But he interrupts that conversation to speak to someone who pulls up next to him in a car. “That’s right — cops say legalize,” he tells the newcomer in a deep voice. “Why? Because if we do, we just might be able to keep drugs out of the hands of your 14-year old.”
“Right on!” the motorist shouts, and drives off.
Woolridge is not a lunatic, and he hasn’t been out in the sun too long, even if he did cross the United States on horseback in the summer heat. He’s a retired law enforcement officer with 18 years on the job who finally decided that the war on drugs was more of a problem than the illicit drugs it was purporting to fight.
He’s also a serious long-distance horseman, on the road this time since March 4, when he left Los Angeles on the 3,400-mile ride to the New York City harbor. It’s the second time Woolridge has crossed the United States to publicize the campaign to repeal most of the drug laws in this country. In 2003 he rode from Georgia to Oregon. When he finishes this trip on Oct. 5, looking out at the Statue of Liberty, he will be honored by the Long Riders’ Guild as only the second person known to have ridden horseback all the way across the country in both directions. And he’ll still be wearing one of the “Ask Me Why” t-shirts he’s been wearing for six years.
“When I first started wearing it,” he says, “people in Texas thought I was crazy. They thought my idea would destroy Texas and America. They believed the government propaganda that millions of people would pick up heroin or methamphetamines and become junkies overnight if you legalized it.” But in the last two to three years, he’s seen a sea change in the attitude of the American public regarding the War on Drugs. “At any given Arby’s, McDonald’s, Rotary Club, or veterans hall, people are overwhelmingly in favor of calling a halt to drug prohibition. Overwhelmingly.”
Many of the houses Woolridge is riding past carry plaques attesting to the Utica area’s involvement in the Underground Railroad that once funneled runaway slaves from the south up to Canada. It makes him think about Bernie Ellis, a fellow soldier in the war against the drug war, who has lost his own freedom.
“For 10 years he provided free medical marijuana to three oncologists in the Nashville, Tenn., area for their patients undergoing chemotherapy. He never once met the doctors, of course; it was all cloak and dagger. He’d bring the marijuana to an office worker who’d get it to the patient.
“Well, he finally got busted last year. Now he’s looking at five years mandatory federal prison time, though that might go up to 10 because he had a shotgun on his farm when he got busted. And of course his million-dollar farm has been forfeited because he grew the medical marijuana there.”
The phone goes quiet for a minute, and there’s the sound of a strangled sob. “Sorry. Got a little choked up for a second,” he says. He pauses to explain his t-shirt to a motorist, then he’s back on the phone talking about Bernie. “This is a guy who broke the law to help people and is now facing the consequences of that. Poor son of a bitch. Next time I see him he’ll be in prison.”
Woolridge is not a lone ranger in the fight to legalize drugs. He’s a founding member of an organization called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition or LEAP, an organization made up entirely of current and former members of law enforcement who feel the drug war’s a failure and believe legalization and regulation are preferable to the incarceration of drug users and control of the drug market by organized crime.
Started in March 2002 by five police officers, LEAP now counts about 3,000 members, from the ranks of policemen, prison guards, DEA agents, judges, and even prosecutors in 48 states and 45 foreign countries. The idea behind LEAP is that, as with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the call for an end to the drug war carries more weight when it comes from folks who have been in the trenches.
“We’re the ones who fought the war,” said Jack Cole, LEAP’s executive director, who retired from the New Jersey state police as a detective lieutenant after 26 years, including 14 in their narcotics bureau, mostly undercover. “And I bear witness to the abject failure of the U.S. war on drugs and to the horrors these prohibitionist policies have produced.”
The LEAP web site provides the statistical backup for that argument. “After nearly four decades of fueling the U.S. policy of a war on drugs with over half a trillion tax dollars and increasingly punitive policies, our confined population has quadrupled,” it says. “More than 2.2 million of our citizens are currently incarcerated, and every year we arrest an additional 1.6 million for nonviolent drug offenses — more per capita than any country in the world. ... Meanwhile, people continue dying in our streets while drug barons and terrorists continue to grow richer.”
To get that message out, LEAP members have given nearly 1,500 speeches since 2003. And they don’t preach to the choir. “We don’t do hemp rallies or Million Man Marijuana Marches,” said Woolridge. “We do Kiwanis Clubs and PTA meetings and cop conventions. That’s where the people we’ve got to reach go.”
To parents and teachers and Rotarians and other cops, LEAP members tell their own stories, about their work and about how they came to feel the drug war was not the answer.
Woolridge, for instance, was a street cop in Michigan for 15 of his 18 years of service, before moving up to the rank of detective. “I didn’t work directly with the drug war, in that I wasn’t in narcotics,” he said. “Still, as a detective I was constantly working with felonies that touched on the drug war. Eight of 10 burglary suspects I dealt with were on crack at the time. They were stealing for drug money.”
The burglary victims “were all in real pain,” he said. “And I got so fed up with it I began saying ‘Why not let these guys have all the crack they want until they die?’ Now I’d say ‘Have all you want for a dollar.’ That makes it their choice to live or die. Either way you don’t have people breaking into houses for drug money anymore.”
To Cole, who did work directly in narcotics, the whole concept of the war on drugs is wrong. “You declare war, you need soldiers. You have soldiers, they need an enemy. So we’ve effectively taken a peacekeeping force — the police — and turned them into soldiers whose enemies are the 110 million people who have tried illegal substances in the U.S.”
To be an effective soldier, you’ve got to dehumanize your enemy. “When I started out in narcotics I believed everything they told me,” said Cole, a no-BS kind of guy. “Drugs were bad. The people who did them were less than human. I was all for locking them up.”
Worse, he said, he and others often applied what they called a little “street justice” to the people they were arresting. “In our training we were taught to believe that drug users were the worst people in the world and whatever we did to them to try to stop their drug use was justified.”
What they did was kick in home or apartment doors and have every man, woman, and child inside lie on the floor. If people didn’t cooperate immediately, they were thrown to the floor. Then the place was ransacked. “When we searched for drugs, we pretty much did as much damage as possible. We’d break bureaus, turn over beds, smash mirrors, throw things on the floor. Didn’t matter because the people there weren’t humans, right? And then if we did find any drugs we’d arrest everyone in the house: parents, sisters, brothers. And since we’d already kicked the door down when we came in, it would be left open, and anyone who wanted to enter could steal what they wanted. We never cared about that.”
Street justice didn’t stop there, said Cole. In court, he said, officers routinely changed testimony to ensure convictions — times, locations, amounts of drugs — “anything that couldn’t be checked to catch the officer in a lie.”
It didn’t take long for Cole to reach the conclusion that the drug war and its street justice weren’t for him. He was mostly going after small-timers, and his job, he came to feel, was to insert himself into voluntary, private business transactions. “To do that I had to become someone’s confidant, their best friend. And once I was, I would bust them.”
But he too got hooked — on the adrenaline high of the game. “By the time I came to my senses, I was working on big-timers, and pitting your mind against theirs was a great rush,” he said. “Also it was hard to quit because we were considered by the public and our peers as heroes. And then, given that I’d worked with a lot of cops who applied bad street justice, I let myself believe that at least if I was the one catching [the dopers], they’d be legally caught, and I’d tell the truth, and justice would prevail.”
He laughed. “Know what was the worst? When I realized that I liked and respected a lot of the bad guys much more than I liked or respected the guys I was working with.”
The stated goals of the war on drugs are to lower drug consumption, reduce addiction and dependence, and decrease the quality and quantity of illegal drugs available on American streets. Those have been the goals since Richard Nixon first declared the war as part of his attempt to look tough on crime during the presidential election in 1968.
Since then, the strategy of prohibition has been ramped up by every succeeding administration. Few people in this country — or anywhere —have escaped the effects of the U.S. drug war, from the toll of burglaries and car thefts committed to pay for drugs, to the tax bills for prisons to hold the increasing numbers of citizens locked up for non-violent drug-related crimes, to the millions of kids who’ve grown up without one or both parents as a result of drug convictions and drug addictions. Drug-related murders reach into the tens of thousands in this country, and the toll is much higher in drug-producing and shipping nations from Colombia to Afghanistan to Jamaica. Thousands of peace officers have died fighting the drug war. Whole countries have found themselves under the boot of the illegal drug industry, their leaders controlled or intimidated by drug cartels, their governments and police forces infiltrated, and honest public servants assassinated.
The assumption in American drug policy has always been that those are the impacts of illegal drugs themselves. But LEAP members have come to believe those are the wages not of drugs but of the War on Drugs. And they want the rest of the country to look closely at the costs of that strategy and what they see as its failures.
Despite the billions of dollars spent on the fight in nearly 40 years, LEAP members point out, the drug war has failed on every one of its stated goals.
Drug consumption, for instance, shows little sign of dropping. Whereas in 1965, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, fewer than 4 million Americans had ever tried an illegal drug, the figure is now more than 110 million. In 2000, the federal government estimated that there were about 33 million people in this country who had used cocaine at least once — an 800 percent increase over the total number of people 37 years ago who had used any illegal drug.
Dependence and addiction? According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), the federal agency that sets and administers U.S. drug policy, in 2002 more than 7 million Americans were either dependent on or abusing illegal substances — nearly double the number of people who had even tried such drugs when Nixon declared his war. The ranks of heroin addicts have jumped from a few hundred thousand in the 1960s to between 750,000 and one million today, according to the ONDCP.
Attempts to decrease the quality of available drugs also have failed. In 1970, average street heroin in this country had a potency of 1 to 2 percent. In 2000, according to the DEA, that purity figure was 36.8 percent — although U.S. drug czar John Walters did praise anti-drug forces recently for reducing the strength of street heroin coming from South America to 32.1 percent. Similarly, street cocaine was roughly 2 to 4 percent pure in 1968 — and a whopping 56 percent pure in 2001, according to the ONDCP. The average strength of the active ingredient THC in marijuana sold in this country more than doubled between the late 1970s and 2001.
Nor is there much good news on drug quantities and availability, at least not judging by the numbers of users and the prices on the street. The ONDCP estimates that Americans’ use of cocaine and crack has dropped from 447 tons in 1990 to 259 tons in 2000. But the price of cocaine dropped from $100 per gram in 1970 to $25 to $50 per gram in 2002 — for cocaine that was many times stronger. At the wholesale level, a kilogram of cocaine (2.2 pounds at roughly 25 percent purity) cost $45,000 in New York City in 1970. Today, in any large city in the US it costs less than $15,000, and it’s about 65 percent pure.
Only marijuana showed a price increase. In 1970, a bag of Mexican ditchweed (roughly an ounce) cost $20. In 2005, that same bag costs nearly $50. But most Americans who can afford it don’t smoke Mexican ditchweed. They smoke US-grown sinsemilla, which runs up to $400 per ounce.
With availability, price, and quality making drugs as attractive as ever, the only other barometer of the success of the drug war might be whether it has stopped anyone from trying drugs — an area where programs like DARE, a huge effort targeted at school kids, have had a noted lack of success. “It didn’t stop George Bush, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, or me from smoking pot,” said Woolridge. “I don’t think it probably ever stopped anyone.”
The cops and prosecutors and judges who belong to LEAP think the bad results of the drug war go beyond its policy failures, even beyond the lives lost to drug violence and incarceration.
“Let’s be honest,” Cole said. “The war on drugs has taken an incredible toll in terms of the loss of our civil liberties, particularly in terms of the Fourth Amendment, from property forfeiture laws that fund law enforcement agencies to warrantless searches. It’s promoted institutionalized racism, and it’s created a systemic level of corruption among law enforcement unheard of prior to its initiation.”
Law enforcement veterans like Cole and Woolridge believe the increase in institutional racism is one of the deepest wounds. They point out, for instance, that crack users — generally inner-city blacks — are subject to mandatory minimum sentences of five years for possession of five grams of crack, while powder cocaine users — generally middle-class whites — have to be caught with 500 grams to get the same mandatory sentence.
While ONDCP statistics show that whites use more than 70 percent of all illegal drugs, blacks are sentenced to prison for drug crimes seven times more often than whites.
“Imagine,” said Cole, “one of the most racist places in the world: South Africa, 1993. At that time the South African government was incarcerating black males at the rate of 859 per 100,000 population.” And yet in 2004 in the United States — with a higher percent of its population in prison than any country in the world — the incarceration rate for black males was 4,919 per 100,000 (compared to 726 overall).
He pointed to an FBI estimate that one in three black male babies born in the U.S. in 2004 has an expectation of going to prison during his lifetime. “That just blows my mind,” he said.
LEAP members believe that a large percentage of the corruption found in U.S. police agencies is tied to drugs. Recent local drug-related scandals include the Dallas fake-drugs operation, in which a snitch was paid more than $200,000 over a two-year period to identify drug dealers. The “dealers” turned out to be nearly all illegal immigrants; their “drugs” turned out to be crushed sheetrock and pool chalk. And then there was Tulia, in the Texas Panhandle, in which a multi-county drug task force hired a corrupt deputy sheriff to rid the town of its drug problem; when it turned out there wasn’t one, the deputy created one, and more than 40 people wound up arrested.
LEAP spokesmen see both those high-profile Texas drug corruption cases as indicative of a much wider problem: officers cutting corners to get the arrest numbers that will keep federal and state anti-drug funds flowing. And those scandals don’t begin to touch on the border patrol agents, police, and other law enforcement officials who have been corrupted because the drug money is so readily available.
Rusty White, another LEAP member, is a self-described redneck who grew up hard in East Texas and Arizona. Now, after many stops in other states and countries, he lives just north of Fort Worth. At 13 he saw a friend shoot up black tar heroin and decided he didn’t like hard drugs. But by 16, he was running with a badass crowd. He got into trouble with the law, punched a teacher, and was kicked out of school.
In quick succession, he married, became a father, joined the army, and got divorced. After a second tour with the army, he ended up in Florence, Ariz., where he went to work at the state pen, which was, he said, “one of the most violent prisons in the United States at that time.”
From 1973 to 1978, he worked as a guard on maximum security, death row, and administrative segregation cellblocks, dealing with horrors daily. “Life meant very little to those inside the walls,” he said, noting that two prison guards were killed and mutilated by inmates in 1973. “Drugs were one of the biggest problems we had. They were the cause of most of the deaths and power struggles.” And most of the drugs were brought in by prison workers. “I got fed up with the corruption and left to go into the oil drilling business in 1979,” he said.
After working overseas for several years, White moved to Oklahoma. And there, he said, he got to see the war on drugs from a very different vantage point. “The county I lived in had a sheriff who controlled the drug market. And he did so with force. It was common knowledge that if you crossed him he could be — and had been — deadly.”
But the same sheriff regularly flew around the county in National Guard helicopters, providing photo ops for news crews to show how tough he was on drugs. “The only thing he was getting rid of was the competition,” said White, disgustedly.
His only personal encounter with the sheriff and his machine occurred when White’s brother-in-law, a small-time pot dealer, was busted. “He was poor, didn’t have a car that ran, and was living off [government] commodities. Yet he was going to be played by the sheriff as a drug-dealing kingpin,” the former prison guard said.
“He’s the father of three little ones, all younger than six, and when the police arrived, he offered to go with them willingly. But he asked that his kids be allowed to stay with an uncle who was there rather than dragging them down to the station. Well, you know how people feel about ‘drug dealers’; the police said no, the kids were coming to the station to watch their father get busted, and then they’d be released to the uncle.”
When the man’s trial came up, White said, it turned out the district attorney didn’t have any evidence against him as a big-time dealer. Nonetheless, he was offered a plea deal: Admit to being a big dealer and get a one- to three-year sentence. If he insisted on a trial, however, the prosecutor promised to ask for a full 10 years.
“He copped to the plea. But to see him struggle with having to lie in front of his kids and admit to something he hadn’t done — well, I sort of snapped and screamed at the prosecutor and asked him if he thought he’d earned his money that day and why was he playing God. And he looked at me and answered, ‘Because in this county, I am God.’”
A couple of years later, White said, the DA went back into private practice and shortly thereafter was arrested and convicted for dealing methamphetamines. “How the sheriff escaped that net I don’t know,” White said. “But the thing to remember is that ... this sort of thing is happening every day in the war on drugs, all over the country. And that abuse of trust and power is far more harmful to Americans than drugs could ever be.”
Shortly after his brother-in-law’s conviction, White went back to work in the prison system and became a drug-dog trainer and handler. It was the sort of work White said he was meant to do. “I tracked several escapees from the prison and even some cop killers using my track K-9s. We helped departments all over the state. I’d be sent to prisons to look for drugs — I had no problem with that. But the more we were used with other police organizations the more my conscience started to become a problem.”
Two incidents stick in White’s mind. Once while his partner was helping another officer, part of a joint was discovered in the ashtray of an old pickup belonging to an elderly man. The dogs were brought in, and in the camper shell on the back of the truck in which the old man lived, the dogs sniffed out a briefcase with more than $9,000 in it. Because it was a drug dog that had alerted on it, the money was confiscated. “And they just stood around laughing as the old man begged them not to take his life savings. It just made me sick and ashamed. Heck, it’s common knowledge that over 90 percent of the paper money in this country is tainted with a drug scent a dog can find. But using that to rob our people disgusts me. Heck, if you walk any K-9 into a bank vault the dog will mark on that money too. How come that money isn’t confiscated?”
The second incident occurred one night when White and his drug dog were called to help a local police department search a house for drugs. When he pulled up to the house, he asked to see the warrant. The officer told him it wasn’t there yet but to go ahead and start the search, and it would be there shortly. “I told him that’s just not how it works. I needed the warrant for the search to be legal. So I put my K-9 back into the truck and brought him back to the kennel. And then I got called on the carpet for refusing to assist.”
White thought getting into trouble for following the law he’d sworn to uphold was just too much, so he quit. “Heck, there was so much corruption, even among K-9 handlers. If they didn’t want someone with drugs caught they’d say the dog didn’t mark. If they did, well, we heard of cases where guys went so far as to ‘salt’ the areas their dogs were searching to make sure someone got busted. It was so bad that, being honest, you couldn’t do it. .. I don’t think anyone with a conscience can be part of law enforcement anymore.”
Richard Watkins saw the same corruption inside prison that White did, but from a unique perspective. A decorated Vietnam veteran with a Ph.D. in education, Watkins worked at Texas’ Huntsville prison for 20 years, the last several as warden of Holiday Unit, a 2,100-bed facility housing a range of criminals from non-violent to violent/maximum security.
He was originally hired to revamp and professionalize the correctional officers training program — something the prison system was forced to do by federal mandate and that Watkins said was badly needed. “It was just horrible. Corrupt, bad, just plain horrible,” he said.
Watkins had always had reservations about the war on drugs. He figured the drug dealers wouldn’t go away as long as there was a market. And looking at this country’s experience with Prohibition, “and how that created mobsters and criminal gangs,” he figured that legalizing drugs made more sense. When selling and drinking booze became legal in this country again, he said, “you had so much more control of it. You had supporting laws that managed the use of alcohol.”
Watkins was first exposed to drugs in Vietnam. He didn’t use them — he preferred alcohol — but he saw a lot of other guys getting high on marijuana and other drugs. Many of those men wound up in prison when they came home with addiction problems. “And in prison, you could always get whatever drugs you wanted. Heck, we arrested a mom one time who was putting a lip-lock on her son to pass him a balloon full of heroin. But most of the drugs came in through the guards. Drugs are packaged so small, it’s almost impossible to keep them out. Think about that: If you can’t keep drugs out of a maximum security prison, you can’t keep them out of schools or anywhere else.”
Once drugs land someone in prison in Texas, he said, life’s prospects get a lot dimmer. “We’ve got these minor players put in with professional criminals. If they weren’t criminals going in, they damn sure are when they get out. Imagine a system where we put people into a society that’s really a training ground for criminals, then don’t provide them with either schooling or treatment, then put them back on the streets where they came from. Do you really expect them to be reformed? Life doesn’t work that way.”
He wishes people wouldn’t make the decision to use drugs. “But if they did use them, I wouldn’t put them in prison. I’d rather see the money we spend on prisons going to give these kids the tools they need to make better choices.”
You might imagine that it would be easy to find law enforcement agencies and personnel who oppose LEAP’s call for legalization and regulation as an alternative to the war on drugs. But neither the FBI nor the DEA would discuss the subject.
“Our job is to stop the flow of illegal drugs both at home and abroad, as well as to stop our citizens from wanting to use them through education and prevention methods,” said an ONDCP representative. “We will not discuss legalization or any organization which thinks that would be a solution.”
Jack Cole wasn’t surprised. “They’re good soldiers,” he said. “They’re not allowed to question their commands. Our job is to simply have their commanders change their marching orders.”
Mike Smithson, the Fort Worth native who runs LEAP’s speakers bureau, said he’s made more than 100 attempts to get law enforcement and drug policy officials to come out and debate LEAP, “and we’ve only been taken up on it five times. Policymakers generally say that debating us will lend us credence. We think they’re just afraid. How can they defend a policy that is already being defended by every major drug dealer, cartel, and drug-producing government worldwide?”
Woolridge says that on his entire ride from Los Angeles he’s talked to only two officers who disagreed with LEAP’s point of view. “One guy thought we’d destroy America if we legalized drugs. He was so angry when he couldn’t find anything to write me a ticket for that he gave me the finger as he drove away. And there was a state trooper with 22 years on the job who told me to take off my shirt because it said “Cops say legalize drugs,” and he didn’t agree with that. I told him go make up his own shirt.”
One person who did agree to discuss his opposition to LEAP’s stand was Sheriff John Cooke of Wells County in Colorado. Cooke is a member of a Rotary Club at which Howard Woolridge spoke. He was so taken aback by the idea of legalizing drugs that he demanded equal time and recently spoke to the Rotary Club himself.
“In my opinion, there are several reasons not to legalize drugs,” Cooke told Fort Worth Weekly. “First of all, when people say you’re going to eliminate the black market, does that mean you’re going to sell drugs to 12- and 15-year-olds? Because if you don’t, someone will. Law enforcement surely hasn’t done a good job at keeping alcohol and cigarettes out of the hands of kids, so what makes them think they’ll do any better with drugs? And if you don’t sell drugs to them, there will be a black market created to sell to them. So I don’t buy the end-of-the-black-market theory.
“Secondly, we already have social ills from the legal use of alcohol and tobacco. Why on earth would we want to turn other addictive substances loose on the public?
“Thirdly, these LEAP folks want to throw in the towel, say we’ve lost the drug war. But the thing is that I think we’re winning the war on drugs. I think drug use is down. I think if we keep at it, we will win.
“Then there’s the question of use. Right now, I believe that the threat of the hammer of law enforcement is keeping a great many people from doing drugs. The threat of prison time is a big hammer. I think if we legalized you’d see the number of people doing drugs in this country skyrocket. I believe we’d have a drug-dependent society... and I don’t want to see America as a drug-dependent country.”
Michael Gilbert, chairman of the criminal justice department in the College of Public Policy at the University of Texas in San Antonio, said he doubts that there would be any sizable black market aimed at teens if drugs were legalized. Gilbert is a LEAP member who worked in prisons — including Leavenworth — and with Justice Department agencies for more than 20 years.
“The reason there’s so much money in the black market is not because of the small portion of destabilized street addicts we have, or even kids experimenting with drugs. It’s because you have long-time productive millions [of people] who regularly purchase small quantities of the drugs of their choice, but they don’t use them in a way that becomes destructive to their lives,” he said. “They’re working, paying their taxes, and so forth. The real money is from the enormous number of middle-class people who use drugs. So while you might still have a small market of teens purchasing drugs, it wouldn’t be large enough to fund criminal enterprises as it does today.”
While few current policy-makers will discuss the benefits of drug prohibition, several well-known former policy-makers have come out against it. Among them are Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, a former member of President Reagan’s Economic Advisory Board; former Secretary of State (under Ronald Reagan) George P. Shultz; former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson; former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke; and U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, a former presidential candidate.
None of the LEAP members interviewed for this story believes abusing drugs is a good choice. But that’s different, they say, from the legal system further ruining people’s lives because of that bad choice.
They also figure that, like yard care, hair color decisions, and bad marriages, drug use is a choice that society should only care about when it hurts other people. In town, running around in your yard naked and screaming at 4 a.m. breaks the social contract. On a ranch where no one else can see or hear, few people would care. Likewise, LEAP members figure, if you can do drugs and not break the social contract, go ahead. And in fact, the federal government figures that 72 percent of chronic drug users continue to function well in society without harming others.
Even considering the harm that drugs can cause, however, LEAP members believe that the war on drugs is even more harmful. Legalizing drugs, on the other hand, would take profits out of the hands of criminals and hugely reduce the need for people to commit crime to pay for drugs, they say. Regulation would take drug manufacture out of the hands of bathtub chemists and put it into the hands of real chemists, eliminating many of the deaths from bad drugs — much like the end of Prohibition did for deaths from homemade booze. HIV and hepatitis C, rampant among needle-sharing junkies, could be significantly reduced with the availability of clean needles, reducing a major health care burden for the country.
“Don’t forget my favorite,” Woolridge said. “If, as Bush said, drug money funds terrorists, [then] legalizing drugs would take half a billion dollars a day out of Afghanistan alone, much of which is going to al Qaeda to buy weapons to be used to kill our boys. We could eliminate that overnight.”
Legalization, in fact, would probably not increase drug use long-term, many believe — especially since nearly half the population has already tried it. “In all likelihood,” Watkins said, “you would see a spike in use as we did with the end of alcohol prohibition. But that normalized pretty quickly, and it would probably be the same with drugs. There would be a period of experimentation that would level out, and we’d be left with all the benefits and none of the negatives.”
It was Sunday afternoon and Howard Woolridge and Misty were still in upstate New York, having made it from Utica to a ghetto in Schenectady. Woolridge was back on the phone again, when a woman approached him.
“What do you mean cops say legalize drugs?” she could be heard asking.
“Just that. Let’s legalize drugs, take them off the street corner.”
“What kind of drugs?”
“Heroin, crack, methamphetamine, anything you can think of.”
“Are you crazy? I don’t want my kids doing those drugs!”
“Neither do I,” he told her. “They’re no good. But that doesn’t keep them from being sold on the corner in this very neighborhood, does it? I’d legalize them and get them into pharmacies. Keep your kids from being shot while walking down the street.”
There was a pause and then she laughed. “I never thought of it that way before. You’re making me think now.”
You can reach Peter Gorman at email@example.com.
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