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COPS AGAINST THE DRUG WAR

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They were two white guys cruising through the black part of Patterson, NJ,
back in the 1970s. One was an undercover police officer named Jack Cole,
the other an informant known as Fast Eddy. Posing as heroin buyers, they
ran into trouble with three thugs who tried to rip them off and who slashed
Fast Eddy's hand with a knife before being chased off.

Luckily, Cole recalls, a Good Samaritan came out into the road. He was a
young black man who was going to college to get out of the ghetto. He said
he didn't approve of drugs but felt bad about the white guys getting
roughed up in the neighborhood. He went into his house to get bandages for
Fast Eddy and then, since Cole continued to pretend like he needed a fix,
brought them to a supplier who wouldn't take advantage of them.

Back at the precinct, Cole felt he had no choice but to include the Good
Samaritan's name in his report. The Good Samaritan was duly charged with
conspiracy to distribute heroin, a charge that carried the same penalty as
distribution: up to seven years in jail. Cole was at the station when the
Good Samaritan was brought in. He looked Cole in the eye and said, "Man, I
was trying to be your friend."

"So yeah, that got to me," Cole says now, his voice seeming to break and
going quiet. Speaking by phone from Boston, the 64-year-old Cole is
explaining why he ultimately turned against the war on drugs. He says he
came to realize that he liked many of the people he was turning in -- liked
them better than some of the people he was working for -- and that his
betrayal of them, rather than drugs, was what destroyed their lives.

"You can get over an addiction, but you can never get over a conviction,"
he likes to say.

Now retired after a 26-year career with the New Jersey State Police, Cole
is leading a new group of current and former law-enforcement officials who
are similarly disillusioned with the war on drugs. Called Law Enforcement
Against Prohibition, or LEAP, this nationwide organization takes as its
premise that the war on drugs is, as Cole puts it, "a total and abject
failure."

"After three decades of fueling the U.S. war on drugs with half a trillion
tax dollars and increasingly punitive policies, illicit drugs are easier to
get, cheaper, and more potent than they were 30 years ago," reads a LEAP
statement. More heretical still, considering the source, the group
advocates legalization of all drugs. That, it says, is the only way drugs
can really become "controlled substances," subject to the kind of age and
safety regulations that are imposed on alcohol and tobacco.

Cole, LEAP's executive director, says the year-old organization has between
400 and 500 members. Modeled on Vietnam Veterans Against the War, with what
it hopes is the same kind of credibility, the group includes not just
police officers but judges, federal agents, and prosecutors and parole,
probation, and corrections officers. Because of the possible professional
sanctions posed by coming out against the drug war, LEAP takes care to say
that membership can be kept confidential.

The emergence of LEAP seems like confirmation of a profound cultural shift
away from the zero-tolerance, throw-the-book-at-them drug policy that has
long been at the center of our criminal justice system. Roger Goodman,
director of a Seattle-based bar association project studying drug policy,
puts it this way: "The news story is not that the war on drugs has failed,
it's who's saying it now." When cops are joining in, you know that the
movement for drug-law reform is becoming mainstream. Says Goodman, "It's
not like it's a front for fringy, pony-tailed pot smokers."

The bar association project, done in conjunction with other professional
organizations including the state medical and pharmaceutical associations,
has generated a huge amount of involvement and served as a model for
similar studies around the country. It issued a report in 2001 that
portrayed the war on drugs as misguided -- saying we need to shift from a
focus on criminal justice to one on public health -- and is now discussing
how to do that. With the bar behind it, the state Legislature last year
shortened prison terms for drug users and low-level dealers and prescribed
mandatory treatment for them.

Cole is a particularly persuasive spokesperson. He worked in narcotics
enforcement for 14 of his 26 years on the force. While he rose to a level
that enabled him to direct a three-year investigation of a Colombia
cocaine-trafficking ring, his revelations about his work on the street are
the most damning. Joining the drug war at its inception in the early '70s,
Cole says his bosses were clear about how they wanted cops to generate the
arrests that would justify massive new funding in law enforcement: "lie a lot."

Drugs actually weren't much of a problem in the early days, Cole says, but
he and his colleagues made it look like they were by claiming that users
were dealers, a label applied, say, to a young person collecting drugs for
a group of friends. Cole and other cops also lied about the quantity of
drugs they found in someone's house. "What we did is we looked around for
what we could call a cutting agent -- lactose, quinine, baby powder, almost
anything," Cole says. Then the cops mixed together the drugs and the
"cutting agent" and turned the mixture into state labs, which called a
substance a drug no matter the proportion of that drug that was in it.
Voila: One ounce of cocaine became 4 pounds.

Eventually, Cole says, cops didn't have to exaggerate the drug problem
anymore; it was bad enough on its own. Yet he and others in LEAP argue that
the prohibition on drugs, like the one on alcohol decades ago, has made
matters worse by creating an underground industry ruled by organized criminals.

"Eighty-five percent of the crime associated with drugs is not associated
with people using drugs. It has to do with the marketplace," says Peter
Christ, a former police officer in New York state who originated the idea
of LEAP. Turf wars, smuggling, violent bill collection -- all are typical
drug-related crimes that are not the result of being high. Moreover, LEAP
argues, the illegality of drugs has inflated their value to a point where
addicts have to steal to get their fix. "If we put 50-gallon drums out on
every street corner in America filled with drugs, we wouldn't have the
problems we have today," Christ says.

At the same time, LEAP argues that the prohibition has kept society from
regulating drugs in a way that keeps them out of the hands of children, for
whom it's easier to buy cocaine than it is to buy beer. As in the alcohol
industry, LEAP says, legalization would also allow the government to
license and monitor businesses that sell drugs and to set product standards
that would prevent most overdoses. Says Christ, "When you go to buy a
bottle of Jack Daniels, you don't have to wonder if there's a quart of
antifreeze in it or rat poison." Legalization would further allow the
government to tax this billion-dollar industry and use the proceeds for
drug treatment programs.

Cole goes one step further and suggests that the government ought to
distribute free maintenance doses of drugs to those who want them, thereby
taking the profit motive out of the business.

"Would greater availability lead to more addiction?" wonders Washington
state Sen. Adam Kline, a sponsor of the drug-law reform bill that reduced
local sentences. That's the big question around LEAP's proposals. LEAP and
others point to Switzerland, where government-run clinics distribute free
heroin to addicts while offering treatment -- and addiction appears to have
gone down.

But whatever the alternative to the current system, it's noteworthy enough
that many of those who are supposed to be upholding it have had enough.
Says LEAP member and police officer Jonathan Wender, "I'm tired of putting
myself in harm's way for a losing cause."

- -

Nina Shapiro is a senior editor at Seattle Weekly.


Pubdate: Mon, 18 Aug 2003
Source: Seattle Weekly (WA)
Copyright: 2003 Seattle Weekly
Contact: letters@seattleweekly.com
Website: Home | Seattle Weekly
 
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