Jack Cole, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, visited the editorial board Thursday, along with L.A. Chamber of Commerce chairman David Fleming, for a discussion of his group's plan to end America's war on drugs. Some highlights:

A state trooper gets fed up

Jack Cole: I retired from the New Jersey State Police after 26 years there. And 14 years there I was undercover narcotics. I retired as a detective lieutenant. I started in the war on drugs at the very beginning. That's when I went undercover, in 1970. So I worked the first 14 years undercover. And of course I followed it ever since, because when I retired I felt so bad about my role in implementing what today I consider an unjust war on drugs that in 2002 I sat down with four other police officers and we decided we were going to try and do something about this thing. When we sat down we decided first, what should law enforcement people be trying to do? And when we boiled it down to the very essence it came down to we were interested in reducing the incidence of death, disease, crime and addiction. And sadly, folks, all four of those categories are just made infinitely worse by the war on drugs itself. So that obviously wasn't what we wanted.

As our name implies, we decided we wanted to end drug prohibition, just like we ended alcohol prohibition in 1933. Cause as law enforcers we knew that the very day after we ended that terrible law, Al Capone and all his smuggling buddies, all the people at the very top, people we couldn't touch for all those years, they were out of business. They were no longer out on the streets, killing each other to try and control that lucrative business. They were no longer killing us cops trying to fight that useless war. They were no longer killing our children caught in crossfire and drive-by shootings: all the things we have today. So we knew that if we came up with a system of legalized regulation of drugs today we could take all the violence out of this equation. All of it. And if we treated drug abuse we could actually start helping these people instead of destroying their lives.

Let me give you an idea of what we mean: We've already spent more than a trillion dollars on the war on drugs, since 1970. And what do we have to show for that money? And by the way, it's $69 billion more every year that we'll throw down the same rathole. What we have to show for it is in 37 years we've made over 38 million arrests for non-violent drug offenses. We've quadrupled the number of people in our prisons in the last, in a twenty-year period. We've made building prisons the fastest-growing industry in the United States, which, there's something to be proud of, right? And to bring it down, so you guys can really understand it where you live, in ten years, you've increased the people on your staffs at prisons, guarding those folks in prison, by 25,000. At the same time you've cut your teachers by 8,000. Seems to me to be the wrong message we're trying to send to our young people. That's just for California.

Despite all this money spent, and all these lives destroyed, today drugs are cheaper, they're more potent and they're easier for our children to access than they were in 1970 when I started buying them as an undercover agent.

So that's a failed policy, any way you look at it.

War bucks

Jack Cole: I joined the New Jersey State Police in 1964. The War On Drugs was coined and created by Richard Milhous Nixon in 1968. Had nothing to do with drugs; it had everything to do with the fact that he was running for the presidency for the second time and he thought this time it'd be really nice if he won. [...] When I joined in 1964 we had a seven-man narcotics unit. Six years later, as the federal funding started pouring in, we went from a seven-man unit to a 76-person bureau of narcotics. Think what that means. When you increase any organization by 11 times overnight, you set up a great deal of expectations, and since cops are judged mainly on the number of arrests they make, the expectation with us, the expectation was that in the coming year we'd arrest at least 11 times as many people for non-violent drug offense as we did the year before. So after two weeks' training they designated one-third of us undercover, and I was one of that third so that's where I spent most of the next 14 years of my life.

We were supposed to arrest drug users: Not an easy job in 1970 for several reasons. First, we didn't really have much of a drug problem in 1970. Those of us old enough to look back to those times, we know the main problem was soft drugs: marijuana, hashish psilocybin mushrooms, LSD — the mind-altering drugs. The targeted us against young folks, folks in high school or college or in between, little friendship groups, because there were no drug dealers. And our bosses didn't know how to fight a war on drugs, which was a problem. But they knew one thing: They knew how to work that federal cash cow. They'd just hired 75 new troopers to replace us seasoned guy. So they had to make the war on drugs look like it was an absolute necessity. This was probably not the right thing to do. But we made it the right thing to do.

We started arresting everybody we could put our fingers on. I infiltrated a group of maybe 15 young people. Friday night, school's out, work's out, somebody'd say "You wanna get high?" And a few people would take them up on that, and of course I was always there to take them up on that. One of the friends who happened to have access to the family car and could go and get drugs — because I was working the suburbs and there just were no drugs in the suburbs; you had to go to New York City to get them — and he'd ask what do you want? One person says get me a couple joints, one says get me some acid, and when they came to me I'd put my order in too, for this tiny bit of substance. And an hour later they'd come back and hand this stuff out to their friends. And when they handed it to me they became a big-time drug dealer. And I would stay in that group until I got everybody in the group. Which was easy because whoever made the run before didn't want to do it again; they weren't even getting gas money. These were just young people accommodating each other.

We were working ten of those groups at the same time, and we had about thirty cops working cases like this, and when we had 90, 95 cases like this, and that took maybe a month, month and a half, we'd have a roundup. We'd sweep into the community, kick down the doors, arrest the people, drag them out in chains. And when we got down to the police station we'd call you folks, who would be there with photographers. And we'd run them through the perp walk where they'd have their pictures taken so they could have any respectability they had destroyed, and when we got them all lined up against the wall, our boss would come in and say to the media, "See that? That's 95 major drug dealers we took out of your community. We've got to do something to stop this. This is the worst thing that's ever happened to the United States. We need more money so we can hire more cops and make more arrests." In 1969 you could count the number of arrests for non-violent drug offenses in the tens of thousands. That first year when we started this campaign that number went up to 415,000. We just increased it slightly each year.

Drugs: faster, better, cheaper

Jack Cole: Everything that you should be able to look at to judge whether a program is good or bad is going the opposite way. If we were doing anything to interdict drugs, the price would go up, not down, right? The supply would go down, not up. Instead, when I was a young trooper in 1970, kicking down doors and executing search warrants a good seizure for a local cop might be an ounce of cocaine or a quarter-ounce of heroin. Look at what we're seizing today. In 2002, in a single seizure we seized ten tons of heroin and in another single seizure 20 tons of cocaine. I know you got 18 tons here, right off the coast of California. So things are going up, not down.

Jim Newton: Is that not, arguably, a success, if interdictions are going up, if they're seizing more and more drugs? Why does that not get counted as a measure of success?

Jack Cole: Because all that means...it would be a measure of success if we were seizing more and more drugs and therefore the price was going up. It would mean that it's harder to get on the street. But it's not harder on the street. On the street it's easier than ever [...] We're having zero effect on the things that are measurable.

Is pot still cool?

Jack Cole: If we look at other countries where they've lessened the penalties. In any country where they've loosened the laws, things get better.

Jim Newton: Well we've loosened the laws and lessened the penalties in California since I was a kid. I mean, I remember growing up, when I was in high school it was a felony to be arrested with marijuana; now it's not even a misdemeanor.