Drug war takes a flying LEAP

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 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.

Jack Cole: In fact you’ve got legal marijuana

Jim Newton: Has the loosening of the laws in California had some of the effect you’re describing.

Jack Cole: Yes it has. In fact the drug warriors are now bragging that in the last four years teenage marijuana use has dropped 11%. That’s 11% from where it was four years ago; it’s still up 50% from where it was at the start of the war on drugs, which should be where you start measuring. They say it’s dropped 11% in the last four years. But in California, where you were the first state to legalize medical marijuana, it’s dropped by 47%.

Tim Cavanaugh: Teenage usage?

Jack Cole: Yeah.

Lisa Richardson: What’s the correlation of that?

Jack Cole: I think the correlation is it’s not particularly cool to get together and smoke a joint when that’s what grandma does to treat her glaucoma.

Tim Cavanaugh: Come on, it’s still cool!

David Fleming: We ought to outlaw spinach.

Postwar society

Jim Newton: Let’s talk about what this world would look like. We wake up January 1, drugs are legal. Seems like there could be manifold unintended consequences of that too.

David Fleming: It would be from a Class 1 to a Class 2 drug.

Jim Newton: So drugs would still be illegal?

Jack Cole: They would be regulated. Most drugs would be legal. And we believe the more dangerous a drug is, the more reason there would be to legalize it, because you cannot control or regulate anything that is illegal. But it doesn’t mean it won’t be regulated, harshly regulated. It just won’t be a Class 1 drug anymore.

Jim Newton: So as a consumer, would I buy from a doctor? How would I get access to these drugs?

Jack Cole: That depends on the drug. And it depends on the policies we set up. If you’re asking, and we don’t recommend any specific policy. The first half of our talk is to convince people of the horror of the war on drugs. And the second half is to discuss what we’d like to see. [...] The only drug we’ve had any success in lowering the rate of use of in this country is tobacco. In the last 22 years we’ve cut tobacco use in half in this country. We didn’t do that by making tobacco illegal, by arresting executives at R.J. Reynolds. The most effective thing we did was a massive education program.

Cynics and prohibition

Jim Newton: What ended alcohol prohibition in 1933?

Jack Cole: It ended when the public began to see the unintended consequences of this misguided law.

David Fleming: There’s another part of that. At the time we were in the midst of a depression. Income tax revenues were way down, and the federal government said to itself, where were we getting our revenues before? And the answer was that a substantial portion of federal revenues had been coming from taxes on alcohol.

Jim Newton: David, you are a cynic!

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