Pubdate: Wed, 03 Sep 2003
Source: Charlotte Creative Loafing (NC)
Copyright: 2003 Creative Loafing Charlotte, Inc.
Author: NINA SHAPIRO, is a senior editor at Seattle Weekly where this story 
originally appeared


Former Officers, Judges, And Prosecutors Say Anything Would Be Better

They were two white guys cruising through the black part of Paterson, 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 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 a penalty of 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.

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 

"After three decades of fueling the US 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, 
says, "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.

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 Colombian 
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. 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, but rather the 
result of the drugs' illegality and the high profits it makes possible.

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 allow the government to 
tax this billion-dollar industry and use the proceeds for drug treatment 

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."
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