Pubdate: Mon, 17 Oct 2005
Source: Knoxville News-Sentinel (TN)
Copyright: 2005 The Knoxville News-Sentinel Co.
Author: Lisa Hoffman
Cited: Law Enforcement Against Prohibition ( )
Cited: Office of National Drug Control Policy ( )
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


When he was new in "blue," Robert Owens was the scourge of East Los Angeles 
junkies, racking up record-breaking numbers of heroin arrests.

But even then, the young Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy wondered if 
all the collars and the time and resources it took to make them were making 
any difference.

Those doubts only grew during the rest of his 38 years in law enforcement, 
including his 22 years as police chief in gritty Oxnard, Calif.

Today, at 74, Owens is an outspoken proponent of ending America's drug war, 
which has been waged for nearly four decades at an estimated cost of $500 
billion. Despite the best efforts and intentions of anti-drug policies, it 
simply hasn't worked, he says.

"This country is long overdue in recognizing that not only have we lost the 
war on drugs, but we have squandered billions of dollars and untold numbers 
of lives," said Owen, who now coordinates law enforcement internships at 
the University of Texas in San Antonio.

Owen is not alone. He is one of 2,000 members of Law Enforcement Against 
Prohibition, an organization of current and former police officers, judges, 
prosecutors, prison guards and others across the country and in Canada and 

All have toiled in the trenches of the drug war and now consider 
traditional approaches futile. Though there is not unanimity, most in the 
group believe that the government should regulate the distribution and use 
of illicit substances and offer treatment instead of prison time to those 
caught in their grip.

The group's board of advisers includes former police chiefs of New York 
City, Seattle, Wash., and San Jose, Calif., along with current federal 
court judges in Denver, New York City, and Bridgeport, Conn. It also counts 
former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson as a supporter, as well as the sheriff 
of San Miguel County, Colo.

"This is not a tie-died group," said Mike Smithson, who runs the group's 
speakers bureau.

Perhaps not, but they are misguided and far out on the fringe of the drug 
issue, said a spokesman for the White House's Office of National Drug 
Control Policy.

"It's simply an irresponsible message to put out there," said Rafael 
Lemaitire, deputy press secretary for the anti-drug office.

By any measure, Lemaitire said, the drug war - which employs police work, 
public education and treatment to attack the problem - has been effective 
in driving down drug use in America. In 1979, at the peak of the drug 
epidemic, 14 percent of the U.S. population said they had used drugs in the 
past 30 days. Now, that number is 6 percent.

And, he said, everyone knows at least one person whose life was ruined by 
drug use, and whole neighborhoods and communities besieged by drug-related 
crime. To give up on the battle would mean more misery, criminality and 
despair, he said.

"It's ludicrous to think that any law enforcement person would want to put 
people and communities at greater risk," Lemaitire said.

But Owens and others affiliated with his group contend that the war on 
drugs has succeeded in little more than packing America's prisons with 
low-level offenders. If the battle is being won, they ask, why is the 
scourge of methamphetamine use spreading around the country? Why is the 
marijuana bought on the street today more potent than it was 35 years ago?

"This is not a war on drugs. It's a war on people," said LEAP executive 
director Jack Cole, who worked for 12 years as an undercover narcotics 
officer with the New Jersey State Police.

Cole and others in the group acknowledge their beliefs are hotly 
controversial, but they contend that there are far more police officers and 
others who share their point of view but can't risk the ostracism and 
professional damage that could occur if they went public. In fact, the 
organization welcomes members who want to remain anonymous and promises 
them their identities will never be revealed.

For now, the group's aim is to spark a public discussion of the worth of 
the war on drugs, as it now is being fought, Owens said. He and others like 
him want to use their front-lines credibility to open a national 
conversation on the topic.

"We're planting seeds," Owens said.
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