Pubdate: Sun, 17 Sep 2006
Source: Buffalo News (NY)
Copyright: 2006 The Buffalo News
Author: Mark Sommer, News Staff Reporter
Cited: Law Enforcement Against Prohibition
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)
Bookmark: (Rockefeller Drug Laws)
Bookmark: (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition)
Bookmark: (Crime Policy - United States)


Giambra Ways It's Time to Try a New Approach; Others Say No

When County Executive Joel A. Giambra floated the idea of legalizing 
outlawed drugs, critics responded as if he was on one.

But Giambra is hardly alone. The idea of using the government to 
regulate and control banned substances in order to put the illegal 
drug trade out of business has gained ground in recent years, with 
support coming from surprising quarters: law enforcement officials.

Their involvement is an example of how calls to revamp the nation's 
drug policies are no longer solely the province of the left, which 
has historically favored legalization. Conservatives such as William 
F. Buckley Jr. and former Reagan-era Secretary of State George 
Schultz support liberalized drug policies. So, too, does Walter 
Cronkite, known in his heyday as "the most trusted man in America."

Critics such as Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark and Erie 
County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard, however, shake their heads. They 
believe such policies would in the end encourage more drug 
experimentation and addiction while doing little to reduce crime.

Giambra and other advocates of a new approach say the "war on drugs" 
instituted in 1971 by President Richard Nixon - who called illegal 
drug use "America's public enemy No. 1" - has been an unmitigated failure.

"There are more drugs on the street than ever after 35 years of the 
war, and they're more potent, more available and cheaper," Giambra 
said. "If outcome determines success or failure, then we've failed. 
Do you continue a failed policy, or try something different?"

Giambra and members of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) - a 
5,000-member organization founded in 2001 that includes 500 former 
members of law enforcement - say legalizing drugs would result in far 
less violent street crime, fewer prisoners, better access to addicts 
and enormous cost savings for drug treatment and education.

Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, former chair of the Assembly's Committee on 
Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, said Giambra's suggestion warrants serious 

"Clearly, our current policies and approach have failed," Hoyt said. 
"While I'm not prepared to endorse Mr. Giambra's approach, I do 
believe he has raised an important question as to what we should do 
to address this crisis."

So does U.S. District Judge John T. Curtin, who said he could support 
legalization combined with criminal sanctions.

"(Legalization) is something that should be on the table. In our 
city, we still have turf fights, and innocent people are the ones who 
get hurt. Long sentences don't seem to help at all," Curtin said.

Giambra, who admits he doesn't have "the exact prescription" for what 
to do, hopes to convene a conference this fall with experts to keep 
the issue before the public.

Comparable to Prohibition

Peter Christ, a retired Town of Tonawanda police captain now living 
in Cazenovia, applauds Giambra for his stance.

"The courage of an elected official to say the honest thing was 
heroic," Christ said. He founded LEAP in 2001, modeling it on Vietnam 
Veterans Against the War.

"Whether you agreed with them or not, you couldn't dismiss them 
because they were veterans who fought the war. I thought a group of 
people from law enforcement would have the same impact. You may not 
agree with me, but don't tell me I don't know what I am talking 
about," Christ said.

He said banning the sale and manufacturing of illegal drugs hasn't 
been any more successful than the prohibition of alcohol that lasted 
from 1920 to 1933.

"Alcohol was legalized because it only took us 13 years to learn the 
lesson that alcohol did not create Al Capone. Prohibition of alcohol 
created Al Capone," Christ said.

Jack A. Cole, LEAP's executive director, said the law enforcement 
officials in its ranks are mostly retired, claiming it is too risky 
for active officers to speak against the reigning orthodoxy. The 
former undercover narcotics officer for the New Jersey state police 
is convinced the war on drugs has been a colossal failure.

"When I arrested a drug dealer, all I was doing was creating a job 
opening for hundreds of other people willing to take a chance for 
these obscene profits," Cole said.

"We've spent over $1 trillion in 36 years, and all we have to show is 
that every year we arrest 1.7 million people for non-violent drug 
offenses. We currently have 2.2 million people in prisons and jails 
in this country, far more per capita than any other country in the 
world, and the majority of them are non-violent drug offenders."

Cole said he believed the far greater proportion of blacks arrested 
for illegal drugs constitutes institutional racism, since statistics 
show larger numbers of whites are users.

"All we're doing is stirring the pot, and it costs us $69 billion to 
stir it," Cole said. "No wonder building prisons is the 
fastest-growing industry in the United States."

Still, Cole said he doesn't expect political change any time soon. 
Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, comes closest to LEAP's position, and he only 
calls for the legalization of marijuana.

Government Rules

LEAP believes all drugs - from heroin and crack cocaine to 
methamphetamine and LSD - must be government-controlled to stamp out 
the crime and violence orchestrated by organized crime and low-level criminals.

"When you institute a blanket prohibition, you turn that regulation 
and control over to the gangsters and terrorists that roam the 
streets. They're the ones that set the purity, the age limits, the 
distribution points," Christ said.

"What we want to see is a regulated and controlled marketplace. The 
only way you can do that is to have it be, in some form, legal."

Randy Credico, director of the William Kunstler Fund for Racial 
Justice in New York City, praised Giambra for his "visionary" 
outlook. The fund opposes the restrictive Rockefeller drug laws 
enacted in 1973, under which about 16,000 people are incarcerated in 
state prisons.

"These dinosaur laws destroy lives, cost the state tons of money and 
don't do any good," Credico said. "There is no benefit for the state 
- - not for the family, the prisoner, not for society."

Credico cited the case of Jasmine Ortiz, a 24-year-old mother of six 
at Albion State Prison who was sentenced in 1998 to 121/2 to 25 years 
for possession of a small amount of crack cocaine. "She was a heroin 
and crack addict, and for that the state is going to spend $500,000 
to keep her in prison," Credico said.

Since 1973, 12 states - including New York - have in some manner 
altered their laws to reduce the penalties for marijuana possession. 
A number of cities also modified local ordinances and criminal 
justice practices to decriminalize the drug. And 11 states had 
allowed possession of "pot" for medicinal purposes before the U.S. 
Supreme Court declared it to be illegal in a June 2005 decision.

A "simplistic' solution

Clark, the district attorney, leaves little doubt where he stands 
when the subject of legalization is broached.

"I think it's irresponsible and shortsighted to say legalize drugs 
and have the government control it, and then all the problems will go 
away. I get very upset when people give simplistic answers to very 
complicated problems."

Clark said he's never seen an actual plan on how legalization would 
be administered, but he believes doing so would lead to more 
addictions and skyrocketing health care costs.

"I see the devastation that drugs cause among people who use it, 
families affected by it," Clark said. "It's bad enough now with all 
the laws preventing it. Now we're going to make every drug available?"

Clark believes drug laws are a deterrent.

"At least (illegal drugs) are controlled in a certain way. There's a 
small percentage of those who use it, and some who experiment with it 
and give it up. But I think the restrictions at least eliminate (greater use)."

Howard, the Erie County sheriff, is similarly skeptical. He said one 
only needs to look at how there are gang wars over lawful, regulated 
medications to see that legalization would be no magic bullet.

"I cannot believe that any of these problems will go away by 
regulating these drugs," Howard said.

The sheriff said the answer lies in tough law enforcement and the 
elimination of plea bargaining that lets criminals off with light sentences.

"I will look at anything that will reduce crime, except making 
something not criminal just because we can't stop it. If it's wrong, 
it's wrong. (Legalization is) a coward's way out," Howard said.

Giambra disagrees. "These are individuals who make careers on this 
law enforcement issue. It's about turf, and people in law are 
protecting their turf."

Giambra and others who share his view are convinced the time is long 
overdue to try a radically different approach that they believe can 
stop the crime and violence associated with the drug trade and get 
more people into treatment.

"The only way there is going to be substantive change after all these 
years is breaking with the past," Giambra said. "But first you have 
to be willing to admit that the policies so far have been a failure." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake