Pubdate: Sat, 07 Mar 2015
Source: Times Argus (Barre, VT)
Copyright: 2015 Times Argus
Author: Eric Blaisdell


SOUTH ROYALTON - A former New Jersey State Police lieutenant and a 
Vermont police chief have very different views on what to do about marijuana.

One calls the drug wars a policy disaster that needs to be stopped. 
The other considers drug trafficking a violent crime and believes 
marijuana legalization will increase children's access to the drug.

The Vermont Law School hosted a daylong conference discussing 
marijuana legalization Friday at its South Royalton campus. The 
conference was put on by the Criminal Law Society and SPEAK, a 
student organization at the school that promotes speech, persuasion, 
education, advocacy and knowledge.

Marijuana legalization has been a hot topic in the state recently. 
Vermont decriminalized possession of small amounts of the drug in 
2013, turning the violation into a civil matter. Sen. David Zuckerman 
has introduced legislation that would make the drug legal to possess 
in small amounts in Vermont, but lawmakers have said it's not likely 
to be brought up this year.

Officials also flew to Colorado, where marijuana is now legal, last 
month to see for themselves how the change has gone.

Speakers at Friday's conference included lawmakers, people running 
dispensaries for medical marijuana, lawyers and advocates on both 
sides of the debate over whether to legalize recreational marijuana in Vermont.

One of the morning sessions included Jack Cole, a retired state 
police lieutenant in New Jersey, where he worked for 26 years, 
including 14 in narcotics. After retiring, he helped co-found Law 
Enforcement Against Prohibition, a national organization composed of 
those who previously worked in the criminal justice field and now are 
speaking out against the so-called drug war.

The other speaker was George Merkel, the police chief in Vergennes 
and president of the Vermont Association of Police Chiefs. The 
conversation was moderated by Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan.

Cole said the drug war has been a self-perpetuating policy disaster 
and needs to end. He was at the front lines of the drug war, starting 
his narcotics work in 1970.

Working in that field, he said, there were seven things he believed 
police would accomplish to end the problem of drug use in the 
country: decreased supply of drugs; decreased purity of drugs; 
increased drug prices; and reduced numbers of drug users, drug 
overdose deaths, drug prohibition murders and drug violation arrests. 
Since 1970, Cole said, every one of those beliefs has been proven 
false and the opposite true for all of them.

He said according to the Drug Enforcement Agency, in 1970, 2 percent 
of the country's population over the age of 12 had used an illegal 
drug. Now, he said, the DEA reports that number is up to 46 percent 
of the population.

"It's hard for me to contemplate how, if what we really wanted to do 
was to reduce the number of people using drugs, how we could have 
possibly come up with a worse policy than this one," he said.

Cole said there was no such thing as an illegal drug in the U.S. 
until opium in 1914. Back then, he said, 1.3 percent of the 
population was addicted to opiates. In 1970, he said, the drug 
addiction rate was still 1.3 percent and it stands at 1.3 percent today.

"It's 46 years later, we've spent $1.5 trillion and made 50 million 
arrests, and today our government tells us 1.3 percent of the 
population is addicted to drugs," he said.

Cole said the war on drugs has also had a negative impact on police 
work. In 1963, he said, police were credited with solving 91 percent 
of the murders in the U.S. That rate is down to 61 percent today.

"What happened? Did we suddenly become incompetent? I don't think so. 
We have more police per capita than we had back then, we're better 
trained, better educated, better paid," he said, adding the reason is 
that police are now expected to chase down nonviolent drug offenders.

Cole said the U.S. has reduced the numbers of people using only one 
drug: nicotine. He said it's the most addictive drug to humans and, 
in 1985, 42 percent of the country smoked cigarettes. Instead of 
waging a war on cigarettes, he said, officials used education and 
regulation to reduce that rate to 17 percent now. Cole said this type 
of strategy can work on illegal drugs as well.

Merkel took exception to Cole's use of the term "nonviolent" when it 
comes to drug cases.

"I'm not going to stand up here and tell you that we're winning the 
war on drugs, because that would not be the truth," he said. "We are 
losing the war on drugs, and I don't think there's one answer to 
change that. It's more than just fighting drugs. But it's not a 
choice that I have."

"I've been with those families that have lost kids. I've listened to 
a mother's anguish. I've seen kids nodding out on a bench less than 
5, 6 feet away from my desk while I'm eating lunch, nodding out 
because of heroin."

Merkel said drug trafficking is in fact a violent crime and that he's 
seen the violence that comes with it, whether through weapons or 
assaults or the destruction it does to families who lose someone to 
an overdose. He said law enforcement alone won't solve the problem, 
but he has no choice but to fight the battle.

"If somebody brings 3,000 bags of heroin to the state of Vermont and 
plies that to our communities, the answer is not to ignore it," he 
said. "I am 100 percent opposed to legalizing another substance that 
can be addictive, that presents a health risk to our children, that 
presents a danger to our communities, that presents a danger to our highways."

Merkel acknowledged that not everyone who smokes a joint will become 
a heroin addict but said he can name 20 children he's interacted with 
who have told him not to worry because they were just smoking pot. He 
said those young people are now dead due to drug overdose.

"I've seen addiction so bad that one young lady cut her pinkie off to 
get pain medication," Merkel said. "So she could feed her habit. They 
sell themselves so they can get money for their drugs. You can say 
that's not violent, but to me it is."

Merkel said whatever the argument is for legalization, he knows the 
end result will make the drug more accessible to children and he 
can't support that. He said he wants Vermont to be known for skiing 
and maple syrup, not marijuana smoke. 
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom