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Cops Against the Drug War

Former officers, judges, and prosecutors say anything would be better

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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 failure."

"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 programs.

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."

Nina Shapiro is a senior editor at Seattle Weekly where this story originally appeared.

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