At a recent Santa Monica city council meeting about Measure Y, a ballot initiative that would make adult marijuana use the police department's "lowest priority," activists brought out a unique speaker: A retired New Jersey state cop who is calling for the legalization of drug use. Lt. Jack Cole heads up an organization called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, LEAP, which boasts 5,000 members from the law enforcement field nationwide.
Cole spoke up for the Santa Monica measure and suggested that law enforcement would better serve the public by spending more of its time and resources on more serious crimes.
Cole's group calls the drug war "prohibition," equating it with the government's ban on liquor after World War I, and its focus is not just on pot. The group's arguments are standard for activists who push for the legalization of drugs: eliminating the black market in all drugs would lead to a decrease in crime, and give the government some control about what drugs are available and who should be allowed to use them.
Cole believes a revolt is growing against the federal government's war on drugs, both inside law enforcement and among the general public. "I think legalization will be sooner rather than later," says Cole.
However, not all police are on board with either the ballot initiative or LEAP's efforts, among them the Santa Monica Police Department and Pasadena Police Chief Bernard Melekian, who served as a detective in Santa Monica before coming to Pasadena.
"This measure is another in a long line of thinly veiled attempts to legalize marijuana," Melekian said in an email. "It would be far more congruent to just float that measure. The setting of law enforcement priorities is, and should remain, the purview of the elected bodies of the affected jurisdictions."
As for the legalization of drugs, "anyone who thinks that is desirable should visit Amsterdam or Vancouver, [British Columbia]," Melekian wrote.
Over the past three years Cole and other retired cops have been traveling the country speaking to Rotary clubs, church groups and law enforcement conferences. Hearing this message from police officers makes a huge difference: Cole estimates about 80 percent of the people he speaks to end up agreeing with him.
Melekian notwithstanding, Cole says he also sees a similar reaction from other cops. Converting police officers seems counter-intuitive, but Cole finds them more than receptive to the message. "We talk to them cop-to-cop," says Cole. "A lot of them tell me they always thought the war on drugs was a failure, but felt there was no one else in law enforcement that agreed with them."
In this sense, LEAP is also reforming a police culture that discourages questioning the law or voicing objections to the war on drugs. Part of LEAP's strategy is to be as vocal as possible. At police conferences, members wear T-shirts emblazoned with the words "COPS SAY LEGALIZE DRUGS: ASK ME WHY."
"We are very aggressive," says Cole. "We stand in the aisles and if someone looks our way, we talk to them."
Having government officials speak out is an effective weapon against the drug war. In 2002, police organizations backed a near-successful voter initiative in Nevada that would have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana.
Gary Johnson, a former governor of New Mexico, stoked a loud debate in his own state and across the nation when he pushed for the legalization of drugs and was quoted in the Albuquerque Tribune in 1999 as saying that trying drugs for the first time as a youth was "kind of cool."
Unfortunately for backers of the Santa Monica initiative, local law enforcement is not on their side. The Santa Monica Police Department argued in town meetings that it needs every tool at its disposal to uphold the law, and that includes marijuana misdemeanors.
"We are opposed to this ordinance because it would remove our ability to investigate more suspicious crimes after using marijuana as probable cause," said Acting Police Chief Phillip Sanchez. "We have found large amounts of marijuana on individuals, and illegally armed individuals, after investigating marijuana smokers."
This is an assessment that Cole agrees with, but he argues that it does not justify going after pot smokers. "I don't think they should be enforcing just to make people easier to grab law enforcement is always easier if you take away people's freedom, but I wouldn't want to live in a country like that," he says.
The police also argued that the law is vague because it only states that enforcing marijuana law against adult smokers using the drug for their personal use should be the department's "lowest priority." What isn't clear is whether this would mean that police would still approach people they suspected were smoking. The police department says if the law passes, it will ask the city for specific instructions.
Nicki LaRosa, the campaign coordinator of the group Santa Monicans for Sensible Marijuana Policy, which put the initiative on the ballot, says that the measure would not keep the police from going after people who use marijuana in public. "We are not going for Amsterdam in Santa Monica this is more about private use," says LaRosa.
LaRosa says there were about 290 marijuana misdemeanors in the city last year and expects the measure to bring a significant reduction in citations.
However, Santa Monica police argue that marijuana is already the department's lowest priority and that it usually only cites people smoking in public, and usually investigates only after receiving a complaint. Even that complaint takes a backseat to the investigation of more serious and pressing crimes, according to Sanchez.
To some extent, LaRosa admits that the ballot initiative is symbolic: "There is a lot of symbolism in this because we want to say as a community that people should not be prosecuted for smoking marijuana."
The measure would, in fact, force the community to say exactly that. One of the requirements of the ordinance would be for local government and law enforcement to send letters twice annually to the state and federal government urging those lawmakers to consider decriminalizing marijuana.
One of the reasons the measure only goes as far as making marijuana use the police's "lowest priority," says LaRosa, is that a stronger measure would not be compatible with federal law.
A recent poll conducted by Evans/McDonough has shown that 81 percent of Santa Monica citizens believe that the war on drugs is a failure. The numbers, maybe not coincidentally, line up with Cole's estimates about how people feel about the war on drugs.
According to Cole, the next step is getting more law enforcement to speak out. "We have a credibility that no one else has," says Cole.
Dan Abendschein is a reporter for Los Angeles CityBeat, where a version of this story first appeared. Pasadena Weekly reporter Andre Coleman contributed to this story.
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