The idea that America's 35-year-old war on drugs has serious problems isn't new. Multiple long-standing organizations ranging from NORML (The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) to Libertarian think tank the Cato Institute have advocated drug legalization for decades.
The debate has even permeated American popular culture to a degree, with films like Traffic and Maria Full of Grace exploring the human impact of drug prohibition.
The message that drug policy reform group LEAP is bringing to Connecticut in a series of speaking engagements in September - that the drug war is unwinnable and indefensible - is neither novel nor unique. It's the people making the argument, not the argument itself, that's noteworthy. The members of LEAP, which stands for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, are retired and active police officers and government agents who helped shape and enforce America's drug laws. These are veterans of the front lines of the war on drugs who are now speaking against it.
"[What better group] to challenge the efficacy of the policy than the people tasked with promulgating that policy?" LEAP member Mike Smithson asked.
Smithson said he believes LEAP's message is supported by the majority of Americans, but needs the authority that the police and other law enforcement veterans in LEAP offer for it to resonate.
"We believe that most of America is opposed to this prohibition, but are afraid to say it," Smithson said.
The group is largely the brainchild of retired New York State Police Captain Peter Christ. While Christ doubted the effectiveness of drug laws during his time as a cop, he still enforced the law.
"I went into law enforcement with the hope that I would see the stupidity of my position. I hoped I'd look into the drug business, see its effects and say "boy am I ever wrong." What really happened is the more I saw, the stronger my position became," Christ said.
When he retired after 20 years on the force in the early '90s, he started working full-time to change those laws. After attending conferences by NORML and the Drug Policy Foundation, Christ realized many cops shared his stance, and enlisted them in the cause.
"I started talking about creating an organization of law enforcement people basically modeled after Vietnam Veterans Against the War. That was a group of people that you may not have agreed with their position against the war, but you couldn't dismiss them by saying they didn't know what they're talking about," Christ said.
He hooked up with Jack Cole, a 26-year veteran of the New Jersey state police, to create an organization of his peers who advocated ending the drug war. With the help of three other retired police officers, Cole and Christ founded LEAP in 2002. From those beginnings, membership swelled to over 5,000 in four years.
Their website, www.leap.cc , has a 12-minute video in which speakers make the case against the government's prosecution of the drug war. The video has made the rounds of the blogosphere, including being featured on Time magazine's daily dish.
"Prohibition doesn't work. ... The bad thing is that it creates crime and violence that need not exist," Christ said.
When he speaks, Christ says the war on drugs has destabilized society.
"We know from studies that 85 percent of the drug-related violence in our society is not related to drug ingestion and the high from the drug, but from people fighting over the market place," Christ said.
Christ was careful to distinguish between being against the war on drugs and supporting drugs.
"There's a drug problem, the use and abuse of these dangerous substances, which I am not minimizing. It's a serious problem we have to deal with as a society," Christ said. "Then there is a crime and violence problem attached to the drug problem the same way we had it attached to alcohol prohibition."
Christ believes the war on drugs enables rather than fights the drug problem.
"When you institute a blanket prohibition, at that instant you give up all your ability to regulate and control that thing. Who regulates the purity of these drugs on our streets? The gangsters and the mobsters. Who determines the selling points and sets the age limits? The gangsters and the mobsters," Christ said.
"We at LEAP believe that a regulated and controlled marketplace is superior to a prohibition marketplace that creates crime in our society."
Eric E. Sterling was Counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary from 1979 until 1989 and is now a LEAP speaker. Sterling, who helped write many of the drug laws passed by Congress in the 1980s, now says that much of the drug legislation in the '80s resulted from misguided political opportunity seeking.
"I began to see the way in which criminal justice and drug policy were taking a backseat to political opportunity," Sterling said.
Sterling said the policy set in the '80s has had a regrettable effect on America's legal system and economy.
"Most people are not aware of the enormous economic consequences of what we are doing. By giving out millions of felonies for drug offense convictions over the course of your anti-drug crusade, we have put a tape worm into the American economy that is sucking a lot of life out of it. One out of nine men in America has a felony conviction," Sterling said. "Once you have a felony conviction your ability to get a job is dramatically reduced. Once that happens, your role in the global economy is substantially undermined."
The felony convictions have a cumulative, debilitating effect on our consumer-driven economy. We're making it harder for potential consumers to consume.
"Your felony conviction becomes part of a background check that goes into your credit score. Even if you have a job, and can afford a car, your ability to finance it is greatly lessened. Your ability to buy a car is dramatically reduced," Sterling said.
As an attorney and a veteran of national legislation writing and advocacy, Sterling said the effect the drug war has had on the way America enforces its laws has been dramatic.
"At another level, in the criminal justice system itself, the drug laws are enforced through lies and perjury," Sterling said.
The dishonesty underlying the prosecution of the drug war, Sterling said, has influenced the rest of our legal system.
"In courts, judges and prosecutors blind themselves to the lies that are routinely told in support of drug cases. When cases go to trial and drug suspects testify against friends and partners to get reduced sentences, lying again is frequent," Sterling said. "Witnesses know that unless their performance is adequate, they're not going to get the plea bargain deal they're hoping for. This is routine. The habit of perjury has become ingrained and routine in the criminal justice system. Judges and attorneys have become inured to fraud in the courts."
One prominent local law enforcement official indicated that while the war on drugs may be flawed, legalization and regulation of drugs is a long way off.
"There may be a need for some changes [in the drug war]. But I am not advocating the legalization of drugs," newly appointed Hartford police chief Daryl K. Roberts said.
A former vice cop, Roberts has seen the effects of drug addiction firsthand. He said that while gun-related violence would be his highest concern as chief, he would also have the Hartford force concentrate on enforcing drug laws.
"I was in vice narcotics for 10 years, four and a half as a detective and five as a sergeant. It's a high priority because I do think it's a catalyst for a lot of our crimes. A lot of our crime comes back to our drug dealing. When you use drugs you're not just destroying yourself, you're destroying your neighborhoods and families."
Roberts said that because of the nature of drugs and addiction, he believes they should remain illegal.
"Whether drugs are legal or not, they still have the same harmful effects on the body," Roberts said.
LEAP speakers will be giving presentations at Connecticut Rotary clubs and other state civic organizations throughout September. Their itinerary is still being finalized. See www.leap.cc/events for a full schedule.
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.