WESTON -- A mighty, mighty warrior for truth and justice stopped by the library the other night for a sparsely attended talk sponsored by the Weston Democratic Town Committee. His subject, as ever, was "Ending the War on Drugs."
Retired Detective Lt. Jack A. Cole served 26 years with the New Jersey State Police, including 12 years undercover with the Narcotic Bureau. He figures he was personally responsible for putting over 1,000 non-violent drug offenders in jail, a fact he is not proud of now. Gradually he came to see the errors of the "War on Drugs" and to regret his role in it.
In 2002, Officer Cole and four of his friends started LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition). There are now over 10,000 members, mostly present or former cops, lawyers, judges and others in law enforcement. But anyone can join and there no dues. Cole would like membership to reach the million mark soon.
The goal of LEAP is to end drug prohibition, thus reducing the incidence of death, disease, crime and addiction. "When FDR ended alcohol prohibition in 1932, overnight Al Capone was out of business."
LEAP speakers go all over the country and the world to share the message that the War on Drugs does not work. It merely destroys the lives of millions of people at great cost to all of us.
Here in the U.S. we spend $69 billion each year on the drug war. There have been 38 million arrests for non-violent drug offenses since 1970. We now have the highest incarceration rate on the planet, with 1 out of every 100 adult Americans in jail.
Yet there has been a dramatic increase in addiction, and hard drugs have become more prevalent and are cheaper and more available than when the drug war started. It is now easier for kids to buy drugs than it is for them to buy beer or cigarettes. Why? They have to show ID for beer and cigarettes, which are regulated by the government, as LEAP believes that drugs should be.
"Cops are no good at protecting people from themselves," says Cole. "We are only good at protecting people against others."
Back in the 1950s, 90 percent of all homicides were solved. Now only 40 percent of homicides are solved and the figures are lower for other crimes as well. These days, 46 percent of assaults, 60 percent of rapes, 75 percent of robberies and 83 percent of property crimes are never solved. Cole believes that cops are too preoccupied with the drug war to protect and serve the public the way they used to.
Statistically there has always been 1.3 percent of the population who are addicted to drugs.
The War on Drugs has not helped these people with their health problem. Instead it has treated both addicts and casual drug users as criminals and stuffed them into our ever growing number of prisons.
"Prisons are big business. They are the fastest growing U.S. industry," said Cole. Companies which build and run "privatized prisons" have big Washington lobbyists who push for mandatory sentencing so they can build more prisons.
Police officers and others in the criminal justice system are corrupted and compromised by the huge amounts of money involved in the illegal drug trade. Police departments become dependent on funds they receive when assets are forfeited in drug busts.
"You can get over an addiction but you will never get over a conviction," says Officer Cole. He explains that a CORI record will follow you for the rest of your life. "It will keep you from getting a government grant for college. It will keep you from getting a job. It will keep you from being licensed by the state in many different professions. In many states, a convicted felon also loses the right to vote."
The family is always adversely impacted, if not shattered, by the hardship of a child or parent in jail. If the family lives in subsidized housing, the whole family will be evicted because of the drug conviction of one member.
"Grandma has to hit the bricks too," said Officer Cole. A couple of years ago the U.S. Supreme Court approved this group punishment because "we are fighting a War on Drugs." All of us have paid for this failed policy with the loss of our civil rights and liberties.
It is no accident that black men are incarcerated out of all proportion to their numbers. For every white man in prison, there are seven black men in there with him.
Richard Millhouse Nixon declared this war in 1968 when he was running for the presidency for the second time. The War on Drugs allowed Nixon to go after the young black male population and get lots of votes from a frightened, manipulated white middle class, all without appearing to be overtly racist.
In 1970, Congress passed massive funding for the War on Drugs. Officer Cole's New Jersey State Police Narcotic Bureau expanded from 7 to 76 persons overnight, all paid for by the federal government.
Although Nixon was a Republican, each succeeding president has only made things worse, says Cole. With mandatory sentencing and the three strikes laws, we now have 2.3 million people in jail, far more than in any other country.
The political implications are startling. In Texas, for example, 31 percent of black men cannot vote because of past felony convictions, mostly for non-violent drug offenses. "Do you think that could affect an election?" asked Cole.
He ended his presentation with some solutions. The government needs to remove the profit motive. It should control, regulate and keep drugs out of the hands of children. He cites the success of such legislation in Switzerland and Holland, where rates of addiction and crime have plummeted.
He suggests that all the money we could save by ending the War on Drugs would be better spent on health care, education, housing, job training and employment programs which provide jobs at a livable wage. In Massachusetts we spend $46,000 per year on each prisoner.
Cole feels that education is the only way to reduce drug use and addiction and cites the dramatic decline in cigarette smoking as an example. In 1985, 42 percent of Americans smoked tobacco. In 2005, thanks to widespread education of the public, it was just 21 percent.
In November we will all have the chance to vote on a binding state referendum to limit the penalty in Massachusetts for possession of one ounce of marijuana to a $100 civil fine, with no criminal record.
In Congress, Massachusetts Democrat Rep. Barney Frank has introduced a bill to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. On the federal level, you can presently get 10 years in prison for growing one marijuana plant.
At age 69, Jack Cole is writing his PhD dissertation at UMass Boston as well as broadcasting his message of change. He has spoken on drug policy reform at hundreds of conferences and at the European Parliament, traveling between the Medford home he shares with his jazz musician wife and their farm in Tuscany.
Officer Cole could kick back now if he wanted to, but he is a man on a mission. He is not going to quit until he and his colleagues help put a stop to the War on Drugs. It is almost 9 p.m. and the library is about to close. All 18 of us seem to have been inspired by Jack Cole's talk and the ensuing discussion. Some are all set to join LEAP and spread the word.
Officer Cole packs up his gear and gets ready to hit the road. He'll be driving his Toyota Prius all the way to New York City, where sometime after midnight he will crash at his son's Manhattan apartment. When he gets there, he says he'll unwind with a glass of Jack Daniels and enjoy the spectacular view of the city.
The very next morning Cole will be giving testimony in favor of reforming New York's notoriously harsh Rockefeller Drug Laws. We wonder out loud how he does it all. With a charming smile and a shrug, this handsome former state trooper says he just keeps on going, no big deal.
With that sort of grit and determination, Officer Jack Cole and his buddies in LEAP just might finally bring an end to the ill-conceived boondoggle known as "The War on Drugs."
Isabella Jancourtz is a lawyer, a member of LEAP and a member of the Weston Democratic Town Committee.
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