As a New Jersey state trooper for 26 years and an undercover narcotics officer for 12, Jack Cole watched a drug dealer point a gun at his head and felt a thug hold a knife to his throat.
But the violence from the front lines of the war on drugs wasn't what pushed him to conclude it's a failed policy. Rather, it was the one size-fits-all sledgehammer of "justice" that Cole believes has ruined more lives than any white powder.
"You can get over a drug addiction, but you can't get over a drug conviction," Cole, 66, said last week from his Medford home.
So two years ago, more than a decade after he retired with the bad taste in his mouth that maybe he had invested his life's work in a wrong-headed cause, Cole started an organization called LEAP, Law Enforcement Officers Against Prohibition. The purpose of the group: Legalize drugs.
"The war on drugs is not a war we're going win," Cole said. "We're creating as many problems as we're solving."
With seed money from the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington DC lobbying organization, LEAP is starting to make its voice heard. And Cole, a former steel worker married to a jazz pianist with a poster of Thelonius Monk hanging over the fireplace, has begun to earn a reputation as an avatar for progressive policing.
His organization has grown from five members two years ago to more than 2,000 today, among them former federal judges and retired DEA agents. There are now 85 LEAP speakers crisscrossing the country. They've addressed more than 900 forums-typically Rotary and Lions clubs-to try to build grass-roots support against the nation's drug policy. Cole estimates 80 percent of the people he speaks to come away nodding in agreement.
"They come up to me afterward and say, 'I never realized what we were doing; yes, naturally we have to change this,' " Cole said. "All they have heard is what the drug warriors have told them for 34 years."
The lecture Cole delivers to just about anybody who will listen has been honed by years on the street and nearly a decade in academia, where he is pursuing a doctorate in public policy at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. By criminalizing drugs, governments have made them infinitely more valuable, he says. That value gives the people who control them power. And that means that no matter what the risks are, there will always be somebody willing and desperate enough to take the risks to deal.
Despite his gray beard and a slight resemblance to Willie Nelson, Cole is no pie-in-the-sky idealist. He's a pragmatist. He wants drugs legalized so they can be controlled.
"Right now the people that control and regulate drugs are the dealers," Cole said. "They tell us what will be distributed to the community, what the purity will be, how much it will cost and who and where it will be sold. And then we see to it that they get all the profits."
Cole wants drugs controlled by the government, heavily taxed, and easily accessible to adults. And he wants to see some of the $69 billion a year "thrown down the rat hole" used to educate Americans about drugs. He points to the campaign to inform Americans about tobacco, which cut use nearly in half in eight years. "And we did it without incarcerating a single human being."
Cole's stand is not, of course, without its critics. Ron Brogan, spokesman for the Northeast regional director for DARE America, and a retired special agent with the DEA, argues that drug use has declined dramatically in the US since its peak in 1979 and that an overwhelming majority of Americans support the continued criminalization of drugs.
"The war has been tremendously successful," Brogan said. "And since we started with prevention education, it's been even better."
But Brogan acknowledges that sentiment against the war on drugs is growing. Indeed, the Marijuana Policy project-which supports LEAP-was founded in 1995. Bruce Mirken, spokesman for the organization, says lending the voice of law enforcement officers to the debate on drug policy is particularly powerful.
"So much of the debate is framed by law enforcement who say either you support the war on drugs or you're pro drugs and pro drug abuse," he said. "That's nonsense and for people who are justifiably worried about crime, Jack and his group add a certain level of trust that's important."
Cole's route from drug cop breaking down the doors of suspected dealers to an activist protesting the conventional wisdom didn't happen overnight.
The son of a Kansas steel worker, Cole followed his father's footsteps into the steel industry, but as he watched the civil rights movement unfold on television he decided to join the police force to try to change what he perceived as a racist culture from the inside out. He was living in New York at the time, working on the Verrazano Bridge, so he joined the New Jersey State Police in 1964 and started out as a road trooper. Six years later, the same year Nixon started funding the war on drugs, he was tapped to go undercover.
His perspective on the war changed forever in 1973, when he was riding through the ghetto in Patterson, N.J., with an informant, looking to make an undercover buy. The deal went bad and he was assaulted by two men. He escaped, but the informant was badly cut on his hand. When a college kid who told Cole he didn't deal or use drugs helped to bandage the informant's hand, Cole asked him where he could go to buy four bags of heroin. The young man pointed him toward another neighborhood dealer. That college kid was arrested and charged with conspiracy to sell narcotics in connection with that incident, a crime punishable by seven years in prison.
Cole has told that story plenty of times, but he still visibly winces when he tells it. When asked why he stayed on the force if he felt he was carrying out an unjust policy, he paused briefly. "I was wondering if you were going to ask that," he said. "I was addicted to the adrenaline of the job. I think a lot of police are."
Cole talks extemporaneously about the drug policy and his own experiences easily and at length. Among the catch phrases he likes to repeat is that the war on drugs is really a war on people. That college kid is one of thousands of young black men in particular who have been wrongly swept up in the tide of overzealous prosecutions.
"The war is set up in such a way that it follows you around for the rest of your life. The government does everything it can to ruin you if you've been arrested," Cole said. And yet, he contends, it still isn't working.
Heroin on the street costs only a third of what it did 25 years ago, according to the DEA's own statistics, he says. The purity of heroin has jumped from 1.3 percent to 38 percent. "And every year it gets easier to buy. For the average teenager, drugs are easier to buy than beer and cigarettes," Cole said.
The billions of dollars spent on the war are largely wasted, Cole says, but the policy has created an entrenched bureaucracy whose first priority is to protect their own jobs.
Slowly, however, the number of people who believe the policy needs to be reversed is reaching critical mass. Last week in Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley endorsed a proposal to issue fines for possession of small amounts of marijuana rather than clog the courts with cases that tend to be thrown out by judges.
Mirken said at least 11 states have taken steps to relax criminal penalties in minor marijuana cases. Massachusetts is not among them.
"We need to replace mandatory minimums with mandatory adult education," Cole said. "We need decent health care and decent jobs for everyone that wants to work, and then you can imagine how many fewer drug users there would be out there."
Cole pauses for a moment when asked if he's hopeful. "Yeah, we'll get there," he said. "Eventually."
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