Peter Christ strolls confidently through the lobby of the Best Western Hotel in Waterbury sporting a gold earring, shoulder-length ponytail and black T-shirt emblazoned in bold, white letters, "Cops say legalize drugs. Ask me why." It's a ballsy fashion statement, considering that this afternoon, the hotel is teeming with Vermont police officers at a day-long training session on the use of new search-and-rescue gear. It's merely a coincidence that Christ, a retired police captain of 20 years, is staying here during his three-week speaking tour in Vermont on the subject of drug legalization.
By the time Christ gets to his rental car in the parking lot, he's engaged in a full-blown shouting match with a tall and muscular state trooper who is wearing fatigues and a hunter-orange search-and-rescue shirt. A 9-mm handgun is strapped to his thigh.
"We're trying to fight the Mafia and the criminal element and whoever else is involved in illegal drug activity, and you're saying, just give up?" shouts Corporal Dan Kerin of the Vermont State Police, his neck veins bulging. "It's bad enough that we have a problem in this country with alcoholism, alcohol-related crime and alcohol-related deaths. When you say 'Let's legalize all drugs,' you're just saying it's OK to use them!"
"Don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying drugs aren't a problem. I didn't spend 20 years in that uniform thinking that," Christ fires back. At 58 years old and standing about five-foot ten, Christ, whose name rhymes with "fist," doesn't seem intimidated by his younger and larger opponent. In fact, he touches the trooper's arm several times during their argument, a verboten move for a civilian.
"Heroin, crack cocaine, ecstasy, LSD, methamphetamine -- all these drugs have so much potential to do harm to individuals and society that they must be regulated and controlled," Christ says. "You don't think they should be unregulated, do you?"
"No," Kerin answers.
"But that's what we've got right now!" Christ says. "Who sets the purity for heroin in America? The mob. Who sets the age limit for sales? The mob. Who sets the distribution points? The mob. Who decides where the profits are spent? The mob. If you want to regulate and control something, it has to be legal."
"No, no, no," says Kerin, shaking his head and backing away toward his fellow troopers. But Christ persists, again laying his hand gently on the younger man's arm. This time, his voice is softer, more pleading.
"Forget your peers," Christ says. "What we're doing is stupid. It isn't accomplishing anything. It isn't going to accomplish anything...When are you retiring?"
"In nine years," Kerin says.
"Call me in 10," Christ says, with a smile.
Christ understands and even respects the young trooper's anger, and doesn't take it personally. Typically, he says, a cop is retired for a year or more before he or she starts to see "the forest for the trees." And Christ knows that his incendiary message -- that the United States should legalize all Schedule I drugs and regulate their sale and distribution -- flies in the face of law-enforcement training. Nevertheless, Christ believes that, just as alcohol prohibition was repealed in the United States, drug prohibition should be, too.
Christ isn't waging a one-man crusade. He is co-founder of an international nonprofit organization known as Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. Founded just two years ago, LEAP has nearly 200 members, all of whom are current or retired drug-war veterans: police officers, drug-enforcement agents, Canadian Mounties, state and federal judges, prosecutors, prison wardens, probation and parole officers, and military servicemen.
LEAP's board of directors includes a retired British drug agent who ran the narcotics unit at Scotland Yard for seven years, as well a retired judge from Dade County, Florida. LEAP's advisory board includes the mayor of Vancouver, British Columbia, a former governor of New Mexico, a former attorney general from Colombia and a retired New York City police commissioner. They all share the belief that it's time to face an incontrovertible fact: The war on drugs as it's currently being waged cannot be won. The United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars, lost countless lives, and imprisoned 2.2 million of its citizens for nonviolent drug offenses -- more per capita than any other country on earth. Never-theless, illicit drugs are cheaper, more potent and easier to get now than they were 30 years ago. LEAP argues that ending drug prohibition will save tax dollars, reduce the spread of disease and drug-addiction rates, and ultimately save lives.
"Legalization of drugs is not intended to be an approach to our drug problem in America," Christ explains during an interview in his hotel room. "Legalization is an approach to our crime and violence problem in America. Once we legalize drugs, then we have to start the really hard work of dealing with our drug problem."
The biggest societal costs associated with illegal drug use are not addiction or even crimes committed while people are using drugs, Christ argues. In fact, 90 percent of illicit drug users in this country are not addicts. They hold down jobs, go to school and do not create a public nuisance. The greatest harm associated with narcotics, he contends, is drug prohibition, a domestic and foreign policy that funnels billions of dollars into an underground economy where deals are brokered and scores are settled through terrorism, extortion and gun violence. But just as the bootleggers and crime-ridden numbers rackets were replaced with liquor stores and state-run lotteries, Christ argues, drug lords could be disarmed with the stroke of a pen.
Christ points to a study of drug-related violence in New York City. It found that 85 percent of those crimes stemmed from disputes involving the sale and distribution of narcotics. Only 15 percent were perpetrated by people who were on or using drugs at the time. Christ has seen a similar trend unfolding near his hometown of Cazenovia, New York. In nearby Syracuse, police recently broke up a major drug ring that was operated by local gangs. "The trial finished two weeks ago," Christ says. "We've had six shootings in the last week. This is normal. In fact, it's the way big-city police judge whether or not they got the key people when they make an arrest. When I was a cop, we judged our success by a decrease in violence, not an increase. It's a bizarre twist."
Christ tells his audiences that the drug war cannot succeed because it asks police to accomplish an impossible task: to protect people who don't want to be protected from harming themselves. "Prohibition doesn't work because prohibition has never worked in the history of our species," he says. "Anything that smacks of a victimless-crime prohibition is doomed to failure."
Describing drug addiction as a victimless crime may be a tough sell to the friends and family of a heroin addict. But Christ suggests that drug addicts and their loved ones would be better off if society treated them the same way it treats alcoholics: As long as alcoholics don't harm other people or their property, or become a danger to others (say, by drinking and driving), the law leaves them alone. Society provides treatment to alcoholics if they want it, often at little or no cost. For those who don't, society provides a safe place to purchase and use their drug. It also guarantees the drug's purity and regulates, monitors and taxes its vendors and distributors.
"Why should the heroin addict be any different?" Christ asks. "Right now, if you're a heroin addict and don't use and drive or hurt other people, we still arrest you. We give you a felony conviction that stays with you forever and you never recover from. Purity of product? Forget it! That's why we have so many ODs."
America's drug problem is fundamentally a public-health issue, Chris argues, not a law-enforcement issue. "When you let cops do what cops are supposed to do, which is protect us from each other, it's a great, wonderful, gratifying job," Christ adds. "But if you go out there and make a drug arrest, nothing changes. You make 20 drug arrests, nothing changes. I'm just stirring the water here and not accomplishing anything."
At first glance, Christ may come off sounding like a drug-use advocate. He's not. One debate he doesn't engage in is that only marijuana should be legalized because it's safer than other drugs, including tobacco and alcohol. In fact, LEAP isn't trying to change anyone's minds about the many dangers of drug abuse. Their goal is to change people's minds about America's drug policies and the proper role of law enforcement.
Nor does Christ waste his time preaching to the choir. He doesn't book speaking engagements with medical-marijuana advocates or other pot-legalization groups. Instead, he seeks out the people who are perhaps the least likely to have heard his message or be sympathetic to his cause: those who live and work on Main Street, U.S.A.
It's Wednesday afternoon at the Hilltop Restaurant in Barre and the local Rotary Club has just called its weekly meeting to order. Waitresses are serving heaping plates of meat loaf, mashed potatoes and iceberg lettuce to the 30 or so assembled members, while acting president Michael Knight makes a few announcements about unpaid membership dues and an upcoming golf tournament that needs a fourth player.
The gathered Rotarians, who are by and large white, male and over 50, are a healthy cross-section of Barre's business community: shop owners, granite dealers, bankers, real estate agents and so forth. Up on the dais, Christ's T-shirt and ponytail contrast with the button-down shirts, ties and balding heads scattered around the dining room.
Christ introduces himself to the group and talks for about 30 minutes. He doesn't give a prepared speech or use note cards -- by now, it's old hat. He's spoken to more than 800 civic groups around the country, including Rotaries, Kiwanis clubs, Elks, Lions and chambers of commerce. By now, his delivery is polished, funny and at times irreverent, but always passionate.
Upfront, Christ is honest about why he went into police work: He wanted a job that offered him a retirement by the age of 45. He put in 20 years with the police department in Tonawanda, New York, a suburb of Buffalo with a population of about 85,000 people and a police force of around 100 officers. Christ admits that he never worked narcotics, but he made plenty of drug arrests in his 15 years as a uniformed patrol officer, and assisted on several major drug busts.
Christ also says that from his first day on the job, he never believed drug prohibition would succeed. He always performed his job to the best of his abilities, however, regardless of his personal views. "My father used to say, 'You decide what you're going to do before you take the Man's money,'" Christ tells the group. "You raise your hand, you take the oath, you do your job. Or you quit."
At the end of his talk, Christ receives a warm round of applause. Then he opens the floor to questions. The first one is perhaps the most common one he gets. "You give a very convincing talk," says one Rotarian. "But what happens to the young people once they get started on drugs?"
Christ is ready with his response: The reason no one in this room is a heroin addict, he says, isn't because heroin is illegal or because it's not easily available in Vermont. It's because someone in your life taught you personal responsibility and the importance of making the right choices in life. "Will drug use go up if we legalize drugs?" Christ asks, predicting the inevitable follow-up question. "Absolutely!" he says. "Skyrocket, through the roof, unbelievable numbers!" He's being facetious, of course. Legalizing drugs won't create more drug users, he argues -- it would simply bring them out of the closet.
He explains how alcohol consumption and drunk driving have both been in decline in all age groups since the 1970s. That's not because alcohol is less accessible today than it was 30 years ago. It's because of shifting societal attitudes about the dangers of drunk driving and excessive alcohol consumption, which were brought about by better education and more public-awareness campaigns.
Later, the Rotarians sound, if not entirely sold, then at least open to Christ's ideas. "He's very convincing," says Ron Parnigoni, a 64-year-old Barre granite broker. "He's an excellent speaker, and there's a lot of truth to what he has to say."
Parnigoni's brother Dick sticks around afterwards to chat with the former cop. His one critique of Christ's presentation is aesthetic. "So let me ask you something completely different," Dick Parnigoni says. "Why the ponytail? Because this is a pretty conservative group."
Susan Poczobut, a Barre Rotarian who describes herself as "pretty ultra-conservative," admits that Christ "makes some good points and is a very intriguing speaker." But she worries that drug legalization would send the wrong message to young people. "The analogy would be like putting condoms in the grammar schools," she says. "As a parent, you don't really know whether you're condoning that action by giving it to them."
But another Rotarian, 80-year-old Dick Shadroui, sounds much more enthusiastic. "I thought it was very, very useful and very sensible and I agree with him 100 percent," says Shadroui, a piano teacher in Barre. "I don't think prohibition has ever worked, just like he said. I think it should be legalized, just like I think prostitution should be legalized."
But if LEAP's message found a receptive audience at the Barre Rotary Club, some of Vermont's police officers who deal daily with Vermont's drug crimes remain unconvinced. Captain Mike Jennings runs the Special Investigation Unit of the Vermont State Police, which includes the Vermont Drug Task Force. A 30-year veteran of law enforcement who has seen narcotics trafficking in this state skyrocket in the last decade, Jennings says that Christ and his group are sending a dangerous message to the public.
"The people that make these drugs make them as potent as they can for a reason. Many of the drugs that are out there today can be almost instantly addictive," Jennings says. "I can't see, for the life of me, exposing someone to that one-time chance and then setting them up for a lifetime of addiction. And that's exactly what would happen, especially if they were legal."
Jennings says that arguing for an end to drug prohibition by citing the experiences of alcohol prohibition is a flawed argument, especially when alcohol remains the most abused drug in the world. And he points to the recent experiences with marijuana decriminalization in Canada and the UK. In those countries, he contends, overall drug use is on the rise.
Jennings readily acknowledges that the war on drugs can't be won with law enforcement alone, but must be waged on several fronts simultaneously: through public education, prevention, drug treatment and counseling. "I think people listen to [Christ's] simple concept and think it makes sense," Jennings says. "But it doesn't make sense in the long run. I think he's got the wrong idea."
But other professionals who deal with Vermont's drug addiction problems suggest that perhaps it's time to begin this dialogue. Bob Bick is director of adult behavioral health services at the Howard Center, Vermont's largest not-for-profit substance-abuse treatment facility. Bick readily acknowledges that drug prohibition has been an abysmal failure.
"We've criminalized a whole generation of people for nothing more than consuming a substance or substances which, in fact, are physiologically no more harmful than alcohol," he says. By making certain forms of drug addiction illegal, he says, "We have essentially created a trap door into criminal behavior. If you're a criminal by virtue of your drug use, then ripping off somebody's radio or stealing their car might not be that big a jump."
That said, Bick isn't convinced that across-the-board legalization is a viable alternative. He says that the most readily available intoxicant, alcohol, continues to be the state's most abused substance, resulting in medical and societal costs that far exceed all other illegal drugs combined. Nevertheless, it's worth noting that in the last 40 years, the percentage of people who develop substance-abuse problems has remained relatively constant, while the types of drugs being abused has fluctuated. "If we could get to the point where it's as easy to get treatment as it is to get the substances that people are abusing," Bick concludes, "we'd be in a lot better shape than we are now."
Not surprisingly, LEAP's staunchest critics tend to work, like Jennings, within the law-enforcement profession. "I know some police chiefs who think that I'm the closest thing to evil that's ever existed on this planet because I'm talking about legalizing drugs," Christ admits. "I had a DEA agent say to me at an event about five years ago, 'You know, you really piss me off. You're telling me that my whole life is a waste? You're telling me that everything I've done for the last 15 years has been a waste of time?'"
His answer? Your life is no more a waste than the soldier who serves his or her country with honor and distinction while fighting an unjust war. Christ first envisioned LEAP as an organization modeled after the group, Vietnam Veterans Against the War. "With those vets, you can disagree with their position on the war, but you can't call that group cowards or traitors," he says.
Other cops have thanked him for having the courage to challenge the prevailing drug-war orthodoxy -- especially when they're not in a position to speak out publicly for fear of professional reprisal. Christ hasn't heard of any LEAP members who have been harassed for their involvement in the group. Nevertheless, LEAP offers a "stealth membership" for those who want their support to remain anonymous. For his part, Christ believes he never would have been promoted to lieutenant or captain had he spoken out publicly against the drug war the way he does now.
Interestingly, Christ doesn't shy away from the question: Have you ever used drugs yourself? Yes, he says. But he won't elaborate on what he's tried or whether he still uses them today. "My personal attitude about it is, you are responsible for your actions," Christ says. "Drug use, bad upbringing, or whatever else is no excuse for bad behavior."
But Christ laughs at the suggestion that his interest in this movement is based on some desire to use illegal drugs himself. If I wanted to use drugs, he says, the fact that they're illegal doesn't make them any less accessible.
Christ's passion for this work -- and he usually doesn't get paid for his speaking engagements -- is based on a bigger picture: Drug prohibition is a linchpin issue that touches all aspects of public life in America: health care, criminal justice, education, taxation, corrections, foreign policy. Remove that linchpin, he says, and all the other pieces fall into place.
"My self-interest is to live in a society that doesn't do this to other people," he says. "My self-interest is to my old profession, which I have a lot of respect for, and letting them do what they're designed to do, and getting them out of this quagmire we've gotten ourselves into."
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