Howard Wooldridge looks every bit the cowboy with his broad hat, boots and belt buckle that reads "Long Rider."
But this cowboy and retired detective, who worked 18 years for a police department in Michigan -- rides with a controversial message that calls for the legalization of narcotics and suggests that the War on Drugs has failed.
Wooldridge addressed the Helena Rotary Club early Tuesday, laying his facts and politics on thick as Helena Civic Television taped the session. Some in the room agreed with Wooldridge's message, while others said nothing at all.
"We in law enforcement know intimately and all too well that this War on Drugs is a war on people," Wooldridge said. "It's simply old-fashioned prohibition."
Wooldridge isn't alone in his aim to legalize drugs. As a member of LEAP -- Law Enforcement Against Prohibition -- he joins 1,500 international members representing retired lawmen who support alternative policies for drug regulation and control.
Wooldridge's message is difficult for working law enforcement officials to embrace. In 2002, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency, agents made more than 27,000 arrests in the United States, seizing 61,000 kilograms of cocaine and 195,000 kilograms of marijuana. Agents also confiscated 118 million doses of methamphetamines and 11 million doses of hallucinogens.
Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Cheryl Liedle said after the meeting that Montana faces its own drug scourge, and legalizing such narcotics as meth and cocaine is a dangerous proposition.
"With meth, there's a very distinct correlation between its use and violent crime," Liedle said. "It's use is widespread, and people use it because it's very addictive."
According to the 2003 National Drug Threat Survey, put out by the National Drug Intelligence Center, meth ranked the highest in Montana when associated with violent crime, garnering a score of 72.6 percent.
The same survey gave meth a score of 94 percent in availability and a 91 percent in being a social threat. In comparison, marijuana scored a 2.7 percent on the survey.
"If you're looking at other drugs like marijuana, if it's proven to have a medical use, I have no problem with that ( the medical uses )," Liedle said. "Other drugs are more dangerous, especially methamphetamines. Its use is widespread, and it's being used because it's very addictive."
In 1973, as part of his State of the Union address, President Richard Nixon proposed sweeping revisions to the U.S. criminal code by tailoring laws to deal with the changing face of crime.
In his speech, Nixon noted his opposition to legalizing marijuana. He called for criminal sanctions against the possession, use and sale of the drug, saying the country must demand tough legislation if it hoped to reduce crime.
"Drug use is still public enemy number one in America," Nixon said in 1973. "Our new code will give us tougher penalties and stronger weapons in the war against dangerous drugs and organized crime."
But Wooldridge said the War on Drugs, as it's defined, hasn't reduced drug use in America, but only made it worse.
"President Nixon wanted a new prohibition, and he wrapped his policy in the flag by calling it the 'War on Drugs,'" Wooldridge said. "The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution has almost been busted in half due to the War on Drugs."
Wooldridge said that in 1970, dealers sold heroin containing a 1.5-percent purity rate for $6 a dose. By 1999, he said, that same dose was 38 percent pure and cost the dealer only 80 cents.
Making drugs illegal, he said, drives up the cost, and crime with it.
"You can make all the laws you want, but it's not going to make a difference on the streets of America," he said. "Let's approach all drugs on the two principles that made this country great -- liberty and personal responsibility."
But Liedle says that making drugs legal, and asking users to use them responsibly, is a poor approach to controlling the social problems that result, especially where addiction is concerned.
In Helena, she said, legal drugs like OxyContin, Ritalin, Valium, and Prozac, among others, are still abused despite their legality.
Helena Civic Television will air Wooldridge's talk Tuesday, July 20, at 5 p.m., and Wednesday at 9 p.m.
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