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January 18, 2005 - The Tribune Review (Pittsburgh, PA)

Ex-Cop: Rein In The War On Drugs

By Mike Seate, columnist, Tribune-Review

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Howard Wooldridge rode into town last weekend on his horse, just like a lawman from the Old West. But the former detective didn't visit Pittsburgh to lock up bad guys.

He was here to lecture on what he feels is the biggest fraud ever perpetrated on the American public.

"After 15 years in law enforcement, I realized what incredible waste the war on drugs really is. I was arresting drunk drivers who were a real danger, while my colleagues were going after kids with Baggies full of pot. It didn't make any sense," Wooldridge said.

His tour of Pittsburgh involved several guest spots on TV and radio, and a speaking engagement at Monroeville's Bethel AME Church.

That Wooldridge delivers his message from beneath a weathered cowboy hat and crosses the country on horseback helps him gain a foothold with audiences who might not think decriminalizing drugs is the best plan for their communities.

A conversation with the man reveals an honest, passionate and often funny approach to this sensitive subject. His freewheeling style has won Wooldridge and his organization LEAP -- Law Enforcement Against Prohibition - -- a growing nationwide following.

His main problems with the war on drugs are the astronomical costs in lives and money.

"What grinds me up is the way law enforcement people perpetuate the lie that arresting drug dealers will make a difference in the availability and strength of drugs," he said.

"The smugglers are smart enough to factor in a loss of maybe 20 percent of a shipment. So even when there's a big bust, they just ship more."

It might seem odd for a former cop to question the sanity of locking up casual drug users, but Wooldridge said the $28,000 it costs to imprison a user for a year could be better spent on rehabilitation programs or tracking down violent criminals.

It's not a message that has a universal appeal for law enforcement personnel, he acknowledged.

While serving on the police force in Bath Township, Mich., Wooldridge said, he often kept his opinions on the drug war to himself. "It wasn't really something you could talk about in the doughnut shop with my friends," he joked.

As he began to speak out against the war on drugs and its annual cost of about $19 billion, Wooldridge said he met other cops who felt the same way. Today, he said, LEAP has about 2,000 members nationwide.

"Even though I knew this (anti-drug effort) was an incredible waste of time, when you're an active duty officer and you come out against (it), people think you must want to use drugs or that you can't be counted on to enforce the laws, so it's a lose-lose situation," he said.

With the constraints of police work behind him, Wooldridge plans to finish his cross-country horseback tour astride his faithful companion Molly.

Then he'll head to Washington, D.C., where he'll put his skills to work as an anti-drug-war lobbyist.

"People are hungry for some answers to this problem besides just building more prisons," he said.

Read more about Howard's Journey across America here.

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