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September 19, 2005 - The Post-Standard (NY)

Former Cop Now Promotes Drug Legalization

By Sean Kirst, Post-Standard Columnist

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Sunday's crowd at the Westcott Street Cultural Fair included old-timers in headbands with shoulder-length gray hair and a guy with bells and shreds of cloth covering his body.

Howard Wooldridge, a former detective, managed to attract attention of his own. He wore a cowboy hat and spurs. He allowed visitors to pet Misty, his one-eyed horse. He also made a point of showing off his T-shirt slogan: "Cops say legalize drugs. Ask me why."

For the past six months, Wooldridge - who retired 11 years ago from the Bath Township Police Department in Michigan - has journeyed across the country on horseback to win attention for LEAP, or Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

Wooldridge is a founding member of the group, which consists primarily of retired police officers and administrators. He said the original members turned for a model to ReconsiDer, a Syracuse-based forum on drug policy reform, which is why he decided to stop here for a few days.

"They gave us our blueprint," said Wooldridge, who now lives in Texas. "You take your message right to the unconverted, right to groups like the Rotary or the Kiwanis."

His long ride is expected to climax next month, when he reaches Times Square in New York City. Wooldridge said his message is "about liberty, property rights and personal responsibility. You can't get any farther to the right than me on this one."

He laid out that reasoning Sunday when Joe DeGennaro, a guy in the crowd, looked at the slogan and asked the question:


Wooldridge responded that he began questioning American drug laws because most of his felony arrests, as a detective, involved narcotics. He said he either spent his time busting drug dealers or locking up crack cocaine addicts who were so desperate for money they committed burglaries.

It led him to what he maintains is a logical conclusion: There ought to be government-regulated clinics or stores that provide low-cost drugs to users, always combined with a powerful community emphasis on education, prevention and treatment.

"You sell this stuff from a state-regulated store, and it would be harder (for kids) to get than it is for them right now," said Wooldridge, who said it can be as easy for a teenager today to obtain marijuana as it is to get a beer.

"Once you start doing that, the people from (police agencies) can focus on child molesters and drunk drivers and people who are flying airplanes into buildings," Wooldridge said.

To Wooldridge, existing enforcement policies often don't make sense. If you want to really focus on the biggest danger to everyday, law-abiding Americans, he said, you wouldn't start with dealers of crack cocaine.

"The greatest threat to you, right now, is from a drunk driver running into you on your way home," he said. "The drunk driver will hurt someone like you long before a drug dealer will."

Yet you'll see far more television advertisements about the dangers of marijuana, Wooldridge said, than ads about the criminality of people who get loaded and drive. While he expressed admiration for the courage of many officers involved in the drug war, he said that courage could be used in better ways - a position he said many cops tell him they share.

Other officers are eager for debate, contending that legalization of marijuana or cocaine would quickly create a culture of addicts. Wooldridge responds by pointing to cigarettes, a legal yet lethally addictive product whose use declined because of strict controls and education.

Sunday, more people stopped to pay attention to Misty than to discuss drug policy with Misty's owner. But a quiet shift in attitudes was symbolized by visits from Howie Hawkins, a Green Party candidate for mayor, and Van Robinson, a member of the Syracuse Common Council.

Hawkins said drug law reform would profoundly diminish the level of violence in Syracuse and other cities. As for Robinson, he recalled his childhood in the Bronx. He hated drug dealers and "junkies," he said, blaming them for the disintegration of his neighborhood.

Over the years, Robinson said, he began to realize that tough enforcement didn't seem to make the streets any safer. Instead, he watched as hundreds of thousands of young men from the core of American cities ended up in prison for drug-related crimes.

"If you have children without adequate education or skills who are desperate on the corner, and a profit is there to be made by selling drugs, what are they going to do?" Robinson said. "The only way to solve the problem is to come up with new answers, to think outside the box."

Even on Westcott Street, Howard Wooldridge - a retired cop in spurs, standing with his one-eyed horse - was definitely not inside anyone's box.

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