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June 13, 2005 - San Antonio Express-News (TX)

OpEd: Regulation Of Illicit Drugs Gains Support

By Robert P. Owens, former Chief of Police (Special to the Express-News)

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

How would you go about getting four U.S. district court judges, a former governor, the mayor of a major city in Canada, a sheriff of a Colorado county, a former New York City police commissioner, a former attorney general of Columbia, S.C., and two former police chiefs in U.S. cities to agree on anything?

How about legalizing drugs and subjecting them to regulation, much as we do with alcoholic beverages?

All the officials mentioned above are members of the Board of Advisors of the international nonprofit educational organization known as Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, or LEAP.

This organization of more than 1,500 former "drug warriors" has members in six countries who speak from their unique law enforcement background about the futility of continuing the costly, corrupting and counterproductive "war" on drugs.

Let's look for a moment at another prohibition, one that promised a sober work force to fuel the powerful industrial engines that were to become the fulfillment of the American dream. Known as the Volstead Act for its congressional sponsor, it became the law that we now refer to as Prohibition.

With all its hoopla, the act fell well short of curing what many characterized as a national alcoholic binge. Law enforcement became a major target for corruption, and the tax burden increased, as did government spending. It led some drinkers to switch to opium, marijuana, cocaine and other substances. And, lest we forget, it created a generation of "bootleg" millionaires.

Today it is common to hear, from all sides, that it is easier for high school youths to buy a baggie of marijuana than a six-pack of beer.

One question seldom heard from modern-day Prohibitionists is why, after more than a half-century of fighting the "drug war" at a cost in the billions of dollars, are we still searching for solutions?

We know with a fair degree of accuracy where the drug crops are grown, where they are processed and how they arrive on our streets. More than 100 metric tons of cocaine was intercepted in 2003 to our borders. Yet according to a U.S. government report, more than 250 metric tons reached users here.

When we look at what is being done about this social disaster, we learn from the FBI Uniform Crime Reports of 2003 that drug arrests lead the top seven categories of arrests in this country.

As many of my former "drug warrior" colleagues can attest, we made our contributions to the prison system by locking up drug offenders of all types, including other law enforcement officers.

Just as the Prohibition era of 1920 to 1933 corrupted local officials and law enforcement officers, so too does the current prohibition.

Add to this the enormous profits going into the coffers of the ruthless narcotic traffickers beyond our borders, and we have a nation seemingly giving aid to the enemy while clogging prisons with its own countrymen and women.

Then we have the international cartels, gangs, paramilitary groups and, lately, the communist guerrilla forces in South and Central America that are taking advantage of the huge profits in the drug trade. It seems even the ideology that unites "workers of the world" can spare the time to enjoy the profits of the drug trade.

In the course of discussing legalizing narcotics, the perfectly reasonable question arises: If drugs are legalized, how can we keep them out of the hands of children?

The answer can only be: just as we do now in keeping them from Oxycontin, morphine and other drugs that have legitimate uses.

And, yes, it is an imperfect system that is often abused. But at least it is a mechanism that can be tuned and changed in the face of abuse.

It beats by a country mile the narrow controls on cocaine, marijuana, heroin and illicit drugs we have today.

These controls are almost entirely a response by the legal system, which has as its major tool the ability to punish.

The parallel with the story of the man with only a hammer as a tool, who sees everything as a nail, is hard to avoid.

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