February 6, 2004 - The Record (NJ)

Radical Drug Message Is Leap Of Faith

By Raghuram Vadarevu, Staff Writer

In another time and place, Jack Cole infiltrated drug cartels and tossed countless traffickers into jail. He so excelled at his work - notching hundreds of arrests and garnering better assignments - that a former New Jersey State Police colleague called him "probably the best undercover agent" he ever worked with. But Cole's faith began to waver during his 26 years on the job, and the onetime Wyckoff resident eventually came to a realization.

"The 'War on Drugs' is a total failure. There's no way we can fix it," he says now. "This isn't a war on drugs - it's a war on people. Their lives are being destroyed.

"You can get over a drug addiction, but you can't get over a drug conviction," Cole adds. "It tracks you for the rest of your life."

Cole has a solution that might strike some as outrageous: Legalize all drugs. "We want it all legalized so that it can be controlled," he says. He's taken that message on the road, traveling the country as executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group he formed in 2002 with a retired upstate New York police captain.

The message is striking a chord within law enforcement: Hundreds of police officers, lawyers, and judges from five countries have joined the group. Cole estimates 50 members in New Jersey alone.

"Not everyone who has done drugs or does drugs are criminals," says Kevin Long, a former Air Force Reserve police officer from New Brunswick who recently joined LEAP's speakers' bureau. "Some of them need help."

Cole's message also has its detractors - including his former employer. "He's a private citizen and he's entitled to his position," says state police Sgt. Kevin Rehmann. However, Rehmann says the state police "doesn't think it's a good idea." Legalization would destroy more lives by unnecessarily increasing the likelihood of drug addiction, adds Passaic County Sheriff Jerry Speziale, a former narcotics agent who worked "deep cover" in the South American drug cartels.

He says it would also send the wrong message to children that drug use is acceptable - never mind the mental and physical harm it can cause. "Maybe its well-intended, but it's certainly not well-thought-out," Speziale says.

Cole, who now lives in Massachusetts, says he understands the opposition from his law enforcement brethren. All he wants is a chance to make his case. He's about to get that opportunity.

So far, LEAP has targeted mostly mainstream groups, including Rotaries and chambers of commerce. But having recently received a $20,000 grant from the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, the group is deploying some of its more than 30 speakers to national police conferences.

Cole's role as a drug policy reformer may seem an unlikely destination for a soft-spoken Midwesterner. Born in Iowa in 1938 to an ironworker father and a factory worker mother, Jack Arlen Cole grew up in Wichita, Kan., where he says kids fought boredom with alcohol - and then became addicted to it.

Cole dropped out of high school in his senior year to join the Marines. He left the service in 1960 and moved to New Jersey, where he took a job as an ironworker.

One night, while watching the television news in his Wyckoff home, Cole grew frustrated. "I could no longer look at the newscast and watch the police beating men and women who only wanted their rights," he recalls.

Believing he could change things from the inside, Cole joined the state police in 1965. Seven years later, he joined the narcotics bureau and became a warrior in President Richard M. Nixon's war on drugs.

Cole set out to "rid society of the evils of drugs," says a former colleague, retired state police Lt. Fred Martens. He worked constantly, even when he was supposed to be off. "He passionately believed it," Martens says. "He's probably the best undercover agent I ever worked with."

Cole's work habits showed when Martens, Cole, and their wives went to dinner at the Playboy Club hotel in Sussex County, where the troopers heard rumors of drug activity.

"Jack couldn't enjoy dinner," Martens recalls. "He had to try to buy drugs from the waiter. I said, 'Jack, come on. Let's enjoy ourselves.' We were there to eat."

Even as he excelled, Cole says, he began to question his mission. It all came into dramatic focus one night in Paterson in the 1970s when a drug dealer and an accomplice tried to rob Cole and an informant at gunpoint.

Cole drew his weapon, and the two men fled. A good Samaritan came along and tried to help. Cole, still acting as if he desperately needed a hit, asked the man if he knew where he could buy drugs. The man told Cole he didn't take drugs but that he knew of someone who could provide them.

Later that night, both the dealer and the good Samaritan were in custody. "Man, I was just trying to be your friend," the man told Cole at the jailhouse. It was a profound experience.

"I think he started seeing the people he was arresting as human beings," says retired Capt. Peter Christ, LEAP's co-founder. "I think the light went on inside him."

Cole kept quiet at first. He continued in his job, believing that speaking out would jeopardize his chances for promotions. Working on large-scale drug distribution rings, he told himself, was morally better than locking up small-timers.

"It was intoxicating. It was an exciting thing to do," he says now. "We were considered heroes by our peers and the public. It was a hard thing to give up." Eventually, though, "it came to the point where I couldn't stand it anymore."

After retiring in 1991 with the rank of lieutenant, Cole began studying the drug war. "Jack personally suffered from what he believed was a misguided policy," Martens says. "And I think his personal integrity demands that he try to at the very least make amends."

Cole and his LEAP colleagues believe their views will be received more credibly because of their drug-fighting history, in much the same way that anti-war Vietnam veterans were considered.

"It inoculates you from the charge that you're soft on crime, that you're soft on drugs, and that you don't know what you're talking about," Martens says. LEAP members agree that drugs are a scourge and that laws emphasizing harsh prison sentences over rehabilitation are costly and ineffective.

Members differ, however, in how to attack the problem. Cole, who's working on a public policy doctorate at the University of Massachusetts, offers his own solution. First and foremost, he says, the drug war must end. Congress should legalize all drugs - everything from heroin to marijuana - and install a government-operated system to distribute free and pure narcotics. The profit motive that draws criminals to the lucrative drug trade would vanish, Cole says.

Addiction would plummet because addicts could be given daily "maintenance doses" while social workers help them get their lives together, he adds. Since the drugs would be readily and freely available, Cole says, addicts would no longer have to steal, rob, or prostitute themselves to get drug money. Police then could concentrate on more serious crimes.

Cole knows it's outlandish. What he doesn't get is why more people aren't trying to come up with new and different ideas to deal with America's drug problem.

"It's like what Albert Einstein said," Cole says. "The definition of insanity is repeating the same task over and over and expecting a different outcome."

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