For years, retired police officer Jack Cole arrested people for having marijuana, cocaine and heroin. Now he wants to make it legal to smoke, snort a line or shoot up, regardless of whether it's medically necessary.
Cole is among five police officers who three years ago started an organization aimed at legalizing all drugs. Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, one of several groups calling for drug policy changes in the U.S., says it has grown to include more than 1,700 people in 45 countries. About half of LEAP's members are current or former law enforcement agents.
"We were created to give voice to all members of law enforcement who believe the war on drugs is a dismal failure," Cole said.
The organization promotes regulation as a less harmful, more ethical and effective way to deal with drug use than keeping drugs illegal, a rare view in law enforcement circles. Its members believe the government's fight against drugs has failed to address crime problems, drug abuse, addiction and narcotics trafficking.
"Young people went to jail as a result of what I did out there. People that never committed another crime ended up with their lives ruined, and that bothers me," Cole said.
During his 14 years as an undercover narcotics officer in New Jersey, he collared more than 1,000 people on drug-related offenses. Now his mantra is: "You can get over an addiction. You will never get over a conviction."
And although most say legalization of all drugs is an unrealistic goal, Cole believes it could happen.
"It's the just and correct thing to do," he said. Others joining his crusade include a Huntsville prison warden, retired police chiefs and sitting U.S. district court judges.
"I've had an uneasy feeling about narcotics enforcement for years," said Robert Owens, a former police chief of Oxnard, Calif., who teaches criminal justice courses at the University of Texas at San Antonio. "When I became a police chief, I began to wonder, when is this war on drugs going to end? You can't get people to stop using.
"We're filling prisons with a significant population of nonviolent people," Owens said. "It's killing us."
In 2003, FBI statistics show, nearly 1.7 million people were arrested for drug abuse violations -- the leading cause of arrest in the U.S.
Although he doesn't condone the use of drugs, Richard Watkins, a senior prison warden at the state's Holliday Unit in Huntsville, believes legalizing them would reduce drug-related crimes.
"Alcohol prohibition didn't work, and this prohibition of drugs hasn't worked," he said, explaining that many of the burglaries, robberies, assaults and murders inmates serve time for are linked to drug activity.
Numbers from August 2003 show more than 25 percent of Texas inmates -- 33,203 people -- were serving time in correctional institutions for drug possession, manufacturing or trafficking, according to the state's criminal justice department.
Watkins believes the numbers are misleading because they don't account for related crimes such as those committed to get money for drugs.
But the Drug Enforcement Administration says, "Most drug crimes aren't committed by people trying to pay for drugs; they're committed by people on drugs."
About 19 percent of people in state prisons in 1997 said they committed the crimes they were being held for to get money for drugs, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug, according to the government's Office of National Drug Control Policy.
"If drugs were legal and available, an overwhelming majority might not use," said Will Brown, executive director of the San Antonio branch of the Palmer Drug Abuse Program, an outpatient rehabilitation center for teenagers. "But I just don't know that legalization is the right strategy."
According to the DEA, legalization would significantly increase not only drug use and addiction, but also associated social costs. The administration estimates drug abuse -- which it says drives some of the country's most expensive problems -- cost the U.S. about $160 billion in 2000.
Twelve states have reduced penalties for those caught with small amounts of the marijuana for personal use, and 12 have medical marijuana laws. Texas is not among those states, but lawmakers here have proposed legislation to reduce the penalties for possession of small amounts and to allow for medical marijuana.
Democratic Rep. Harold Dutton of Houston is lobbying for a bill that would knock possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana from a Class B misdemeanor, which can carry a jail sentence of up to 180 days and a $2,000 fine, to a Class C misdemeanor, which is punishable by a fine of up to $500.
"Two seeds shouldn't be punished the same as 2 ounces. I don't think that's fair," he said. "We're not fighting the war on drugs the way we should."
He believes law enforcement agencies should focus their efforts on fighting drug trafficking, not arresting recreational users. But he said legalizing all drugs -- or even just marijuana -- isn't a good idea.
"The social consequences of that are far too uncertain," he said.
And the group pushing for marijuana law reform in the U.S. won't align itself with organizations lobbying for legalization of all drugs.
"There is almost no public support for legalizing anything other than marijuana," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a group pushing to eliminate penalties imposed on responsible adult marijuana users. Marijuana is pharmacologically different and more culturally accepted than other drugs, St. Pierre said.
LEAP members, though, hold strong to their belief that legalizing all drugs can have positive benefits.
"We think drugs are bad too, but we can fight drugs without destroying generations of our young people," Cole said. "Legalization is the means to the end."
Keeping any one drug illegal, he said, automatically creates an underground market for it to be sold at artificially inflated prices in a multibillion-dollar trafficking industry filled with criminal activity.
"Right now, the drug lords, murderers and terrorists out there are the ones who regulate drugs in this country," he said. "Government regulation is the only way to go, and that will only occur with legalization."
The DEA calls the argument "appealing" and "simplistic." The strategy, it says, doesn't account for a black market that will exist for minors wanting to buy drugs, increased demand that may come with lower prices or the cost of government regulation.
One Bexar County sheriff's deputy who oversees a popular drug abuse awareness program agrees.
"Look at alcoholism. If we can't control legal alcohol, what makes us think we can control legal drugs?" asked George Little, the county's DARE program director. "I've seen families torn apart, lives ruined. Legalizing drugs -- give me a break -- that's a dumb idea."
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