If you really want to know about a war, ask the soldiers on the ground. In the case of the four-decades-old War on Drugs, those soldiers would be the police officers charged with busting dealers and users. And, though they may not represent a majority within their profession, some cops are beginning to break ranks, to publicly question the wisdom and effectiveness of drug prohibition.
Take David Bratzer, a Canadian police officer and a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition [LEAP], an international nonprofit organization made up of current and former law enforcement officials who support the legalization and regulation of marijuana and other drugs.
We asked Bratzer—who was recently on Maui—to talk about LEAP, legalization and what the drug war looks like from the trenches.
You’re a law enforcement officer advocating for the legalization of a substance that’s a Schedule One narcotic in the United States. Isn’t that a contradiction
Not at all. We need to consider what drug prohibition has done to the vital profession of law enforcement. It has divided police officers from the communities we serve, alienated us from young people, sent our call loads through the roof, placed huge financial strains on police budgets and, sometimes, my colleagues have been injured or murdered while enforcing these drug laws. Every police officer should question whether the War on Drugs is worth fighting, particularly when there are other policy options that would result in less crime, addiction, disease and death.
What was the turning point that led you to support legalization?
It was a gradual process. During the police academy my instructors didn’t focus on the issue and they certainly didn’t encourage recruits to think outside the box. One turning point was the recent gang war in Vancouver over control of the drug trade. That was eye opening. As I attended various patrol calls I began to ask myself: was this incident related to drug use or was it related to the prohibition of drugs? And usually it was the latter. I began to research drug policy on my own.
I was surprised to discover that even though I was a police officer, I didn’t know as much about drugs as I thought I did. I publicly joined Law Enforcement Against Prohibition in November 2008 after speaking with my police chief. It’s a fantastic organization and I have no regrets about joining.
Do you think the War on Drugs has been lost?
The War on Drugs is an unmitigated disaster. In the past four decades the United States has spent more than one trillion tax dollars on drug enforcement and made 39 million arrests for non-violent drug offences. And for what? Illegal drugs are now cheaper, stronger and more available than they were at the start of the drug war. Inner cities throughout the United States have been devastated by the War on Drugs. Mexico is in danger of becoming a failed state because of the drug cartel violence. Opium profits are funding the insurgency in Afghanistan. Would any rational person consider this a success?
What would a sensible marijuana policy look like?
LEAP doesn’t have an official position on how drugs should be regulated. We simply point out that drug prohibition does not work. That said, there are some organizations doing fantastic work in this area. In particular, the Transform Drug Policy Foundation just released a free online book titled After the War on Drugs: Blueprints for Regulation. It examines a wide range of drug policy options and I highly recommend it.
OK, let’s run through a few classic anti-legalization arguments. First, legalization will make it easier for kids and teens to get pot.
I disagree. Look at a place like the Netherlands. They have decriminalized marijuana, meaning that small quantities are legal for the end-user to purchase. Their population has a lifetime usage rate of marijuana that is half that of the United States. That is [based on] data from the World Mental Health Surveys, as compiled by the World Health Organization. So why is this? First, the Netherlands has managed to make drug use boring for young people. There is nothing rebellious about smoking a joint in Amsterdam. Second, the Netherlands uses regulatory measures to control the sale of marijuana to consumers. For example, the cannabis coffee shops have age minimums, alcohol is banned and advertising is prohibited. It’s not a perfect system but it’s far more effective than what we’re doing in the United States and Canada.
Second, marijuana use will erode the moral character of people and communities.
The moral position here would be a compassionate drug policy based on scientific evidence. Consider this: the United States has some of the harshest penalties in the world for drug offenders and yet its lifetime incidence of marijuana use is among the highest in the world. If that is an indicator of moral character then the United States is behind Nigeria, Lebanon, France, Germany, Mexico and Italy and many other nations. However, I don’t think that’s the case. I’ve traveled throughout the United States and I believe this is a great country with strong values. We need to move away from framing the debate around the morality of drug use. Drug use may be moral or immoral but that’s not an argument for criminalization. It would be like saying that cheating on your spouse should be an arrestable offence. We know that behavior is wrong but a police officer doesn’t throw someone in jail for it. Instead, we should be asking ourselves questions like these: what is an effective drug policy? What actually works? How do we minimize the potential harm from drug abuse?
Finally, and most famously, marijuana is a “gateway drug” that opens the door to other, harder drugs.
The gateway theory of drug use was discredited ages ago. I don’t even want to talk about it. However, the gateway theory of drug trafficking is very much alive. That is, teenagers begin selling marijuana in high school. It’s a lucrative job and it guarantees them money, friends and dating opportunities. As they get older they start trafficking more dangerous drugs and in larger quantities. They become entrenched in a criminal lifestyle as professional drug dealers. Eventually they wind up dead or in prison. But consider what would happen if all drugs were legal and regulated for adult use. One might still see the occasional adolescent marijuana dealer, but the career option of becoming a mid- or high-level criminal drug dealer simply wouldn’t exist. Being a teenage pot dealer would be a dead-end job rather than an entry point for gang membership and a life of organized crime.
So what is LEAP’s stance on harder drugs?
[LEAP] believes that all drugs should be legal and regulated. The argument in favor of regulating these drugs is not that they’re harmless, but rather that they’re so dangerous they should be controlled by the government. Remember that under prohibition the government has no control. It’s the violent drug dealer who decides the price, purity, cutting agents, advertising methods, business location and hours of operation. And these drug dealers certainly are not asking kids for ID, or encouraging their customers to seek addiction treatment. We need to move away from prohibition and begin considering models that give the government control over the market for these drugs.
How do other members of law enforcement react to you and your organization? Do you feel ostracized by more mainstream or hard-line
Most officers will admit that the War on Drugs has failed, although there is broad disagreement on how to solve the problem. Some cops believe that drug dealers should get the death penalty. But if you examine a regime like Iran, for example, that strategy has not worked. Tehran routinely executes drug traffickers and yet they have the highest opiate addiction rate in the world. I should emphasize that my volunteer work with [LEAP] is something I do while off-duty. My views don’t represent those of my police department. My colleagues are well aware of my views but I still have a good working relationship with them. When I’m on the job I still arrest people for drug possession and trafficking. I do the job that taxpayers pay me to do. My membership in LEAP is about changing laws that are ineffective and harmful, not picking and choosing which laws I want to enforce.
If you had to guess, how long will it be before marijuana is legal in the United States? Will it happen all at once or state by state, through efforts like the one in California? How about in your native Canada?
I think it will happen gradually in the U.S and Canada. Hopefully significant change will occur within my career as a police officer. I’m a big supporter of incremental reform and that reform should be based on scientific evidence and public consultation. Economic pain will probably drive a lot of these changes. The United States is spending roughly $69 billion a year on drug enforcement and my sense is that your country can no longer afford the policy of prohibition. That said, I’m not sure what the budget situation is like in Hawaii. Perhaps your state has a lot of extra cash lying around that it can use to prosecute non-violent marijuana offenders.
Nope. But speaking of Hawaii, our Governor, Linda Lingle, has spoken out against the state’s voter-approved medical marijuana law, citing federal prohibition. Do you think as long as federal prohibition is in place, it will undermine state and local efforts to legalize or decriminalize marijuana?
I’m not sure when she made those remarks. But the memo issued on October 19, 2009 by President Obama’s Deputy Attorney General was clear. It strongly discouraged federal prosecution of medical marijuana operations that were in compliance with state law. This was a green light from the administration for individual states to pass medical marijuana laws if they desired. It removed a lot of the uncertainty that existed before the memo. Full legalization of marijuana at the state level is a different story, and the first big test will be the California ballot initiative.
What’s the nature of your trip to Hawaii?
I came here to get married. Maui is a beautiful island, by the way, and I hope to come back here someday. I’m [also] traveling to Oahu and the Big Island discussing drug policy for LEAP.
Tell me more about LEAP.
LEAP is a non-political volunteer organization of current and former criminal justice professionals who seek to end the War on Drugs. Members of the LEAP Speakers Bureau are a credible group who serve on the front lines of the War on Drugs. We don’t support or encourage drug abuse, nor breaking the law. We volunteer our time by giving drug policy presentations to Rotary clubs, church groups, chambers of commerce and other civic-minded organizations. We try to speak with ordinary working folks who may not be aware of the unintended consequences of drug prohibition. We don’t have any members from Hawaii in our Speakers Bureau and so I’d like to encourage members of law enforcement to consider joining. Eligible professionals include current and former cops, judges, prosecutors as well as corrections and parole staff. Visit our Web site [ www.copssaylegalizedrugs.com ] or e-mail us [[email protected]]
– MauiTime, Jacob Shafer