L.E.A.P. Speaks Out Against Drug War
It’s happened again.
On Sunday, March 13, 2016, a shooter opened fire outside a police station in a Washington, D.C. suburb. The ensuing gun fight took the life of Officer Jacai Colson, 28. There is no indication that the apparently unprovoked attack had anything to do with Colson’s work as an undercover narcotics officer.
It says something about anger towards cops, though.
Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, or L.E.A.P., speaks out against the drug war from the unexpected viewpoint of criminal justice professionals. More than many, they have seen prohibition:
- undermine public safety,
- poison the relationship between police and the communities they serve, and
- ruin young lives – both fresh-faced kids and the men and women tasked with enforcing a failed policy.
There was a time when people didn’t shoot at police stations and kids might run toward a police car for help. L.E.A.P. speaks painful, battleground truth about losses on both sides of a bad war and looks for a better future.
Major Neill Franklin (Ret), a 34-year law enforcement veteran of the Maryland State Police and Baltimore Police Department, recently sat down with TTT to talk about his evolution from proud narc to Executive Director, L.E.A.P., and about a new direction for drug policy.
Why do you believe that laws that prohibit the use of drugs are harmful?
What would happen if you removed the war on drugs from our communities, what would the police be doing? They would be investigating murders. They would be investigating rapes. They would be going after people committing burglaries, robberies and crimes against our children. Who would be mad at that? No one. Then the police would truly become guardians of the community, protecting people from predators.
But since we’re enforcing these drug laws, the average cop responds to pressure from the higher-ups and goes to find drugs and works to rid the community of them. Before you know it, everyone looks like a potential drug dealer or drug user. You treat everyone the same. You search everyone. You disrespect everyone. From all of this interaction, you have bad shootings, police brutality, and all these other things that make the police an occupying force within the community. They become the enemy, and the neighborhood becomes theirs; it turns into an us-versus-them situation.
What about other problems like opioid abuse?
Our position goes out to other drugs as well. We don’t look at the substance. We look at the policy for managing the substance. First of all, if you think that a drug is problematic, wouldn’t it make more sense to regulate and control it?
The policy of prohibition has just made things worse. Addiction rates and overdose deaths are on the rise. There are more drugs, they’re more potent and the violence associated with selling them has increased. We just push it around the country from one place to another. Our kids are consistently being recruited by these gangs and crews to sell drugs on our street corners and to carry and use guns. It hasn’t done anything about the health problem.
If we put more emphasis on health, rather than criminal justice, as Portugal, Switzerland, Canada and Germany have, it’s possible to reduce overdoses, crime and the violence surrounding the use of drugs.
What’s the reaction of other law enforcement?
The men and women in uniform who are on the street, doing the work, get it. Most of the resistance comes from two groups: the first is the higher-ups, like police chiefs, who will do whatever the elected officials who hire them want. The other group is the police officers working the task forces. Many actually believe that they’re doing good work. I used to be there. If you’ve been doing this for decades, you don’t want to hear that your work doesn’t mean jack and that you’ve actually been harming your community, putting people in prison, destroying families. That’s a hard pill to swallow.
In addition, most of the money for the task forces comes from civil forfeiture, so if they continue to take money and property from people, that’s what keeps them operating. Federal money also comes from Byrne grants. That money comes because you’re making a large number of drug arrests.
What happened to change your mind about the drug wars?
There were a couple of critical moments.
When I was a lieutenant with the Maryland State Police, I was assigned to Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke’s needle exchange board as a uniformed police officer. Until then I had been working undercover, and it was the first time that I had the chance to see things from a health perspective, not just a criminal justice approach. I realized that the war on drugs led to the spread of HIV in cities like Baltimore because of the sharing of needles. I kept it in the back of my mind when I went back to commanding drug task forces.
When I retired and started working for the Baltimore Police Department, a friend of mine, Corporal Ed Toatley, was killed while making a drug buy as an undercover agent. When Ed was assassinated in October 2000, it made me pay attention to the violence that surrounded this whole illicit drug market.
Two years after Ed was killed, the Dawson family was killed in Baltimore, in apparent retaliation for complaints to police about illegal drug activity. That’s when I started speaking out on failed policies first on my own and then officially for L.E.A.P.
Where is L.E.A.P. active, and what does it do?
L.E.A.P. tries to educate policy makers on the local and state levels, on Capitol Hill and at the UN. We are an accredited NGO for the United Nations. This is a global issue, so we have branches in Canada, Costa Rica. Brazil, Germany, the United Kingdom, and we’re trying to finalize things in Australia.
We have been extremely active in every state that has legalized marijuana so far. When the polling was done afterwards, law enforcement was the most effective group in swaying voters in Washington State and the second most effective group in Colorado, second only to Students for Sensible Drug Policy.
We recently had a big win in Maryland. Working with State Delegate Dan Morhaim, we had four pieces of legislation introduced to address the problem of heroin abuse. These would:
- decriminalize all drugs,
- provide supervised injection facilities,
- provide emergency room treatment on demand, and
- support polymorphone-assisted treatment.
This has been a huge step in starting the conversation, even if all of the measures do not pass.
If a civilian wants to join L.E.A.P. or a group wants to invite a speaker, what should they do?
We have an active speaker’s bureau and always welcome new members to support our work. More detailed information is available via the L.E.A.P. website.