Legalization and the War on Drugs:
How 2009 Became the Year That Got Everyone Talking
Founded in 2002 by five cops, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) is run and represented solely by those who fought on the front lines of the “war on drugs” and who know firsthand that prohibition only worsens drug addiction and street violence.
Today, LEAP has more than 30,000 supporters including police, prosecutors, judges, FBI/DEA agents, corrections officials, military personnel and civilians.
LEAP has members in 76 countries and its 100 speakers have helped to put a credible face on the modern anti-prohibition movement by giving more than 5,500 presentations to civic groups, public officials, members of the media and others. More information about LEAP is online at:
Report coordinator: Kristin Daley
Many thanks are due to the following individuals who provided invaluable assistance in the creation of this report: Tom Angell, Jack Cole, Peter Donna, Roger Falcón, Bill Fried, Michael Genovese, Antoinette Hartung and Shaleen Title
At the end of 2008, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition released a report underscoring the feasibility of ending drug prohibition by pointing to a time 75 years earlier when our grandparents had the wisdom to legalize alcohol in order to stop violence and corruption, improve the economy and bolster public health. LEAP’s Repeat Repeal report examined the parallels between alcohol prohibition and today’s drug prohibition, calling on policymakers to consider drug legalization and regulation. As we look back on 2009 and the first months of 2010, it is clear that our message is really beginning to stick.
In 2009 it seemed that almost everyone was talking about legalizing drugs as a possible solution to the abysmal failure of the “war on drugs.” Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Senator Jim Webb, former Mexican president Vicente Fox, Mexico’s current ambassador to the United States, Representative Charlie Rangel, Representative Barney Frank and political commentators Glenn Beck and Patrick Buchanan, among many others, said last year that legalization must be put on the table for discussion.
Yet we’ve seen much resistance from the White House, with Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske first claiming, in response to questioning by LEAP, that legalization wasn’t even in his vocabulary and then, only months later, attempting to undermine legalization arguments via reference to a LEAP Washington Post op-ed during his remarks to the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
There has been a palpable shift away from the attitude that legalization won’t or can’t happen because it is somehow politically dangerous to acknowledge that the obvious solution to the “war on drugs” is to stop waging it, and we know – as many polls now bear out – that legalization can happen and that voters are much more ready for reform than even the most supportive politicians are prepared to understand. As we show below, there is substantial evidence that the old “drug war politics” are beginning to crumble. But if we are to clear the hurdles that stand between us and the end of prohibition, including important pending reforms, we will have to convince even more opinion leaders to reject the conventional wisdom about the perceived political danger associated with drug policy reform.
In fact, more and more people have begun talking about drug legalization, numerous incremental reforms are moving forward on the state and federal levels and we are beginning to see real models of effective regulation of marijuana distribution in California through the medical cannabis model, with the Obama administration voicing opposition to federal raids on medical marijuana distributors. Several countries around the world have decriminalized drug possession altogether. And yet the sky has not fallen; no politicians have been voted out of office because of their drug policy votes; in fact, drug abuse and problems tend to fall with the removal of punitive policies. It is increasingly clear that the debate on legalization has undergone a seismic shift and is moving forward.
LEAP has played a pivotal role in that shift.
HOW THE CONVERSATION EVOLVED
2009 was a historic year for drug policy reform. Whether spurred by the economic crisis or personal leanings, many prominent individuals from across the political spectrum came out in support of reforming drug laws. Drug legalization emerged as a prominent issue early in the year, as the El Paso, Texas City Council voted unanimously in favor of a resolution asking the federal government to begin an “open, honest national dialogue on ending the prohibition of narcotics” as a solution to the problem of cartel violence plaguing El Paso’s sister city of Juarez, Mexico, just across the border.
El Paso Mayor John Cook vetoed the resolution, the city council called for an override of the veto, and a debate about the issue ensued. Unfortunately, the override vote culminated in a tie and the mayor’s veto was upheld, not because members of the city council had changed their minds on the importance of an open dialogue on legalization, but due to significant federal pressure threatening El Paso with the loss of state and federal funding if the city council voted to override the veto.
Law Enforcement Against Prohibition Board member and federal border security expert, Terry Nelson, testified before the council:
“This level of intervention in quashing a spirited debate about a serious policy conundrum is chilling. With so many killings and kidnappings by the illegal drug cartels, we just can’t afford to keep avoiding an important discussion about the failures of our decades-long ‘war on drugs.’ We’re looking forward to seeing U.S. Senator Jim Webb’s recently announced blue ribbon commission on high incarceration rates taking a good, hard look at why so many nonviolent drug offenders fill our prisons.”
Senator Jim Webb, a Democrat from Virginia, has used his platform to call attention to our nation’s failed drug policies, stating,
“We have 5% of the world’s population;
we have 25% of the world’s known prison population. We have an incarceration rate in the United States, the world’s greatest democracy, that is five times as high as the average incarceration rate of the rest of the world. There are only two possibilities here: either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States; or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice…”¹
Since then, Webb has found support both within his party and from prominent Republicans such as Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina in proposing a bill which would form a blue ribbon commission to investigate the problem of overcrowding in the United States prison system, as well as a study of the criminal justice system as a whole. When asked if the commission should consider legalization as a solution to our criminal justice problems, Senator Webb replied, “I think everything should be on the table, and we specifically say that we want recommendations on how to deal with drug policy in our country.”² LEAP sent an action alert asking concerned citizens to urge their senators to support the commission that would review the efficacy of our current drug policy, resulting in approximately 3500 e-mails voicing support for the Webb commission.
Webb was joined in his criticism of our nation’s drug policies by another prominent Democrat when, in April, New York Congressman Charlie Rangel spoke out against drug laws which disproportionately imprison African-American and Hispanic men. Representative Rangel introduced the Crack-Cocaine Equitable Sentencing Act of 2009, which seeks to end the harsher sentences handed down for crack-cocaine versus powder cocaine. The Act was referred to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security in June. In July, Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank unveiled a bill to remove federal criminal penalties for possession of marijuana. In October, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois introduced the Fair Sentencing Act, aimed at curtailing the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. The senate unanimously approved the Fair Sentencing Act in March of 2010, which will reduce the current 100:1 sentencing disparity to roughly 20:1.
The questioning of current policy is not limited to congressmen, senators and pundits. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger publicly questioned the nation’s marijuana policies this past May. Governor Schwarzenegger responded positively to a reporter’s question about a recent field poll which suggested that 56% of California voters support taxing the sale of marijuana for adults. According to Schwarzenegger,
“It’s time for a debate. . . I think all of those ideas of creating extra revenues. . . I’m always for an open debate on it. And I think we ought to study very carefully what other countries are doing that have legalized marijuana and other drugs.”³
The best-known Republicans to have opposed the war on drugs, Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley have passed on, but Republicans and conservative pundits are continuing their opposition to the war on drugs. Glenn Beck came out in support of marijuana legalization on the air one week after he interviewed the Marijuana Policy Project’s Rob Kampia on Fox News in February, saying, “I thought this morning, I sat in my office, and I thought you know what? I think it’s about time we legalized marijuana. . . This little game we’re playing in the middle is not helping us, it is not helping Mexico and it is causing massive violence along our southern border.”
Even Pat Buchanan, former advisor to President Richard Nixon, who coined the term “war on drugs,” wrote a syndicated column in which he drew parallels between the war on drugs and other failed attempts at legislating morality. “How does one win a drug war when millions of Americans who use recreational drugs are financing the cartels bribing, murdering and beheading to win the war and keep self-indulgent Americans supplied with drugs? There are two sure ways to end this war swiftly: Milton’s way and Mao’s way. Mao Zedong’s communists killed users and suppliers alike, as social parasites. Milton Friedman’s way is to decriminalize drugs and call off the war. Americans are never going to adopt the Maoist solution. For the users of drugs are all too often classmates, colleagues, friends, even family. Indeed our last three presidents did not deny using drugs.”4
With such a critical spotlight on drug policy, LEAP’s speakers were in high demand, and LEAP had a substantial presence in the media in 2009. Our speakers made 1,056 presentations last year, of which 352 were television or radio appearances, including CNN, Al Jazeera, MSNBC, Fox News Channel and National Public Radio. LEAP was also prominently featured in publications including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Miami Herald, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Guardian, the Economist, the Chicago Tribune and Rolling Stone Magazine. LEAP speakers have made more than 5,500 presentations since 2002, and our exposure has had a profound impact on creating a climate in which the debate on drug legalization is increasingly viewed as necessary.
LEAP also made a significant impact on the federal government. In November, the Drug Enforcement Administration failed to update their website to reflect the American Medical Association’s latest position on medical marijuana, which called for “marijuana’s status as a Schedule I controlled substance to be reviewed with the goal of facilitating the conduct of clinical research and development of any cannabinoid-based medicines.”5 A week after that statement, the DEA’s website still featured the AMA’s outdated anti-medical marijuana position, prompting LEAP to put out an action alert asking concerned citizens to send e-mail messages to the Department of Justice calling for Attorney General Eric Holder to order the DEA’s prompt correction of the inaccurate statements. More than 1,200 e-mails were sent and one day later, the DEA’s website was updated.
LEAP called on our supporters to take action again early in November when Iowa Senator Charles Grassley proposed an amendment which would ban Senator Webb’s blue ribbon commission from even discussing legalization or decriminalization as part of its policy evaluation. LEAP launched another action alert campaign, urging concerned citizens to e-mail their senators and oppose the amendment; 6,957 letters were sent. In the wake of LEAP’s action alert and an op-ed in the Des Moines Register from the University of Iowa chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Senator Grassley withdrew the amendment.
ACROSS THE GLOBE
The breakdown of prohibition is proceeding even faster abroad, as other countries are choosing constructive alternatives to the criminalization approach. The Czech Republic recently decriminalized marijuana cultivation and set personal use quantity limits for all drugs under a penal code that decriminalized drug possession beginning on January 1, 2010. The Argentine Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to arrest a person for drug use or personal possession, and Colombia’s Supreme Court quickly followed suit with a similar ruling. In response to out of control heroin abuse, street crime and blood-borne disease, Switzerland began treating heroin users by distributing the drug at clinics fifteen years ago and has since seen no overdose deaths at those clinics, a significant drop in AIDS and hepatitis infections, and a 60% decrease in crime, giving Switzerland the lowest crime rate of all European countries.6 A ten-year study published in the British Medical Journal Lancet showed the program resulted in an 82 percent decline in new heroin users in Zurich.7 This experiment in treating heroin addiction as a health rather than legal issue was so successful it was overwhelmingly voted as permanent national public policy and has been copied by three other countries.
Portugal quietly decriminalized the possession of drugs in 2001. In April of 2009, the Cato Institute published a report attesting to the positive results Portugal has seen since implementing a policy of drug decriminalization: a 25% decline in drug use among 13 to 15 year olds, a 22% decline in drug use among 16 to 18 year olds, a 52% decline in heroin overdose deaths, a 71% decline in HIV infections reported by drug users and an overall decline in the use of every drug with the exception of marijuana (which increased at significantly lower rates than in European countries which had not decriminalized).
Using Switzerland and Portugal as examples of successful regulation, LEAP’s international presence has built tremendous momentum for change. In 2009, Executive Director Jack Cole made a presentation to the Brazilian Commission on Drugs and Democracy, addressing the topic “How to Reduce Violence Associated with Drug Sales and Policy.” His assertion that the legalized
regulation of all drugs would end drug-war related violence, prevent overdose deaths, end the majority of criminal activities and greatly reduce disease and addiction was so well-received that 13 of the 18 commissioners stated that legalized regulation was the best solution. However, they also asserted it was not politically feasible for Brazil unless the United States chose to implement such a policy. LEAP now has a Brazilian chapter with nine speakers, including board member Judge Maria Lúcia Karam.
In August of 2009 Mexico surged ahead of the United States in drug policy reform, decriminalizing use and personal possession of all drugs. Violence along the border of the United States and Mexico has been a driving force in the call for a debate about our current drug policies. Several months prior to Mexico’s decriminalization, in May, former President Vincente Fox had called for the United States to do its part in reducing the violence ravaging the borderlands, saying: “I would like to see some steps taken here in the United States. We see the drugs are coming across the border and are distributed in Atlanta and Washington and Chicago and all parts of the country.”8 Fox made a direct comparison to the American prohibition of alcohol in the 1920′s by calling the problem in Mexico “even worse than Chicago during the Prohibition era.”9
IN THE UNITED STATES
Sadly, that visionary approach and insight has not yet fully permeated American leadership in the White House. Although he once described the war on drugs as an “utter failure”10 and advocated a public health approach to drug control, since taking office President Barack Obama has stopped short of engaging in a discussion about legalizing and regulating drugs and has backed away from his previous support for marijuana decriminalization. In fact, the Obama drug war budget is basically the same as the Bush administration’s, with roughly twice the amount of funding dedicated to law enforcement as is dedicated to treatment programs. Further, the Obama administration’s Drug Czar, Gil Kerlikowske, claimed there is no scientific consensus supporting medical marijuana, and supports the classification of marijuana as a “Schedule I” drug, meaning it is highly addictive and of no medical value.
At a press conference in Washington, DC in June Law Enforcement Against Prohibition’s media director, Tom Angell, had the opportunity to ask Kerlikowske whether, “…under the Obama administration all options should be on the table for considering before we decide on a new way to move forward?”
Kerlikowske responded with a dismissive, “Legalization is not in the President’s vocabulary and it is not in mine.” And yet LEAP has certainly gained Kerlikowske’s attention. Just a few months later, in October, during his remarks at the 2009 International Association of Chiefs of Police Annual Conference he made specific, defensive reference to an op-ed in the Washington Post by two LEAP speakers, Peter Moskos and Neill Franklin, calling for the legalized regulation of all drugs. Both authors are former Baltimore City Police officers, Moskos now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author of the book Cop in the Hood, and Franklin a 32-year law enforcement veteran of the Maryland State Police and Baltimore Police Departments.. He is LEAP’s incoming executive director effective July 1, 2010.
In that op-ed, “Time to Legalize Drugs,” Moskos and Franklin articulate the frustration of law enforcement professionals charged with executing a harmful, ineffective policy:
“Legalization would not create a drug free-for-all. In fact, regulation reins in the mess we already have. If prohibition decreased drug use and drug arrests acted as a deterrent, America would not lead the world in illegal drug use and incarceration for drug crimes. Drug manufacturing and distribution is too dangerous to remain in the hands of unregulated criminals. Drug distribution needs to be the combined responsibility of doctors, the government, and a legal and regulated free market.. This simple step would quickly eliminate the greatest threat of violence: street-corner drug dealing.”11
Having witnessed the tragedy of the war on drugs first-hand, Moskos and Franklin are more qualified than most to express the need for legalization and regulation, and the fact that Kerlikowske felt compelled to criticize them in such a high profile way speaks to LEAP’s tangible and growing influence in the drug policy reform movement. LEAP was also invited to participate in a phone conference with Kerlikowske, allowing us to directly address the drug czar and voice our concerns about the war on drugs from a law enforcement perspective. We are on their radar, and, soon enough, legalization will be in their vocabulary!
Another law enforcement official whose experience led him to the conclusion that the war on drugs is a failure, Sergeant Jonathan Wender of the Mountlake Terrance Police in Washington State, made headlines in January 2009 when he reached an $812,500 settlement with the city and Snohomish County after being fired in 2005 for speaking out against the war on drugs. Sergeant Wender, a LEAP speaker, was reinstated on the force and made eligible to receive back pay and full retirement benefits.12 Fellow Washingtonian, former Seattle Chief of Police and LEAP Advisory Board member Norm Stamper voiced his support of Wender, saying:
“Jonathan Wender’s victory is ours, as well.. As was his fight. Because of this fine man’s courage and perseverance, and his willingness to tell the truth about the ‘drug war,’ we’ve all moved closer to putting an end to that war. I believe police officers across the country will be moved by Jonathan’s example and will raise their voices in support of LEAP’s goal of ending drug prohibition.”
Early in 2010, LEAP Board Member and active duty Canadian police officer David
Bratzer was invited to speak on a panel at a City of Victoria harm reduction forum. Victoria Police Department intervened, ordering Bratzer not to speak at the forum. LEAP sent out an action alert encouraging our supporters to sign a petition supporting law enforcement professionals like David Bratzer, who speak out against unjust drug policies even while risking their lives enforcing them. To date, 1,995 people have signed the petition, voicing their support for protecting the crucial right of law enforcers to publicly express their personal views on drug prohibition.
The climate is changing, and fast. A Zogby poll in late 2008 showed that 76% of the public in the United States agrees that our current drug policy is a failure,13 and a May, 2009 Zogby poll showed that 52% of American voters are in favor of legalizing marijuana.14 On average, at least 80% of the people LEAP informally polls at conferences agree with LEAP’s position that we must end prohibition of all drugs, 14% are undecided and only 6% believe we should continue the war on drugs. This extends to policymakers as well: LEAP has staffed exhibition booths at the past five National Conferences of State Legislatures and spoken to 2,273 attendees, of whom 81% agreed that we should legalize drugs, 13% were undecided and 6% wanted to continue our current policy.
Indeed, reflecting this rapidly changing landscape, even Drug Czar Kerlikowske has admitted that needle exchange programs do not cause significant public safety problems and are a harm reduction measure, that the disparity in sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine versus powder cocaine “are wrong and should be eliminated,” and that he disagrees with mandatory minimum sentences.15
The seemingly impenetrable monolith of prohibition is cracking. The political consensus that propped it up is broken and can never be fixed.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Drug prohibition is the mainstay of the prison industrial complex, a system that uses taxpayer-supported incarceration as the “solution” to social, political and economic problems. Each year, millions are incarcerated in the United States, but illicit drugs are cheaper and more widely available than ever. Despite the undeniable fact that drug prohibition is a manifest failure and has only compounded the societal problems associated with drugs, this destructive policy has continued. But, at long last, the call for change is being heard, and momentum is building. Voters are ready for drug policy reform, and lawmakers are beginning to respond.
Law Enforcement Against Prohibition’s unique ability to speak out against the war on drugs from the front lines has validated the argument for ending drug prohibition. Our speakers continue to impart their
message of reform around the world and across the political spectrum. In 2009, that included presentations to the Brazilian Commission on Drugs and Democracy by Jack Cole, Australian Members of Parliament by Norm Stamper,
the European Parliament in Brussels and the United Nations General Assembly on HIV by Terry Nelson, and the 2009 National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) by Jack Cole. Former Republican Governor of New Mexico and LEAP Advisory Board member Gary Johnson was the keynote speaker at the Albuquerque International Drug Policy Conference in November, 2009. Captain Peter Christ spoke to the New York Libertarian Party, while Cheshire County, New Hampshire Corrections Superintendent Richard Van Wickler made a presentation to conference attendees at DemocracyFest 2009 in July. David Bratzertestified before the Canadian Senate to oppose C-15, a bill which sought to create harsh mandatory minimum drug sentencing.
Norm Stamper testified before the Minnesota State Public Safety Policy and Oversight Committee, while Judge James Gray gave testimony to the California Assembly on a marijuana legalization bill and Jack Cole testified before the Health and Human Services Committee of the New Hampshire Senate for a bill allowing medical marijuana for chronically or terminally ill patients and the Rhode Island Senate Commission studying the prohibition of marijuana. He also spoke at a press conference on protecting voter-enacted marijuana decriminalization in Massachusetts, a 2008 initiative for which LEAP blunted the arguments of opposing law enforcers, and testified before a committee of the Massachusetts state legislature in favor of a bill to legalize and regulate marijuana. At the 2009 NCSL conference in Philadelphia, LEAP was invited to participate in a panel discussion titled “Drug Demand and Diversion” by the NCSL Law and Criminal Justice Committee.
Early in 2010, LEAP launched our and “Cops and Clergy” initiative, which features an unstoppable alliance of representatives of the faith and law enforcement communities speaking at places of worship and making media appearances throughout the country. Combining the experience, expertise and credibility of these two professions, our cops and clergy speakers will help counter the prohibitionists’ standard use of those communities to thwart drug policy reform..
Jack Cole presented at the Danish Parliament January 7, 2010 to more than 125 attendees, none of whom took exception to LEAP’s goal of legalized regulation of all drugs. On March 26, he capped the International Gang Summit Conference in Toronto, Canada with a presentation about ending gang violence and received a rousing ovation. Jack will return to Europe in May presenting in Oslo, Norway and later in Cambridge, England at the International Symposium on Economic Crime.
LEAP’s primary goal of educating the public, the media and policymakers on the failure of prohibition has had a profound effect on the drug legalization debate, but our work is far from over – this pivotal issue is still met with resistance by those who view it as a “dangerous” topic politically. To that end, LEAP is laying the groundwork for vigorous reform efforts in 2010 and beyond. As acclaimed author Misha Glenny wrote in his 2009 “Ending the War on Drugs” International Herald Tribune op-ed, “In the United States, the most effective group demanding change is Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.”16
We are only as strong as our supporters,
and, thanks to you, we are stronger than ever.
1. Source: http://www.scribd.com/doc/24195005/Senator-Jim-Webb%E2%80%99s-Floor-Speech-to-Introduce-%E2%80%9CThe-National-Criminal-Justice-Commission-Act-of-2009%E2%80%9D-March-26-2009
2. Source: Austin Chronicle http://www.austinchronicle.com/gyrobase/News/Blogs/index.html/objID923785/blogID/
3. Source: http://www.drugpolicy.org/news/pressroom/pressrelease/pr050609.cfm
4. Source: http://www.humanevents.com/article.php?id=30966
5. Source: http://www.ama-assn.org/assets/meeting/mm/i-09-statements-recommendations.pdf
6. Source: The Lancet, Volume 367, Issue 9525, pages 1830- 1834, June 3, 2006
7. “The liberalisation of drug laws in Zurich has led to a massive fall in the number of new heroin users, according to a study published yesterday. Now Britain, which has the highest number of drug deaths in Europe, is being urged to follow suit.” Source: Jeremy Laurance, “Heroin: The solution?” Health Editor, The Independent (UK), 02 June 2006; “The incidence of regular heroin use in the canton of Zurich started with about 80 new users in 1975, increased to 850 in 1990, and declined to 150 in 2002, and was thus reduced by 82%.” Source: Carlos Nordt, Rudolf Stohler, “Incidence of heroin use in Zurich, Switzerland: a treatment case register analysis,” Lancet 2006; 367: 1830-34, Psychiatric University Hospital, Militärstrasse, Zurich, Switzerland (correspondence to Carlos Nordt email@example.com)
8. Source: http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/americas/05/13/mexico.fox.marijuana/index.html
9. Source: http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/americas/05/13/mexico.fox.marijuana/index.html
10. Source: US News and World Report http://www.usnews.com/articles/news/national/2009/02/27/under-obama-drug-war-tactics-poised-to-shift.html
11. Source: Washington Post http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/16/AR2009081601758.html
12. Source: Seattle Times http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2008620842_copsettled13m.html
13. Source: Zogby International “Zogby/Inter-American Dialogue Survey: Public Views Clash with U.S. Policy on Cuba, Immigration and Drugs.” Press Release. 2 Oct. 2008
14. Source: Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/05/06/majority-of-americans-wan_n_198196.html
15. Source: Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/norm-stamper/open-letter-to-the-new-dr_b_199122.html
16. Source: International Herald Tribune http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/19/opinion/19iht-edglenny.html?_r=1
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