Arresting the Drug Laws
From the August 2005 Issue
In March, Howard Woolridge set out on horseback from Los Angeles to New York City wearing a T-shirt blaring the capitalized declaration: “COPS SAY LEGALIZE POT, ASK ME WHY.” The former Michigan police officer, who plans to reach New York in November, is a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a group that wants to change our country’s drug laws.
Peter Christ and Jack Cole, both former cops, founded the three-year-old LEAP with the assistance of a $50,000 grant from the Marijuana Policy Project. More than 2,000 members, including prison wardens, judges, and mayors, have since joined the organization. Some believe in drug decriminalization, others in full-out legalization, but their collective mandate is to highlight the failure of the current drug policy.
Cole wants to remove the profit motive from the equation by legalizing drugs and having them supplied by the government. “Organized criminals and world terrorists would be monetarily crippled for many years to come,” Cole says.
Bob Owens, a former police chief in Oxnard, California, regards soft drugs such as marijuana “as too unimportant to use manpower” on. He calls the war on drugs “a straw-man that can distract people and stir the hysteria that accompanies it.”
But Owens admits LEAP won’t move mountains. Yet. “The purpose of LEAP is to create more of an attitude change than to potentially change legislation,” he says.
California Superior Court Judge James Gray, author of Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It: A Judicial Indictment of the War on Drugs, wants to decriminalize marijuana. That would generate $2 billion annually in tax revenues that could be spent on education and drug treatment, he says. The government should regulate the quality of marijuana, he says, so tokers would know their weed won’t be laced with poisons.
“Would it result in more marijuana usage?” Gray asks himself. “Yes, at least for six months, but then rates would be more like Holland’s.” That country’s reported lifetime cannabis use is at 17 percent, according to a 2001 survey from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. In the United States, the 2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 40 percent of respondents reported using marijuana once in their lifetimes.
Prison wardens are usually stereotyped as drawing the hardest line. But don’t say that to Richard Watkins, former warden of the Holliday Unit in Huntsville, Texas. “What’s happening now is not working,” says Watkins, who retired in February. “I think the war on drugs is responsible for the massive increase of prisoners in Texas.”
He goes on to wonder why so many one-time drug users are imprisoned for crimes that didn’t harm a third party. “What the public doesn’t realize is that when you take a breadwinner out of the family and incarcerate him, it has a ripple effect,” he says. “There is nothing but negative about jailing people.”
After his lone-ranger travels, Woolridge plans on heading to Washington, where he hopes to become a Congressional lobbyist for LEAP.
Marijuana will be the first issue he tackles. “Eighty percent of Americans say legalize and tax it today,” Woolridge says. “We’re losing focus on public safety as law enforcement chases Willie Nelson and Willie Nelson’s supplier.” When Woolridge discusses this issue with rational Americans in any state, he says he soon hears three satisfying words: “That makes sense.”
David Silverberg is a freelance writer based in Toronto, Canada, who contributes to High Times, Seed Magazine, Digital Journal, Saturday Night, and Pound Magazine.