If the "War On Drugs" has Failed, is Legalization the Answer?
Leigh Maddox and Peter Christ (members of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition): The "War on Drugs"
helped create a situation where from gangs, to police to lawyers to jails, there are massive amounts of
money to be made in this never-ending "war"
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
And if you live in Baltimore, you know well that tens of thousands of lives have been destroyed through drug addiction. You’ll also know that the war on drugs has been more or less a complete failure. And many police officers think exactly that as well.
Now joining us are a few of those. First of all, Leigh Maddox is a retired captain from the Maryland State Police. Leigh served as commander of the Baltimore-Washington Metro Troop and the training division, and she has worked with the interdiction policies of the Maryland State Police.
Also joining us is Peter Christ. Peter is the cofounder of LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) and a retired police captain in Tonawanda, New York. He also had a 20-year career enforcing drug laws. After retiring in 1989, Peter began speaking out publicly against the war on drugs.
Thank you both for joining us.
PETER CHRIST, POLICE CAPTAIN (RET’D), TONAWANDA, NY: Good to be here, Paul. Thank you.
LEIGH MADDOX, CAPTAIN (RET’D), MARYLAND STATE POLICE: Thank you for having us.
JAY: So, before we get into kind of what you think about the issues, let’s get a bit of your own story. Leigh, many, many years as a very senior officer in Maryland State Police, at what point does the coin drop for you that this, much of what you’re doingâ€”’cause so much of police activity in Maryland is one way or another about drugsâ€”that much of that activity was at best not effective, and maybe destructive?
MADDOX: For me the coin dropped the day that I learned that a very good friend of mine, a fellow Maryland State Trooper, had been killed in the line of duty while working undercover to purchase drugs in Washington, D.C. And his death and the loss of that great manâ€”our union leader, very close friendâ€”it sent ripples through our community and really kind of just made me rethink what are we doing, why are we doing it, how can we change things, and what we need to do to keep the community safe, but to end the violence.
JAY: ‘Cause it’sâ€”was endless,â€”
JAY: â€”in the sense that this war on drugs is a war that will never end as it keeps going along this way. So then what happens for you? I mean, you start reaching a conclusion that’s contrary to, you know, essentially, all the policy that you’re implementing.
MADDOX: Sure. Well, I spent another seven years in the department, worked my way up through the ranks, worked a lot on our drug interdiction policies, helped with the consent decree, supervised and commanded the brave men and women who were out there doing interdiction, large-scale interdictions on a daily basis. And I knew that something needed to change, I had conversations with my bosses, but I couldn’t figure out what, because it’s very difficult to turn on a dime and turn away from the work that you’ve supported and taken part in for so many years. And it wasn’t until I retired, until I got out of that and was able to get into the communities in Baltimore as a lawyer with students and got to hear the stories, story after story after story about how lives were destroyed because of our over-reliance on mass incarceration as a form of social control, and once I saw that and was able to put the pieces together, that’s when I knew that we’d been going at it the wrong way all along.
JAY: And how about you? When does this coin drop for you? Or when does this whole drug policy make no sense to you?
CHRIST: Well, I’m a definition of the word hypocrite. Both of my parents were born in 1904. In the mid ’60s, a television program came on when I was about 13, 14 years old called The Untouchables. And both of my parents lived in Buffalo, New York, on the Canadian border during that period of time, so I had two people to ask why didn’t it work. And my mother, a wonderful Baptist ladyâ€”.
JAY: And just for young people watching this, we’re talking about alcohol prohibition [crosstalk]
CHRIST: Alcohol prohibition, yes, yes. And I would ask them why it didn’t work. My mother, a wonderful Baptist lady, said it didn’t work because the people didn’t support it. My father (the term of the time was the fallen Catholic) said that it didn’t work ’cause it was a stupid idea when they thought of it.
And I got very interested in the issue, and I read everything I could read about it. And by the time I got to be about 19, 20 years old, the impact of the fact that we had started alcohol prohibition by passing a constitutional amendmentâ€”we changed the constitution of the United States to start alcohol, so that takes a lot of support. So it weakened my mother’s argument, and my father looked more sensible. And by the time I got to 21 years old, I decided that this was just a stupid policy and it’d never work. And I looked at the drug war, and I saw exactly the same situation.
But I wanted to be retired before my 45th birthday, so I was looking for a job that would allow me to retire in 20 years, and it was police work. So I took the job. Before I went into work the first day, I sat myself down and had a little talk with myself and said, you know, all the stuff you think about the drug war is all theory; you don’t have any actual knowledge about it. Put all your old thinking on the backburner and give it a fair shot.
By the time I was on the job about four, five years, it became evident to me that there was only one aspect of my job that no matter how hard I or my brother and sister officers did it, it didn’t make any difference. We would have a series of burglaries in our community, and one of our officers would arrest a burglar, and for a while there wouldn’t be any burglaries, and we’d say, we did that. Same thing with other crimes. Drugs, on the other hand, by the time we got back to the station with the drug arrest, there was somebody out on the corner selling drugs again. It just didn’t make any difference, and I saw the futility of it.
But I enforced the laws ’cause I took an oath. My father said, you choose to do things; you do them well. I did a very good job. I got promoted to captain. I retired at 22. And everybody that I worked withâ€”.
JAY: At 22 years.
CHRIST: At 42 years old, 20 years on the job. Everybody that I worked with knew how I felt about this policy ’cause I had been talking internally about it and arguing about it with my fellow officers for 15 years of the 20 years I was there. And when I got out, I said the only thing I can do is do everything I could do to change this policy and get my old profession out of this work that is costing, as Leigh just said, lives, not just of the people on the street, but of law enforcement people trying to enforce these laws. So in 2002 we finally got around to forming LEAP, and I was one of the cofounders of it, and we’ve been moving forward ever since.
JAY: So this idea of the arguments that go on inside the police forceâ€”and you say you talked to your bosses about thisâ€”what arguments were you getting? I mean, it’s even hard for me to imagine that some of the officers actually think this is effective.
MADDOX: When you’re steeped in the work and you’re committed to it, you can’tâ€”it’s very difficult to go against your soul. So theyâ€”and particularly here in Maryland, because we were sued by the ACLU, and the officers took it veryâ€”the state troopers took it very personally. And people are dug in to the point where they will notâ€”it doesn’t matter how many numbers or facts or figures you throw at folks, they will not let go of their belief that drugs are bad, therefore addicts are bad, therefore they all should go to jail and burn in hell.
JAY: This is a moral crusade. It may go on forever, but my job is to do my part in the crusade. So it really doesn’t matter if it is effective or not. How do you break through that?
MADDOX: One brick at a time.
JAY: You argued for 15 years. What arguments did you hear against what you were saying?
CHRIST: Oh, drugs are bad. If you legalize drugs, you’re condoning them, what kind of a message does that send to the children. Everybody’ll become an addict, just like we all know what happened when we legalized alcoholâ€”everybody in America became an alcoholic and we lost World War II. Right? But that’s what you hear from the people that support it.
And it’s very difficult, when you’re in the business, to see it on the outside. I had, fortunately, a look before I came in, so it was easier for me to see the failure of this policy and the futility of it. And it’s also hard when you’re out there doing and you’re depriving people of their liberty, and in some cases their lives, to think that you’re doing it in the wrong way, so you want to convince yourself that it’s right.
But we have some working cops that are members of LEAP. Most of our members are law enforcement retirees, you know, people that were in the business and out of it. And we don’t just have cops. We have judgesâ€”.
JAY: And you were telling me there’sâ€”you have 2,500 people who are either active but mostly retired but who come from law enforcement.
CHRIST: Yes, exactly. Exactly. And it’sâ€”and that’s growing. You know, we get more peopleâ€”. I’ll give you a quick example. I was down in eastern Pennsylvaniaâ€”this is about six years agoâ€”at a Lions Club meeting, and in walks the chief of police in uniform. He marches right up to the front table, sits down next to me, looks me up and down, and says, "You the drug legalization guy?" I says, "Yeah, Chief, you caught me. That’s who I am." And he kind of nodded his head and he said, "I woke up about two years ago." And when I left that meeting, he was a member of LEAPâ€”and he was still on the job. So you get that kind of response also.
It’s just the futility of it. I tell people all the time that there’s [incompr.] We talk about this being a drug war. And I ask my audiences all the time, do you think we can win the war on drugs? Now, what that means is we’ve defeated the drugs, the drugs are gone, Webster has taken a word out of the dictionary because there’s no more marijuana around. And everybody agrees: no, that’s not possible. And then I tell them, well, then you also agree, because you just said you did, that drugs are always going to be part of our culture. Yes. Okay.
Then the question isn’t how do we become drug-free; the question then becomes, if this marketplace is always going to exist, who do we want to control the marketplace. We are currently choosing the marketplace to be run by gangsters, thugs, and terrorists. I am recommending that we run it under a regulated and controlled marketplace, so we can set age limits and we can set purity controls, distribution points, and deal with the drug problem that we should be concerned about, which is the abuse and addiction problem, which is about 10Â percent of the users, and deal with that as a health care and an educational problem, and stop filling our prisons with people that are in there for selling something to somebody that wanted to buy it.
And I always mention this when I mention prisons. We have the largest prison system on the planet. We have one of the most efficient prison systems on the planet. You hardly hear of anybody escaping from our prisons. If you want to take a guess at how many drug-free prisons we have, zero.
JAY: Well, this has always amazed me. Like, if you can’t control drugs going into a prisonâ€”.
CHRIST: How can you keep them out of a free society? And that’s exactly the reality. And what you can’t make go awayâ€”I would like toâ€”I’m 66. I would like to make this body go away and the 40-year-old one back again, but that can’t happen. So I can’t act like I’m 40, ’cause I’ll just injure myself. I have to live within the framework of what I have. We have to live within the framework of what we have.
JAY: Leigh, LEAP, I guessâ€”I guess this is a policy of LEAP, but it’s about legalization. It’s not about decriminalization; it’s about legalization and what Peter just said about what do you do with the marketplace.
MADDOX: Yeah, regulate it.
JAY: So talk about that.
MADDOX: Time, place, manner.
JAY: Yeah. So talk about what is the vision of what you think is a saner drug policy.
MADDOX: Okay. So, okay, think about tobacco use, tobacco use in America, right? It used to be everybody was smoking everywhere. You couldn’t get away from it. It got to the point where I didn’t even want to go to restaurants. But what do we do? Weâ€”well, we sue the tobacco company. But we also launched a very effective education and awareness program. We put in a series of time, place, and manner restrictions that have made itâ€”it’s uncool. And our endgame is we have reduced tobacco usage across all socio-economic lines by about 40Â percent.
I say we can do the same thing for all drugs.
JAY: Well, one of the counterarguments I’ve heardâ€”and it particularly applies to marijuana as opposed to some of the harder drugs, so let’s suppose it would apply there, too, which is: if you legalize, the price comes down; if the price comes down, people are going to use it more.
MADDOX: No. The price comes down with prohibition. It’s cheaper now than it was back in the ’70s.
CHRIST: And purer, by the way.
MADDOX: And purer.
CHRIST: The drugs that we have on the street today are purer than they were back then, and cheaper than they were back then by quantity.
MADDOX: And what happened during alcohol prohibition? People decided, oh my God, I can’t have it, so now I’m going to drink vodka straight, I’m no longer going to, you know, mix it up and have just a little bit. Right? I’m going to have it as strong and as hard and as fast as I can now before I get caught. And we’ve seen the same thing with all the other drugs.
JAY: Is there any place where you can see a saner drug policy and show that it’s working? I mean globally.
MADDOX: Globally? Of course. Portugal is an excellent example.
JAY: Which is?
MADDOX: They have been able to decriminalize. If someone presents with an addiction problem, they go before a tribunal. The tribunal determines whether or not they actually have a problem. If they’re just smoking a little bit of weed every once and a while, they’re like, see you later, go have fun. You know. If they do have a problem, they’re able to place them into very effective treatment programs, not jail, you know, whichâ€”jail’s never an effective treatment program.
The Cato Institute, I believe, if they haven’t already published, are getting ready to publish a very detailed report outlining exactly how effective it has been. You know, they’ve seen use rates go down. They’ve seen HIV rates go down. They’ve seen usage rates go down in kids and young people. It’s been a phenomenal success for the country.
JAY: So you make these arguments to fellow officers, and what? I mean, you would think the evidence is before their eyes.
CHRIST: Well, yeah, but it’sâ€”you know, we had slavery for 100 years in this country. It was never a good idea, but we did it for 100 years. Then we did segregation for 100 years.
JAY: But it wasn’t whether it was a good idea or a bad idea. There were people that benefited from slavery. There was a real economic motive. So let’s talk about that. Who wins from the war on drugs other than drug dealers to begin with? But maybe they’re not the only ones. And you jumped out of your seat at that, soâ€”.
MADDOX: Well, yeah. We just came from a LEAP board retreat, and one of the main things that came out of the retreat is how everyone is capitalizing off of this failed policy, to the point where nobody wants to let it go. You know, you’ve got asset forfeiture, right, which is driving a lot of law enforcement budgets. You’ve got the prison system that’s been largely outsourced and privatized. You know, here we have 5Â percent of the world’s population, but we have 25Â percent of the world’s prison population. I mean, come on. You know, people all across the board are makingâ€”.
JAY: We were talking earlier about bail bondsmen, what an enormous business that is, multi multimillion dollar business.
CHRIST: We have private prisons in this country. We have profit-making prisons. And I’ll tell you something about prisons: it should not be profit-making; it should be costing you money to lock people up. But we have people that are actually makingâ€”we got people in our prison system that are paying $0.50 or whatever an hour to make phone calls and do things for people in the private industry.
MADDOX: Like Victoria’s Secret.
JAY: Hiring prison populations.
CHRIST: Yeah, exactly. So itâ€”and it’s justâ€”it’s pointless. But it takes a long time to change. It takes a long time to educate people out of bad behavior. Whether it’s drug use or drug policy use, it takes a long time to change people out of bad behavior.
JAY: Okay. We’re going to continue this discussion with some of your colleagues from LEAP. So please join us for the next part of our ongoing conversations with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition on The Real News Network.
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