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Before Nixon declared the war on drugs in the early 1970s, policing was a different creature altogether. Police were the “good guys” going after the “bad guys”--the rapists, the murderers, the child molesters--most people could agree society was better without. Since that time, the very nature of policing has changed.
Today enforcing drug laws not only occupies a huge portion of police time, it forms much of the identity of the profession and of individual officers who dedicate their lives to serving the public. That’s why, to me, the finding that more officers support the legalization of marijuana possession than support the status quo is remarkable. Who among us questions such things lightly?
But in other ways, this finding is unsurprising. I have always believed that those in the trenches were those most privy to the injustice and the illogic of the war on drugs, and, I hope, those most dedicated to righting this wrong. Who better to question its results? That so many officers were brave enough to challenge the prohibition of marijuana–one of the pillars upon which their professional identity is founded–is an act of honor for the love of the profession of which I am so proud to have been a part for more than three decades.
I commend Law Officer for conducting this study, but I find that the questions they didn’t ask are the ones most relevant to the average officer: Will the legalization of marijuana and other drugs lead to a reduction in the power of street gangs and cartels that terrorize our cities? Will it allow police officers to focus greater attention on violent crimes and restore good relations with the communities in which they operate? Ultimately, will it lead to less violence?
I believe that most officers brave enough to be honest with themselves about the answers can only answer in the affirmative to these questions. We are the ones who see--every day--that the prohibition of drugs, just like the prohibition of alcohol, is what provides the tremendous profits to the criminal organizations that provide the drugs on our streets. That picking up the petty drug dealer on the corner--the kinds of arrest that federal grants and asset forfeiture laws incentivize--does nothing to affect the long-term supply of drugs and only causes more violence as rival gangs battle to fill power vacuums. That all of this has caused society generally and our communities of color specifically to look upon us as people to be feared rather than as public servants advancing public safety, and that that distrust, far from being merely an abstract concept, makes our jobs infinitely more difficult as community members shy from cooperating in investigations.
The majority of the populace have the privilege of rarely having to think about these harsh realities of the drug war, but police are uniquely positioned to see the ravages caused by prohibition firsthand. That is why those who favor legalizing, decriminalizing or legalizing medical marijuana outnumber those who don’t two to one in this survey. Still, in the culture of the blue wall of silence, their willingness to dissent speaks volumes about their daring and fortitude.
I now ask that these officers brave enough to question the prohibition of marijuana one day cast the same critical eye on the prohibition of other drugs. Regulation and control doesn’t mean that heroin will be available at the neighborhood convenience store or even in stores dedicated to the purpose. It simply means that governments, rather than criminals, will decide who gets to buy what where and when.
That could mean only providing addicts with maintenance doses such as Switzerland has done. It could mean restricting all advertising. It could mean supervised injection sites. It could mean expanded prevention programs that show the real hazards of drug abuse and look less like rock stars “burning out” and more like the sad reality of addiction we as law enforcement officials see every day.
Think of the first person you think of when you think of addiction. Now imagine if every kid with too much to lose thought of that person rather than (who’s a cool drug user to kids these days?) when they thought of drug use. Think of if we were able to take away the mystique of the forbidden and replace it with a pity for the pathetic–not through misinformation and lies but through an honest look at addiction as a public health problem to be addressed, not as a criminal justice matter to be swept under the rug.
Now imagine we could also replace the dealer who would sell to kids with a regulated and licensed businessperson who would never dare. That we could separate the markets so that the person who buys marijuana isn’t encouraged to try cocaine. Legalization and regulation is not a radical argument. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. Its point is to make the exotic mundane.
Of course, it is a radical argument to the criminal syndicates who rely on drug profits to fund every other criminal enterprise. And, unfortunately, it’s a radical argument to those policing associations who make billions on asset forfeitures and federal grants designed to get them focused on drug crime rather than on the real work of policing. The only question is: Which is more important to you? The dictates of the drug war, or doing what is best for the community you’re sworn to serve and protect?
In policing, bravery is a job requirement. But the people I consider heroic are not those most willing to confront a dangerous suspect or enter an unknown situation but those willing to stand up and dissent to those they respect in the name of public safety and justice. This survey represents a very hopeful sign that the plurality of officers out there are just such heroes. I salute you all.
- Major Neill Franklin (Ret.) is executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of law enforcement officials who, after fighting on the front lines of the war on drugs, now advocate for its end.
To learn more, download the full survey results.
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