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Cops Say Legalize Drugs. One Tells Why PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Tuesday, 17 July 2012 15:55

Tony Ryan says his organization has an effective tool in the war on the War on Drugs: a T-shirt.

It reads: “Cops say legalize drugs. Ask me why.” And people do.

Ryan served 36 years in Denver, Colorado’s police department before retiring in 2003. He’s now a member of the board of directors of LEAP – Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP.cc). The 10-year-old organization, he said, has 50,000 members, ranging from current and former law-enforcement officers to prosecutors to judges.

The former cop (who retired as a lieutenant) said that although he never worked in narcotics, he watched the effects of drugs – and drug enforcement – firsthand in Denver’s poorer neighborhoods. “I saw a lot of drug activity,” he said in a phone interview last week. “I saw the damage that is done by drug use and drug addiction, but I also saw the damage that’s being done by the country’s policy – in those days the War on Drugs. ... I’m of the mindset ... that the damage that has done ... is worse than what the drugs themselves cause.”

Ryan will speak at and participate in an August 1 forum organized by Iowa state-representative candidate Mark Nelson. The event will be held at 7 p.m. at Central Perk (226 West Third Street in Davenport).

The price of the drug war has been undeniably high.

First, there are the cash costs of incarceration. A 2012 survey of 40 states by the Vera Institute of Justice found the average annual cost of incarceration was $31,307 per inmate.

And according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics:

• Nearly 25 percent (or 155,900 people) of jail inmates in 2002 were being held for drug offenses, including 10.8 percent for possession;

• 20 percent (or 253,300 people) of state-prison inmates were being held for drug offenses in 2005; and

• 53 percent (or 95,446 people) of federal prisoners in 2007 were drug offenders.

The anti-drug-war Drug Policy Alliance claims that more than 1.6 million people were arrested in the United States in 2010 on nonviolent drug charges. It further says that more than $51 billion is spent each year in the United States on the drug war.

So the expensive War on Drugs has been very successful at locking up people, many of whom posed no threat beyond that to their own health.

But, as Eduardo Porter pointed out in a July 3 New York Times column (RCReader.com/y/legalize), the effort has failed in two key areas: supply and demand. Illegal-drug use now is at roughly the same level as it was 20 years ago, while prices have dropped for nearly all illegal drugs except marijuana, he noted.

Beyond the numbers, there are the human lives derailed or ruined by arrests and incarcerations for nonviolent drug offenses.

From a law-enforcement perspective, Ryan said, police also pay a price beyond the actual costs of drug-enforcement programs. Narcotics officers have low morale, he said. And “in law enforcement in general, the greatest source of complaints ... has to do with narcotics enforcement.”

So in Ryan’s and LEAP’s views, ending the drug war would pay many dividends: to state and federal prison budgets, and to the images and budgets of local, state, and federal law-enforcement agencies.

Ryan said that neither he nor LEAP has a specific preferred policy for legalization, or what would happen after.

“We just know that we have a policy that has failed miserably and has caused more damage than it’s ever helped,” he said. “We need to change that so we can get on to a program. ...

“The first step is just to say: There’s no such thing as a completely illegal drug. And we go from there and say: However, there are regulations where there are illegal things you can do with drugs.”

The general framework, he said, might mimic regulations currently governing alcohol, tobacco, and prescription drugs: “There are certain people that are authorized to sell those. Certain people authorized to buy them – those are age restrictions [on alcohol and tobacco]. And especially with alcohol, you’re definitely held responsible for misuse and what you do because of your misuse. That’s kind of what we’re looking for. ... It’s not a free-for-all.”

He also said he favors releasing people now in prison for nonviolent drug-possession offenses.

Resources currently used for drug enforcement and incarceration could be diverted to treatment, education, and re-acclimation programs, Ryan said: “I couldn’t tell you what the cost of that would be, but I’m making a pretty good guess that it would be less than the cost of keeping them” in prison.

He acknowledged that drug legalization would not be a panacea, with new problems to address – including what would happen to the current illegal-drug-trade infrastructure. “There are lots of human ills that people can cater to,” he said.

With the caveats that he didn’t talk openly about his drug-war views when he was an active officer and that he’s been retired for nine years, Ryan said that many in law enforcement share his perspective – although they might not speak out because they fear they could lose their jobs. “I think there are a lot more than people might imagine currently active police officers who are sympathetic to what we have to say,” he said. He guessed that 40 percent of police officers “think we could be doing something else, spend our time on other ills.”

But, he emphasized, while individual police departments might de-prioritize drug enforcement, it’s still fundamentally a legislative issue – and legalization arguments continue to fall on largely deaf ears with lawmakers, particularly at the federal level. Ryan said that when he talks to legislators, they’re polite but noncommittal: “‘Thank you. I’m glad we had this talk.’ ... There aren’t very many that I come across at this point in time” who say they agree with LEAP’s positions.

Of course, some state and local jurisdictions have legalized medical marijuana, or decriminalized marijuana possession.

But elsewhere, Ryan said, police officers are required to enforce the law, and federal drug policy hasn’t changed: “As long as something is just illegal, there’s nothing more you can do except arrest people ... and put them in prison. ... It doesn’t solve the problem of drugs. It just collects money. Except that we spend more than we ever collect.”

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