Veterans of law enforcement differ on legalization of drugs
Both men have a lot in common. Both have come face to face with criminals in drug trafficking and have worked to halt the flow of heroin, cocaine and marijuana. Both men have spent their careers in law enforcement. But they don’t agree that legalizing drugs would reduce crime, save lives and cut costs.
The men, Col. Stephen McCartney and Jack A. Cole, co-founder and board chair of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, attended a recent Warwick Rotary Club meeting.
Cole, a retired police detective, estimated the Warwick club was the 250th where he delivered his convincing argument that the nation would be better off if it legalized and controlled narcotics, as it has done with alcohol and cigarettes.
A member of Rotary, Chief McCartney sat through the presentation followed by questions and answers without saying a word. But later, when asked where he stood, McCartney responded in a lengthy e-mail.
“One can certainly continue the debate as to whether legalizing drugs will eliminate the violence that he attributes to arguing over drug turf and the issues that [are] on-going with violence in Mexico & Central America. In my opinion, the gun culture that presently exists in America and sadly in our inner city gang culture (I saw it personally during my 25 yrs. in Providence) is much more complex than blaming it all on drugs now. Young people are dying in our inner cities for such mundane reasons as gang rivalries, personal disrespect and animus, and the culture of conflict resolution. It may have started out because of drugs but it has gone beyond that point today.”
In his presentation, Cole relied heavily on what happened when prohibition was abolished for alcohol. Violent crime rates dropped.
“I know if we legalize drugs, we’re going to take them out of the hands of criminals,” Cole said.
Cole’s law enforcement career dates to 1964 when he joined the New Jersey State Police. In 1970 he was assigned as a narcotic undercover agent. Following retirement, he took up the cause of legalizing drugs.
Cole said that, since President Nixon launched the War on Drugs, there have been 7.7 million non-violent drug arrests. He went on to cite the growth in the use of drugs, saying that at the start of the war on drugs, 4 million people, or 2 percent of the population, used drugs. Today, he said, 121 million people above the age of 12, or 46 percent of the population, have used drugs. He said deaths from overdoses have increased nine times since 1970.
Cole put the cost of the War on Drugs at $1.5 trillion since the war on drugs started.
Cole’s talk was laden with statistics supporting his argument that, instead of diminishing drug use and controlling criminal activity, efforts to halt drug use has had the reverse effect. He also said Portugal and Switzerland, where many drugs have been legalized, have experienced a decline in overall criminal activity. And now that drugs are being treated as a controlled substance, he said there hasn’t been a single death resulting from an overdose in Switzerland.
McCartney questions whether that would happen in this country.
He noted that the state recently decriminalized marijuana possession of 1 ounce or less for adult first offenders, which he believes will clear District Court dockets, but “time will
tell whether decriminalization will do what the supporters say it will.”
“My concern is the message that we send to our youth and the fact that we have now ‘glamorized’ marijuana and ‘recreational’ drug[s] to a point that it now manifests itself into problems in traffic enforcement as we are starting to see a trend towards vehicle operation impairment in which there is a mix of drug and alcohol impairment that make the enforcement procedures more complex & inevitably, more costly (albeit more officer
DRE training now along with traditional DUI enforcement procedure training),” he said.
Representative Frank Ferri, also a member of Warwick Rotary, called Cole’s presentation “really compelling.”
“If all the facts are true, it is something we really need to be looking at,” he said.
Ferri said there is some sentiment in support of legalizing marijuana, although he doesn’t see that happening soon. He believes greater attention needs to be focused on the abuse of prescription drugs.
“It’s something we have to look at,” he said.
Cole responded to McCartney’s comments in a lengthy e-mail last week:
“Decriminalization is certainly better than what we have now in most of the U.S. - a total prohibition - but decriminalization only works for the users. Everyone else in the process is still a criminal. That is not a good idea.”
Cole also addressed “the War on Drugs,” saying the emphasis has shifted to “talking of addiction recovery programs but the actual emphasis is still on making as many drug arrests as possible.
“Why? One reason is that drug arrests bring in money to police departments while arrests for major crimes do not. Police departments receive federal funding each year that is based on how many drug arrests they made in their jurisdiction the year before. Also, any money or property that is seized from people in the drug culture is split (in most states) between the police department affecting the seizure and the County District Attorney's Office that would prosecute the case if there were an arrest. All you need is a dog to sniff and supposedly give incontrovertible evidence by that sniff that some illicit drug was on or in the coveted property at one time and the property belongs to the government – billions of dollars worth every year.”