Howard Wooldridge looks the quintessential Texas lawman. Tall, rangy, mustachioed, usually wearing cowboy hat and boots, the 51-year-old former policeman could have walked right out of the pages of a Cormac McCarthy novel. Except for that t-shirt. The one that says, "Cops Say Legalize Pot. Ask Me Why."
Habitues of the drug reform movement's innumerable conferences may be familiar with Wooldridge and his t-shirt, but the rest of the country wasn't getting the message, so Wooldridge saddled up his pinto horse, Misty, and hit the hustings like an old-time circuit-riding preacher. Beginning in Denver on September 16, Wooldridge rode the trail for 11 weeks, traveling down highways in Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee, wearing his t-shirt and hoping to strike up a conversation or two about the marijuana laws and the war on drugs. It worked, said Wooldridge.
"I got a tremendous response all across the states," he told DRCNet as he rested up in his Fort Worth home for the next leg of his trail-riding campaign. "People would see Misty and me going down the road, and a day or two later we'd make it into their town, and by then those folks were ready to ask me 'Why?' I had a lady in Kansas who heard a cop was coming; she drove eight miles to bring me doughnuts," he laughed. "She wanted to ask me 'why,' too."
Wooldridge was prepared with three arguments, he said. "I told them it was a terrible waste of police time. It causes a reduction in public safety as police go after pot-smokers as opposed to drunk drivers or child molesters," he said, getting into the rap. "Drunk driving is a thousand times more dangerous. Second, legalizing and regulating marijuana will make it harder for our kids to buy. Third, it will eliminate the contact between our kids and the bloodsucking SOB drug dealers with their free samples of other drugs."
He doesn't talk about personal freedom. "Nobody, no soccer mom, gives a shit about personal rights, as we've seen after 9-11," he said. "What they want to know is how my approach is going to decrease the odds of their child becoming a heroin statistic. It isn't about saving money, it isn't about personal freedom -- those don't have any traction with the public -- it's about fear and public safety."
Wooldridge may be the Lone Horseman with the legalization message, but he's not alone, even among the ranks of law enforcement. He is a founding member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (http://www.leap.cc), a new national organization composed of present and former law enforcement officers who support regulation and control instead of prohibition, for all drugs, not only marijuana. Organized on the model of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, LEAP brings the credibility of front-line drug fighters to the cause of defeating the drug war itself.
And Wooldridge's travels may result in a few new members for the fledgling group. "I had conversations with about 15 cops during the trip, and of those, probably 12 were receptive to my message," he said. "The other three thought I was the scumbag from hell, the Benedict Arnold of the police world."
But he wasn't just talking to local gendarmes and passers-by. He did ten or so print interviews with local papers, he said, as well as garnering a handful of TV and radio pieces. He will be better at it on the next leg of trip, which will take him from Denver to Portland in the spring. "I only had about two weeks to set this trip up," said Wooldridge, "and I didn't really have a media person until Mike Smithson of [the New York state-based group] ReconsiDer [http://www.reconsider.org] came on board. He focuses like a laser beam, especially on TV and radio outlets, and with Mike, we really blanketed Tennessee." The next leg will see that kind of focus on the press from day one with Smithson handling all the media, he said.
"I bill myself as a sort of Paul Revere, sounding the alarm that prohibition is a failed and futile approach to drugs," said Wooldridge. It is a message that resonates, he added. "Everyone knows this is a terrible failure. They just need to hear someone saying it out loud."
While Wooldridge is taking a winter respite from his travels, he is by no means taking it easy. Instead, he will relocate to Austin to lobby the Texas legislature to reduce marijuana penalties. He has received funding from former Dallas Cowboy football player Mark Stepnowski, who last month came out of the closet as a pro athlete pot smoker. "I'm going to be a paid lobbyist for easing the marijuana laws," Wooldridge said.
But come good weather, it's back on the trail for Wooldridge and Misty. And for those gentle-hearted readers concerned about the rigors of a 1,400 mile ride for the loyal pinto, Wooldridge had some reassuring words. "When we're on the road, I ride for two miles and walk for eight miles. I treat my horse's back like it was my daughter's virginity," he chuckled. "I want to protect it and keep it intact."
Wooldridge also found some reassurance along the road. "Dozens and dozens of people went out of their way to help Misty and me," he said. "People stopped to give us water, one guy gave Misty a pound of carrots. It was a real psychological boost to see Americans across the country go out of their way to be kind to a stranger."