We are deeply saddened to report the untimely death of Gil Puder, a decorated 18-year veteran of the Vancouver, Canada police force and a strong and energetic advocate of drug policy reform. Gil broke ranks with the prohibitionist establishment two years ago and became one of the few law enforcement professionals in North America to speak out against the drug war, successfully standing up to pressure from officials who wanted him to stop.
Gil backed up his public stance with encouragement and support to drug reform organizations. He proudly displayed a DRCNet "stopthedrugwar.org" bumper sticker on his police station locker, for example, and was pleased to find that the rank-and-file officers, unlike their top-cop politician bosses, didn't seem to have a problem with it.
Many reformers first heard him speak at the Drug Policy Foundation conference in Washington last May, and were impressed and heartened to have such a strong ally. Though at the time he seemed the picture of health, Gil passed away last Friday at age 40, after a brief bout with cancer, leaving a wife, two young sons, and numerous family and extended family.
Eugene Oscapella of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy wrote, "Those who knew Gil saw his courage in standing up to the entrenched prohibitionist policies of senior police ranks and government. We have lost an intelligent and outspoken advocate of humane drug policy reform. We have also lost a gentleman whose strength of character would almost certainly have led him to become a highly principled holder of public office." A former police academy student of his wrote, "Gil filled many roles and did them with flair and style."
Gil's book, "Crossfire: A Street Cop's Stand Against Violence, Corruption and the War on Drugs," is scheduled for publication by Douglas and McIntyre next year. We reprint below an editorial of his, published less than a week before his passing.
Donations in lieu of flowers can be made to the British Columbia/Yukon Cancer Society, http://www.bc.cancer.ca/. Correspondence to the Puder family can be addressed care of Vancouver City Police, 2120 Cambie Street, Vancouver, BC, V5Z 4M6, Canada.
THERE'S MORE TO DRUGS THAN 'JUST SAY NO'
by Gil Puder, published Sunday, Nov. 7, 1999, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
The Republican governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson, recently made an astounding public statement. He said America's war on drugs is a multibillion-dollar failure, that it has unjustifiably jailed thousands of people while lying about the dangers of marijuana, and that many illegal drugs should be legalized and strictly regulated.
Johnson is now the highest-ranking elected official in the United States to say, in effect, "The emperor has no clothes." I've spent my career in law enforcement, and I believe Johnson is absolutely right.
In 1984 an armed heroin addict robbed a bank. I fired a fatal round that cost that man his life. Two years later, another junkie with a gun took the life of my friend, Sgt. Larry Young. More recently, I had to tell a woman that her son had died from a drug overdose. The experience was devastating -- not only for her, but for me, as well. I don't dislike the drug problem; I hate it.
Yet, while the governments of both our countries spend billions of our tax dollars every year fighting the so-called war on drugs, the shameful truth is, it hasn't worked. It never will. I don't want to lose another friend or bring more mothers the same bad news. It's time for all of us to wake up.
When I deliver this message to local business leaders at Seattle Downtown Rotary Club's luncheon on Nov. 17, I expect many to be apprehensive. But perhaps the need for a change in policy will begin to sink in when my co-speaker, Dr. Alonzo Plough, director of Public Health-Seattle and King County, outlines the increasing gravity of the situation.
With some 10,000 addicts, King County has one of the worst heroin problems in America, and it's getting worse. Last year, according to data compiled by the state Division of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, more people died in King County from heroin-involved overdoses than died in motor vehicle crashes.
Who am I to be talking about your problems? Someone who recognizes we've got plenty of our own in Canada. In my city, Vancouver, B.C., residents are dying from drug overdoses at the rate of about four a week. An injection-drug HIV epidemic has drawn international attention to our neighborhood known as the Downtown Eastside. I know that good neighbors should tend to their own problems first, but this is a common problem, and I believe good friends should look for shared solutions.
Your neighborhoods and mine are under siege. Being a street cop, witnessing the tragedy firsthand, I've become convinced that drug prohibition -- not drugs themselves -- are driving the HIV epidemic and the systemic crime that has swamped our criminal justice systems. Unfortunately, this is nearly impossible to admit if you're a politician who built your "law and order" image by vilifying drugs and demonizing addicts as the epitome of moral decay.
Yet "rabid junkie" stereotypes are seldom reality -- certainly not the housewife addicted to prescription painkillers or the 14-year-old boy shot at a Vancouver-area high school.
People who have heavily invested in the status quo chant mantras of zero tolerance mandatory minimum sentences while both the supply and demand for drugs increases and jails burst at the seams. For 80 years, we've waged the war on drugs with a central focus -- criminal sanctions. Anyone who thinks we're winning has their eyes closed, or simply doesn't want to see.
I know there's no silver bullet for this monster, but there are more effective solutions.
First, we must accept reality: Drugs, including alcohol and tobacco, are here today. Not all drug users are abusers, and not all abusers become addicts. Once we acknowledge these fundamental truths, the responsible approach for dealing with drugs becomes clear -- shift most of our resources away from interdiction and punishment toward treatment and education.
Next, we must understand that drug addiction is, above all, a medical and public health issue. Like alcoholism, it is a form of disease that an be successfully treated to reduce harm to society.
Crime must be punished; violent crime and crimes against children must be punished severely. But we could dramatically reduce drug-related crime and its horrendous human and financial costs by decriminalizing and strictly regulating drug use.
The benefits of such reform would be immediate. Windfall savings on criminal justice dollars could be plowed into health care and rehabilitation, which are the only methods proven to correct substance abuse.
Not every drug should be treated the same. The sale or distribution to children, as well as trafficking, importation and exporting, should remain crimes, with perhaps even stronger penalties. By focusing law enforcement on these areas, police efforts might actually make a difference.
Finally, the messages we send our children should be based on facts, loving concern and useful guidance, and not on fear, threats and propaganda. Watching a televised documentary on drug abuse, including disturbing images of a man killed by his father, my 9-year-old son listened to addicts explain the disorder ruining their lives. Not once did he ask his father, the cop, why these criminals weren't in jail. His advice to me was, "Dad, these people are sick." Untainted by a lifetime of misinformation, our kids understand this problem better than many adults.
This is the message we should be sending: Drug abuse is unhealthy and wrong. We can't stop adults from getting drugs -- we only fooled ourselves in thinking that we could. We'll teach you how devastating drugs can be. If you make the wrong choice, we'll help you make better ones. But if you choose to use drugs, we will not allow you to harm others, or to make them available to children, and we'll punish you severely if you do so.
That's a message that makes a lot more sense than "just say no." And, it's a message our children are far more likely to believe.