|Week Online: How did
you go from drug warrior to drug war critic?
Jack Cole: I guess
you could say I had always been driven by an impulse toward harm reduction,
though that wasn't a term I'd even heard of back then. I joined the
New Jersey State Police because I couldn't stand those images of police
beating civil rights demonstrators, and I wanted to do policing to serve
the community. As a cop, I saw the damage that drug abuse was doing
to the community, so I joined the state narcotics bureau to fight that
I did not have a sophisticated
analysis of prohibition back then, although I very quickly began to understand
that our "war on drugs" was a cruel, corrupting charade. We would
arrest drug users on the street, but claim they were dealers. We
would make people become informers for us to avoid their own drug charges.
As an undercover cop, I had a career that consisted of becoming people's
friend, their closest confidante, then betraying them, over and over again.
And I came to see the "war on drugs" as racist. And futile.
When Richard Nixon declared
the "war on drugs" in 1970, law enforcement had no idea how to stop drug
abuse, but it certainly knew how to go after the money. We had seven
narcotics officers for the entire state of New Jersey, but after Nixon's
anti-drug grants, it shot up to 76. So we arrested people, going
from town to town and making buys from everyone we could, then swooping
in for mass arrests. But when we arrested a drug dealer, all we did
was create a job opening for the next guy. In the meantime, lives
are being ruined, families destroyed when drug users are sent to jail,
we were virtually creating the next generation of addicts.
By 1973, I had concluded
that the small amount of harm I prevented by arresting drug users was far
outweighed by the harm I was causing to countless people. "Zero tolerance"
prohibition was senseless and doomed to failure, I decided. I'm sorry
to say that I continued to work narcotics for years after that realization,
for reasons that have little to do with courage.
WOL: Surely rank and
file police officers share this sense of futility you describe. What
is it that keeps law enforcement from becoming a force for reform?
Cole: Many officers
have told me, in classrooms or in private, that they see the uselessness
and destructiveness of our drug war. But there are also a number
of reasons why many police continue to support it. One reason I stayed
at it was the sheer excitement of it. I was always working bigger
and bigger cases, always looking for the stimulation and excitement.
It was almost addicting and there was very much an element of the thrill
of the chase. It's intoxicating to go up against very smart people
and beat them at their own game. There is that element. And
you have to understand that most police in this country are doing what's
called community oriented policing, and most communities want the drug
dealing and associated street crime cleaned up. The police are doing
what they think the community wants.
There is also self-interest.
The "war on drugs" is a seemingly endless source of funds for law enforcement.
There are jobs at stake. And there is fear. Taking a public
stand for ending the drug war could cost you your job in any number of
departments in this county and subject you to disapproval from your peers
in many more.
WOL: That must make
it tough to get new recruits?
Cole: We recognize
that problem and we address it. Members of law enforcement can join
our organization anonymously, and we are very careful to ensure that their
information is secure. We are also working on an anonymous electronic
chat program that would allow police to enter discussions without revealing
their identities. We hope to have that up and running soon.
WOL: What does LEAP
hope to accomplish, and how will you go about doing it?
Cole: We want to end
WOL: The group takes
an explicit stand for ending prohibition?
Cole: Look at the name.
Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. In our mission statement, we
write that "the United States' drug policies have failed and that to save
lives, lower the rate of addiction and conserve tax dollars, we must end
drug prohibition." It's pretty clear. Right now, we are attempting
to move in that direction primarily through our speakers' bureau.
We have former New York police captain and ReconsiDer member Peter Christ,
former Michigan police officer Howard Wooldridge, former Detroit police
officer Dan Solano, and Colorado Sheriff Bill Masters (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/220.html#billmasters)
and myself. It is a process of educating people, and between us we've
given hundreds of speeches. We will continue to educate and continue
to try to attract new members from the ranks of law enforcement.
We know they're out there.
But we also want to restore
respect for law enforcement. Our involvement in enforcing drug prohibition
has only diminished respect for police. And, ultimately, we want
to reduce the harm imposed by prohibition.
WOL: What about what
happened in Nevada last week? Andy Anderson, the head of the state's
largest police union organization, lost his job after he engineered a board
vote in favor of marijuana legalization.
Cole: That was a real
mess. Clearly, we have a ways to go. But the fact that they
were ready to endorse that measure shows that law enforcement is not monolithic