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Diane Goldstein Diane Goldstein

Cops Like Me Say Legalize All Drugs. Here’s Why.


Who exactly is prohibition supposed to be helping? After many years of enforcing drug laws as a police officer, my experience with an addicted family member changed my attitude for good.

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Loud and clear. Photo via

Loud and clear. Photo via

I was a police officer for 20 years, enforcing drug laws in California and thinking I was doing my part for society. But what made me think properly about drug use for the first time was my experience with my older brother, Billy. I had watched him struggle with a lifelong problem with drugs. But I still did not understand what  it meant to be Billy until my husband convinced me to open up my heart and our home to save him in 2002.

It was in this intimacy of watching Billy try, during the year he lived with us, to live up to the expectations of society and those he loved that I realized that our society’s portrayal of people with chronic drug problems was both damaging and morally flawed.

By society’s standard, my brother was a criminal. His struggles with addiction taught me many things. He had many years of sobriety, interspersed with the setbacks that addiction specialists know so often come with the condition. But because of an emphasis by the court system on abstinence-only drug programs, and an emphasis on punishment over progress, these normal and accepted setbacks in recovery were exacerbated by harsh penalties. Because of Billy’s felony convictions for drugs, he was unemployable. He lacked healthcare until we stepped in. Without us, my brother would have been on the streets. Yet despite our help, my brother passed away from an accidental overdose of psychotropic medications and alcohol.

After having my eyes opened to the realities of drug use, I realized we could not arrest our way out of this problem. I joined Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a group of law enforcement officials opposed to the war on drugs. Some people are surprised to find that police, prosecutors, judges and others arguing for legalizing drugs, but in many ways we are the best positioned to see the injustices and ineffectiveness of the criminal justice system up close.

Decriminalization laws can do many good things. They reduce law enforcement and incarceration costs, allow police to focus on more pressing matters and keep casual users out of a criminal justice system that already destroys far too many lives. However, LEAP supports full drug legalization because of what decriminalization doesn’t do.

We’ve seen how federal grants and civil asset forfeiture laws (whereby police can take your property and use or sell it for their own benefit, even if you’re never charged with a crime) encourage police to go after drug offenders while real criminals roam free. We’ve seen people die of overdose. We’ve seen people go to prison who had no business being there. And we’ve seen that none of this has reduced drug use or addiction. In spite of more than 40 years of the war on drugs—and the trillion dollars we’ve spent—Americans now have access to drugs that are cheaper, more potent and just as readily available as when the drug war started. Who exactly is prohibition supposed to be helping?

But that doesn’t mean that everything we’ve tried has failed. As we work towards a world in which drugs are legalized and regulated, we can take smaller steps toward smarter drug policies by supporting decriminalization laws and by implementing harm reduction strategies, which address drug problems using a public health model that reduces death, disease and addiction.

In America we practice a different form of decriminalization than, for example, in Portugal, where you can possess up to 10 days’ worth of any drug with only an administrative or civil penalty. Decriminalization laws vary by state but generally mean that first-time offenders will not go to prison or be burdened with a criminal record for possession of a small amount of drugs for personal consumption. But even in states that have liberalized their drug statutes, there are still many collateral consequences for something as simple as a drug conviction—including the potential loss of federal aid for student loans, denial of social welfare benefits such as housing and food stamps, denial of voting privileges or professional licenses, and termination of parental rights.

Decriminalization laws can do many good things. They reduce law enforcement and incarceration costs, allow police to focus on more pressing matters and keep casual users out of a criminal justice system that already destroys far too many lives.

However, LEAP supports full drug legalization because of what decriminalization doesn’t do. It doesn’t set up a system of regulated purity, so users don’t know what they’re putting in their bodies or how strong it is, increasing the risk of overdose. And if someone does overdose, their friends may be afraid to call for help for fear of being prosecuted. Decriminalization doesn’t enact age restrictions on sales or stop the violence generated by upheavals and turf wars caused by law enforcement intervention. It doesn’t necessarily prevent large racial disparities because of the wide discretion in charging by prosecutors. And it does nothing to impact the enormous profits being made from drugs by violent criminal gangs, or to stop the violence generated by upheavals and turf wars caused by law enforcement intervention.

People working in public health understand that harm reduction strategies produce positive health outcomes. Even law enforcement is beginning to understand the necessity of thinking outside the “drug war” box to save lives by implementing and supporting programs that use the precepts of reducing harms to those using drugs. By supporting “Good Samaritan” laws that allow witnesses to an overdose to save a life by calling 911 without threat of criminal prosecution, criminal justice professionals are recognizing that the threat of criminal sanctions has contributed to too many deaths.

Seattle, which gives officers the ability to connect low-level, non-violent drug dealers and users with treatment and services as an alternative to jail, is an example of a law enforcement agency using harm reduction strategies to improve the lives of those struggling with addiction. The Quincy, Massachusetts Police Department is another. By mandating that its officers carry naloxone, a cheap and effective drug that can reverse opioid overdoses, they saved more than two hundred lives in just over three years. Imagine how much difference it would make if police departments   across the country adopted a similar model.

It is clear to me that implementing decriminalization and harm reduction models are vital steps on the way to a smarter drug policy and should be supported. But to stop there is short-sighted, as it will leave unresolved the violence associated with the illicit market, as well as the other inevitable consequences of an ineffective drug policy based on politics, rather than what we know works.

Isn’t it time that we demand that our government use science, best practices and compassion to design drug policy?

Lieutenant Commander Diane Goldstein (Ret.) is a board member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of law enforcement officials opposed to the war on drugs.


12 Comments

12 comments on “Cops Like Me Say Legalize All Drugs. Here’s Why.

    Hugh Yonn

    In most cases among folks in the drug trade, the only thing that makes them ‘the criminal element’ is that their product is illegal.
    I was involved in the business for 14 years. NONE of the guys and girls I dealt with considered themselves ‘criminals.’
    ‘Law breakers,’ yes. ‘Criminals,’ no.
    We saw a need and filled it.

    Our only brush with ‘lawlessness’ was our involvement with cannabis. We weren’t robbing, killing, being ‘bad guys.’ We were importing and selling weed, performing a public service.

    In that era, the DEA estimated that 40 tons of pot per day were being consumed in the United States. Where did folks think it was coming from?

    Criminals?

    No. They got it from their buddy, the ‘dealer man.’

    What a person takes into his/her body is none of my business. Nor, ‘our’ government’s. I don’t care if a man snorts dirt…so long as he brings no harm to his fellowmen or their property.

    I think that’s what is meant by our unalienable right to ‘…the pursuit of happiness.’

    I admire your husband for his compassion. Many thanks for sharing your story…

    MaineGeezer

    All drug prohibition doe sis turn distribution and sale of drugs over to drug cartels, which wouldn’t exist if there were a legal regulated market. Alcohol prohibition in the 1920s created Al Capone and organized crime, and drug prohibition has created the crime, corruption and violence of the drug cartels.

    Alcohol prohibition didn’t keep people from drinking, and it made drinking more dangerous because there was no guarantee of purity of product. Drug prohibition doesn’t keep people from using drugs, and people die because there is no assurance as to content.

    Drug prohibition has the additional effect of making it far more difficult to treat drug abuse as the health problem it is. We keep trying to turn drug use into a law enforcement problem, and it’s a health problem. Cops are very good at what they do, but they are not addiction specialists or social workers. We need to let cops get back to what they are trained to do — protect us from each other — and stop making them try to protect us from ourselves.

    Ivar MacGillicuddy

    I don’t know how to feel about this. You used to live by the sword, picking fights with peaceful people. Can anything ever atone for that? sure, you sound like a decent person, but so do many gangsters I have met– and while their job description is much like your own, at least gangsters don’t routinely drag their victims into rape cages for decades at a time. So I’m not sure I even WANT you to support the war on drugs. Please elaborate on when you think it’s ok to threaten and attack peaceful people, and why you don’t hate yourself today.

      Bryant Lewis

      When Police Officers are “picking fights with peaceful people” (as you put it), they are doing their job in accordance with the laws written by Officials that we the people elect into power. If we the people could make better educated decisions in the voting process, with a legally-sound crackdown on political corruption, then the Police could do what they are truly meant to do, which is exactly what most Officers join the force to do, and that is catch real bad guys. Yes real bad guys do exist; as a Correctional Officer I supervise all kinds of incarcerated people, but as I work in a Close Custody facility (max security) I have yet to look up the record on anyone I supervise who hasn’t committed a seriously heinous crime such as murder, (sexual) assault, child molestation, armed robbery, etc.. As the criminally ill will never commit themselves to rehabilitative social programs before being caught in a criminal act, the Police need to continue existing to catch them.

      If you shun the good Officers that want to make the system better, then you open the door for more bad Officers who will only make the system worse.

        Bryant Lewis

        P.S. I am not trying to argue or sound insulting, I am open for debate. However, I have yet to be convinced by anyone that the Police do not have potential for good.

    • Andrew C. Bairnsfather
      Andrew C. Bairnsfather

      Since you speak in religious language, “Can anything ever atone for that?” here is a religious reply. Yes! It’s called repentance (changing one’s mind) and bearing the fruits of repentance (follow through: putting one’s time and resources where one’s mouth is).

      Diane excels.

    • Andrew C. Bairnsfather
      Andrew C. Bairnsfather

      “Please elaborate on when you think it’s ok to threaten and attack peaceful people, and why you don’t hate yourself today.” The Remorseful Cop, http://www.leap.cc/i-live-the-drug-war-every-day/

      If you hate the Drug War you owe it to yourself (friends, family and others) to promote LEAP and get them in front of lots of groups. I guarantee they do not want peaceful people threatened or attacked.

    Ivar MacGillicuddy

    Also, I apologize for the poor phrasing. For example, my last clause looks rhetorical, but it is not. I honestly am curious about the individual who got out of the uniform and how that works afterwards.

    And by “support the war on drugs”, I meant oppose it. I probably need to never post potentially sensitive comments from a tiny mobile screen again.

    Veronica McInnis

    Thank you for your candor. I am truly sorry for the loss of your dear brother. May he finally be at peace.
    Sincerely,
    Veronica McInnis

    Joseph M. Symuleski

    Let me first Thank You for your Courage to share your [ Most Personal ] Life Experience. It is ONLY through Individuals like yourself, LEAP, and various other Professionals, those (On The Front Line ) as they are aptly { Labeled } , Will Society have a Chance to SEE through the Haze of Misinformation that the Government has Harmed it Citizens with. From my Thirty + years experience i, like your brother, am Afflicted with this Medical Malady. Although each Malady has its own nuances, the Common Denominator; Loved Ones are Directly damaged. I can appreciate (where) your brother was, the “effect” that was being sought and the mix of an antidepressant w/ alchol, and the unintentional outcome. Had a System of Regulation vs. Prohibition been the norm then i venture to say that this Man would still be alive, employed, and living life.

    Dave Majkowski

    “Federal agents yanked Richard Wershe from high school and groomed him as a high-profile drug dealer. When he transformed into the notorious White Boy Rick, the feds turned their backs. Now he’s doing life in jail.” –

    Dave Majkowski

    “The Clemency Report named Richard Wershe Jr., a 44-year-old with a colorful past, as Michigan’s inmate most deserving of clemency. He was arrested for cocaine at age 17, in May 1987, and has been serving his life for this single, non-violent offense ever since.

    Richard gained fame in the Detroit area as “White Boy Rick” when the DEA and other officers used him as an informant starting at age 14. He was busted for possession with intent to distribute eight kilograms of cocaine at age 17. He has been turned down for parole three times and will be eligible again in 2017.

    His case has been detailed in many news stories and further information can be found at the FreeWhiteBoyRickWershe Facebook page. A photo of Richard in prison can be seen next.” – http://clemencyreport.org/richard-wershe-jr-named-michigans-no-1-inmate-deserving-clemency/

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