Law Enforcement Officers are Calling for an End to the
War on Drugs
When he was new in "blue," Robert Owens was the
scourge of East Los Angeles junkies, racking up record-breaking numbers of
But even then, the young Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy wondered if
all the collars and the time and resources it took to make them were
making any difference.
Those doubts only grew during the rest of his 38 years in law enforcement,
including his 22 years as police chief in gritty Oxnard, Calif.
Today, at 74, Owens is an outspoken proponent of ending America's drug
war, which has been waged for nearly four decades at an estimated cost of
$500 billion. Despite the best efforts and intentions of anti-drug
policies, it simply hasn't worked, he says.
"This country is long overdue in recognizing that not only have we
lost the war on drugs, but we have squandered billions of dollars and
untold numbers of lives," said Owen, who now coordinates law
enforcement internships at the University of Texas in San Antonio.
Owen is not alone. He is one of 2,000 members of Law Enforcement Against
Prohibition, an organization of current and former police officers,
judges, prosecutors, prison guards and others across the country and in
Canada and England.
All have toiled in the trenches of the drug war and now consider
traditional approaches futile. Though there is not unanimity, most in the
group believe that the government should regulate the distribution and use
of illicit substances and offer treatment instead of prison time to those
caught in their grip.
The group's board of advisers includes former police chiefs of New York
City, Seattle, Wash., and San Jose, Calif., along with current federal
court judges in Denver, New York City, and Bridgeport, Conn. It also
counts former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson as a supporter, as well as the
sheriff of San Miguel County, Colo.
"This is not a tie-died group," said Mike Smithson, who runs the
group's speakers bureau.
Perhaps not, but they are misguided and far out on the fringe of the drug
issue, said a spokesman for the White House's Office of National Drug
"It's simply an irresponsible message to put out there," said
Rafael Lemaitire, deputy press secretary for the anti-drug office.
By any measure, Lemaitire said, the drug war - which employs police work,
public education and treatment to attack the problem - has been effective
in driving down drug use in America. In 1979, at the peak of the drug
epidemic, 14 percent of the U.S. population said they had used drugs in
the past 30 days. Now, that number is 6 percent.
And, he said, everyone knows at least one person whose life was ruined by
drug use, and whole neighborhoods and communities besieged by drug-related
crime. To give up on the battle would mean more misery, criminality and
despair, he said.
"It's ludicrous to think that any law enforcement person would want
to put people and communities at greater risk," Lemaitire said.
But Owens and others affiliated with his group contend that the war on
drugs has succeeded in little more than packing America's prisons with
low-level offenders. If the battle is being won, they ask, why is the
scourge of methamphetamine use spreading around the country? Why is the
marijuana bought on the street today more potent than it was 35 years ago?
"This is not a war on drugs. It's a war on people," said LEAP
executive director Jack Cole, who worked for 12 years as an undercover
narcotics officer with the New Jersey State Police.
Cole and others in the group acknowledge their beliefs are hotly
controversial, but they contend that there are far more police officers
and others who share their point of view but can't risk the ostracism and
professional damage that could occur if they went public. In fact, the
organization welcomes members who want to remain anonymous and promises
them their identities will never be revealed.
For now, the group's aim is to spark a public discussion of the worth of
the war on drugs, as it now is being fought, Owens said. He and others
like him want to use their front-lines credibility to open a national
conversation on the topic.
"We're planting seeds," Owens said.
By LISA HOFFMAN
Scripps Howard News Service