Soldiers Of A Different Drug War

Meet LEAP, an organization of law enforcers fighting to legalize cannabis and narcotics.

By Greg Aragon

In 1973, Detective Jack Cole of the New Jersey State Police came to a painstaking conclusion. After three years of undercover narcotics work, in which he helped bust and imprison hundreds of drug offenders, he realized that something was drastically wrong with the system.

“I decided that the war on drugs wasn’t working and that the only way we could reduce the addiction was to legalize drugs,” says Cole, who spent 26 years on the force. “But I never said this to another officer until I retired in 1991.”

A few years after retiring, Cole met Peter Christ, a retired police captain from Tonawanda, New York, who also believed the war on drugs wasn’t working. Cole says Christ was interested in forming a group of like-minded law enforcement officials, and that he wanted to call it Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, or LEAP.

“It took him four years to convince me, but in 2002 we created LEAP to give a voice to all the law enforcers around the world who believe the war on drugs is a failure,” says Cole, who is now executive director of LEAP.

Since that day in March, LEAP has grown from five founding cops to more than 15,000 members, including current and former police officers, judges, prosecutors, prison wardens, FBI and DEA agents and other law-enforcement officials. The organization has a bureau of 85 speakers, with members in 86 countries.

It also has a goal.

“We are for legalizing all drugs,” says Cole. “You can’t control or regulate anything until it is legal, and right now the regulation of all drugs is in the hands of criminals. They tell us what drugs are going to be supplied to our communities, what they are going to be cut with, how potent they are going to be, how much they will cost, what age group they are going to sell it to and where they will sell them.”

He says the idea is to remove the profit motive from “the folks who are in criminal enterprise, because as long as they make obscene profits, they are never going to stop.”

He says prohibition increases the profit level. “When you create prohibition of any drug, you create an underground market for that drug that is instantly filled with criminals, and because the drugs are a danger to produce and supply, you create and artificially inflated [the] value for these drugs.

“All you have to do is look back to when we ended alcohol prohibition in 1933,” he says. “The next morning, Al Capone and all of his smuggling buddies were out of business and no longer on the street killing each other to control that lucrative market.”

In what many see as a small step toward cannabis legalization, the U.S. Department of Justice, acting on a memorandum from the White House, told federal law enforcement officials last month to back away from the prosecution of marijuana offenders from states where medical cannabis is legal. The memo advises federal prosecutors to “not focus federal resources in your States on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.”

“LEAP thinks the memo will provide relief to a lot of people who have been anxious about whether or not they’re going to be arrested for helping patients get their doctor-recommended medicine” says Tom Angell, LEAP media relations director. “That said, only legalizing and regulating all drugs—and not just calling off the feds from medical marijuana raids—is going to put cartels out of business, make our streets safer and improve the economy.”

Not everyone agrees with that assessment. LEAP’s mission hasn’t exactly earned its members praise from their colleagues in the highly conservative law-enforcement community.

“There is no cogent public policy argument to be made for LEAP’s absurd position,” says John Lovell, legislative advocate for the California Narcotics Officers Association. “We have serious public safety and social problems with alcohol and tobacco, so why on earth would we want to add a further array of mind-altering substances.”

As to getting dealers off the street, Lovell points to the legal drug industry.

“Look at pharmaceuticals,” he says. “They are legal, but there is still a huge black market with street dealers selling a host of pharmaceuticals.”

Lovell says LEAP’s position on legalization “would be a laughable position if it weren’t such a serious issue.” Though the group boasts more than 15,000 members, Lovell calls the figure a “small sliver of the number of law enforcement and judicial professionals” in the workforce. “In any large group you will always find a few people out of the norm.”

Cole dismisses this analysis, saying that more people are opening their ears each day to what LEAP has to say. At the time of this interview, Cole was heading to Brazil to speak with government officials about drug legalization

To help achieve its objectives, LEAP uses speakers, all of whom are former drug warriors, who tell their first-hand stories to civic, professional, educational and religious organizations.

“LEAP is committed to discussing the issue of legalization with the understanding that if people would allow the discussion to take place, we will change away from a failed policy,” says Jim Gray, a retired 25-year Orange County Superior Court judge.

Also a former federal prosecutor and Navy JAG, Gray says he joined LEAP after discovering the system was spending more resources and money on low-level drug crimes than on actual violent offenses, such as murder.

“The tougher we get on drug crimes, the softer we get on the prosecution of robbery, rape and murder,” says Gray, who once held the record for the largest drug prosecution in Central California, a 55-kilo heroin bust in 1978.

Cole says that at every conference LEAP attends, their representatives aggressively talk to whoever will listen.

“Anybody who so much as looks at us, we get them by the elbow and say ‘Have you heard about LEAP? We are cops, too. Can we talk to you about the war on drugs?’”

He says they keep track of every conversation and that less than 1 percent of the people they encounter refuse to speak with them.

At the time they were interviewed, Cole was headed to Brazil to speak with government officials about drug legalization, and Gray was wrapping up a radio interview in El Paso and preparing to lend his support to California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano’s marijuana legislation bill, AB390.

“We’ve been to 3,500 conferences now with thousands and thousands of cops, judges, prosecutors, prison wardens, DEA agents and more, and our average is that after we talk to them, 80 percent of law enforcers agree with us. Only 6 percent want to continue the war on drugs, and that is amazing.”

For more information about LEAP, go to www.leap.cc.

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