Illegal drug use and the accompanying war on drugs is a huge human problem in the United States. It’s time, according to some, for a radical rethinking of this situation. A group of current and former warriors from the frontlines of the war on drugs has such a perspective, and their solution is not what you might expect.
Jack A. Cole, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), makes a compelling case for the legalization of drugs as the way to end the war on drugs. It’s not because he favors drug use, but because he wants to end the tremendous human toll of the war and its many unintended, but harmful, consequences.
Cole has plenty of experience as a drug warrior, having spent 26 years with the New Jersey State Police, with 12 years working as an undercover narcotics officer. His investigations spanned the spectrum of cases from street-level dealers to billion-dollar drug trafficking rings.
Cole will be in Wichita to speak at two events. I spoke with him by telephone to get a preview of his message. I started by asking about a common problem that those who advocate legalization of drugs face: “I also favor the legalization of all drugs, and sometimes people accuse me of promoting drug use because of this position. Is that the case with you?”
Cole said that isn’t the case with him and his organization, as everyone at LEAP has spent their careers fighting drug abuse. “We don’t want to see one additional drug abuser in the world.”
How, then, would legalizing drugs lead to less abuse, I asked. The experience in other countries that have loosened their drug laws provides valuable lessons for the United States, he said.
“Every county that has done this has experienced success in alleviating their problems,” Cole said. In the Netherlands, where marijuana has been decriminalized for 33 years, 28% of tenth graders have tried that drug. In the United States, where marijuana is illegal, 41% of tenth graders have tried it. Per capita use in the Netherlands is just one-half of that in the U.S. So it’s not only lower numbers of people trying the drug, but also lower usage, too.
Per capita use of hard drugs — cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine — is just one-fourth of that in the U.S. Cole says that drug abuse in many countries such as the Netherlands is treated as a health problem, not a criminal problem.
The prohibition of drugs in the U.S. leads to economic incentives that create hard drug addicts. In countries where marijuana is legal, it’s simply sold, in a setting such as a coffeehouse, to those who want to use it. But here, to purchase marijuana, one must visit criminals who have incentives to get their customers addicted to hard drugs, so that they have steady and long-term customers.
“So they have an economic motive to produce addicts, not just casual users,” I asked. Exactly, replied Cole.
Experience in other countries shows that decriminalization of drugs leads to lower drug use. The effect is more pronounced in young people, which is the opposite of what people might expect.
The profits from selling illegal drugs plays a large role in understanding the problem with the war on drugs. The vast majority of revenue of street gangs comes from the fact that drugs are illegal and that profit margins are huge. So when drug dealers are arrested and taken off the street, Cole said that someone else steps up to take their place.
Decriminalization alone won’t end the violence associated with the illegal drug trade, Cole said, as that affects only the user. As long as drugs are illegal, there will still be huge profits to be earned.
I asked about a position that some people hold, that we should legalize “soft” drugs like marijuana, but “hard” drugs like heroin and methamphetamine should remain illegal. Would this be of any benefit? Cole said no: “Just figure out which drug you’d like to have 13-year old kids selling on the street corner, and that’s the one we will keep illegal.”
The illegality of drugs here prevents addicts from getting the help they might want. In countries where drug addiction is treated as a health problem, addicts are treated, and then can return to the community as productive citizens. In the U.S. drug addicts are likely to be arrested and convicted of crimes, and as a result, have difficulty getting jobs after cleaning up.
The cost of the war on drugs is huge, about $70 billion per year, Cole said, with about $1.5 trillion spent over the past 40 years. Everything is “far, far worse now” than at the beginning of the war on drugs, he added.
Cole will speak at the Wichita Pachyderm Club on Friday, December 4. All are welcome to attend. For more information on this event, see Jack Cole of LEAP to address Pachyderms. He will also speak at a meeting of the Libertarians of South Central Kansas (LSOCK) on Tuesday, December 1. More information about that event is here.