Ex-Cop Walks the Talk in Anti-Prohibition Effort
Back in March 2002, retired New Jersey State Police Lt. Jack Cole made headlines when he and four other former cops teamed up to form the drug policy reform group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. The group's message is simple: The Drug War is a lie that ruins lives and damages the reputation of and respect for police. If you want to control the market for illicit drugs, LEAP asserts, legalize them – it's the only way to regulate their distribution and use. In just five years, LEAP has grown from five founding members to about 10,000 members, including former cops, Drug Enforcement Agency agents, judges, and prosecutors. And in that time, Cole has delivered more than 600 talks to groups around the country, talking to community groups (he's big on the Rotary club circuit), academics, and public officials, and has consistently transformed skeptics into believers. Cole's intensity and passion are palpable, and his argument is unassailably logical: LEAP wants the Drug War to end – now. In town last month to speak at UT, Cole sat down with Reefer Madness to discuss the War on Drugs and the inevitability of legalization.
Reefer Madness: You were with the New Jersey State Police for 26 years and spent a number of years undercover?
Jack Cole: Fourteen years. [I busted international heroin and cocaine dealers.] That's not how I started out, though. I started out busting people for smoking pot. In 1970, going into narcotics [work], the "War on Drugs" [had just been] coined – created by Richard Nixon ... and it had nothing to do with drugs. It had everything to do with running for president the second time and wanting to win it.
RM: Did you understand that at the time, or did you buy into it and think you were helping?
JC: I thought I was going to save the world – I had ... a Jesus complex. I grew up watching Reefer Madness ... and I believed every word of it. I was supposed to arrest drug dealers, but there weren't that many in 1970. [Policing drugs] should've been such a low priority item – the likelihood that anybody would die because of drugs was lower than the likelihood that you'd die from falling down the steps at your house or that you'd die from choking on your food. But as far as I know there are no wars on stairs or on food.
So I had to go into these "friendship groups" – groups of friends that get together and get high on occasion. [We'd be hanging around] at a bowling alley [or wherever] ... and somebody with access to the family car would go into the city and get a couple of joints. And somebody [else in the group] would say, "Could you get me a hit of acid or a couple Quaaludes or Valium?" They'd get around to me, and I'd order a couple of joints. [When the runner would] get back and hand it around ... they suddenly [became] a "big-time drug dealer," because that's what we made them out to be.
They were basically accommodating friends. We'd wait until everyone in the group [made two runs]; ... after two [deals] on each [person], we'd do a raid. [We'd go in at] 5am and kick down their doors – and we literally kicked down doors – and we'd take them out in chains. Once we got them to the station – we'd already have called the reporters and they'd be there, especially the photographers.
RM: For the perp walk.
JC: Exactly, they'd show up for the perp walk. We'd line up [everyone] and say, "Here are 95 major drug dealers that we took out of your community. We've got to step up our efforts; we need more money and more cops." We didn't know anything about winning the War on Drugs, but we knew how to keep milking the cash cow in our personal barnyard. One way is to arrest users and call them dealers.
RM: I've always wondered where police come up with the "street value" of drugs seized – it seems like it changes all the time.
JC: They make it up. According to the DEA, in 1970 they said 1 ounce of pure heroin was worth $258,000.
RM: They pulled that out of their hat.
JC: Pretty much. [But ironically] heroin is now the most expensive commodity in the world – more valuable than plutonium! And it's just a weed. It is only expensive because of prohibition. The problem isn't the drugs; it's prohibition, which drives the underground market.
Let's talk about the price of drugs in 1970. Back then, heroin sold in what were called "tre-bags," because they cost $3 a bag. And we always bought in multiples of two, because that's what the heroin users did. [Users had to buy two bags] because hard drugs were virtually unheard of and were [only about] 1 percent pure. They were called "garbage drugs" on the street. So in 1970 it cost $6 to get high. In 2001 the DEA put out a chart showing the progression of [heroin] price and purity from 1980 to 1999. What do you think happened?
RM: Let me guess: down and up.
JC: Down and up – that's exactly what's happened.
RM: That kind of blows the whole purpose of the Drug War, doesn't it?
JC: Yes. Getting back to prices ... the DEA was nice enough to go back ... to 1980 and adjust [heroin] prices for inflation. So in 1980 heroin cost $3.90 to get high, and purity had already doubled [to about 3 percent]. By 1990 the price had dropped to 80 cents, and [purity] had climbed to 38 percent. And according to the DEA, last year heroin was 60 percent pure on both coasts and in Chicago.
When you prohibit drugs ... it doesn't mean less people are using. But [prohibition] creates an underground market that is instantly filled with criminals. When you arrest a drug dealer, nothing happens except that you've created a job opening. So all we're doing is stirring the pot, and it costs us $69 billion [annually] to continue.
RM: When did you change your mind about working narcotics? Was there one specific thing that happened, or was it a culmination of things?
JC: It was a culmination. If there was any epiphany, it was that one day I realized that I liked the people I was working on better than the people I was working for. It was truly an epiphany, because it meant that a lot of what I'd been told was lies. [The people I was supposed to be busting] are exactly the same [as me] except that they wanted to put something in their bodies. They had the same hopes and dreams; they wanted to do something in the world. By this time I'd already figured out that the War on Drugs was a failure. It was only 1973. [And] I realized that the only way to reduce drug dependency was to legalize drugs.
RM: If you realized this so early on, how did you continue to do undercover work for another 11 years?
JC: It's not something that I'm proud of. But ... working undercover, I was addicted to the adrenaline. I rationalized [continuing] because of what I saw my colleagues doing. We'd been taught to go to war, and that's a dangerous way to do policing in a democratic society. Because in a war you have to have an enemy, and that becomes anyone but "us." And it becomes about defeating the "enemy" at all costs. Many [of my colleagues] thought, "If I stop a person that is a known drug dealer, and he's got no drugs on him today, but he did yesterday and he will tomorrow, then we might as well just [plant] some there now."
RM: So, did you think that at least if you stayed, then the busts would be good, clean, and honest?
JC: Exactly ... and that if I left I would be replaced by someone who wasn't. I finished undercover work in 1984. When I retired [in 1991], I felt worse and worse all the time. [I kept thinking about] the thousands of people that went to jail because of me – and I'm not talking about the major busts; I'm talking about the people who, had I not intervened, would've gone on to have happy, healthy lives.
RM: If ending drug prohibition is the answer, how would the legalization of drugs work?
JC: Let me explain what legalization means. All it means is that we remove Schedule I [from the federal Controlled Substances Act, which lists drugs – seemingly arbitrarily – by their relative addictiveness and by "medically acceptable" uses]. Among Schedule I drugs is marijuana, which the feds have deemed "highly addictive" and without any medically accepted use. [Ending prohibition means that] Schedule I no longer exists. I'm simply saying that we should regulate and control these drugs, because you can't regulate and control them when they're illegal. [Now] we're leaving their control up to the criminals – they decide where to sell and when and to whom.
Think of it: Two of the most dangerous drugs are legal – alcohol and tobacco – while the least dangerous drug, marijuana, is prohibited. [At least] 430,000 people die every year from tobacco; 85,000 people each year die from ingesting alcohol. It is a poison. All illegal drugs combined, just ingesting these drugs, cause 12,000 deaths each year, the vast majority of them because [the user simply doesn't] know what [they're] ingesting. And there are zero deaths each year from ingesting marijuana – there is not a single marijuana death in recorded history.
RM: So do you think we could tax-and-regulate drugs similar to the way we regulate alcohol and tobacco?
JC: I think we could distribute [drugs] sort of like they do in Switzerland. By 1994 [the Swiss] were tired of arresting their children simply because they'd made the mistake of ingesting heroin. They decided to treat heroin use like a public-health problem. They set up [free clinics] where heroin users come and inject the drug up to three times per day, with clean needles and for free. Sounds pretty radical, but the outcome is that they have had not a single overdose death since they started the program in 1994. And if people are alive, we can start weening them off of the drug. [In Switzerland] 23 percent of users have gone back to full-time employment. [And] crime has been cut by 60 percent, because people don't have to prostitute themselves or steal from you in order to get their drugs – when it's free, there are no dopers on the street to sell to – what kind of idiot would turn down free?
They're not killing each other, they're not killing cops charged with fighting this "war," and they're not killing kids because they're in the crossfire. Most importantly, they're not enticing new users. [There was a groundbreaking study published] on June 2 in The Lancet [a British medical journal]. The results of a 10-year study [of the Switzerland project] revealed that there was an 82 percent decline in Zurich in the projected case of new heroin users. Think about that.
RM: Do you think that if we went to legalization that we'd see results similar to what they've seen in Switzerland?
JC: Absolutely. I have no doubt in my feeble little brain. Under the Drug War, our arrests increased 11 times. When we got that spike in funding, we kicked arrests up 415,000. By 1980 we were arresting half a million people each year [for drugs]. ... We made this a self-perpetuating policy. 1980 was a bad year for two reasons. First, it was the year that politicians got into the War on Drugs – and they've created the harshest laws ever, the mandatory minimums. And the second thing was worse: Reagan was in the White House. He said, you have to think of [the War on Drugs] like an economic problem: You're spending time busting on the supply side, the dealers, when you should be focusing on the demand side, by arresting users. We didn't even arrest users under alcohol prohibition! [Think about it,] 1.9 million human beings were arrested [for drugs in 2006] – what happens to these people? At LEAP we have a saying: You can get over an addiction, but you never get over a conviction. A conviction follows you everywhere – [it makes it difficult to get a job;] you can move to another state, and it will follow you there. So the only place that wants you is right back in the drug culture, which is the place we say we're trying to save you from. It's like a whirlpool; it keeps pulling more and more people in, and it keeps getting larger, larger, larger.
RM: In all, you seem very optimistic about the likelihood of ending prohibition.
JC: I wasn't optimistic four years ago – not before I started this. But after giving 600 talks and hearing everyone saying the same thing, you get to be optimistic.
RM: How long to you think it will be before we end prohibition? Any idea how many years it will be?
JC: Whenever any of you folks ask, I always say I think it will come sooner rather than later. But if you end the War on Drugs next week, it will be one week too late. In that week we'll arrest people and destroy the lives of a lot of people; a lot of people will be killed.
Let's talk for a minute about the racism of the War on Drugs. You know when I said that the War on Drugs has nearly destroyed the black community? Look at the federal household survey to see who uses drugs and who sells drugs: Seventy-two percent of all drug users are white; 13.5 percent of users are black. Now look at who gets arrested: Thirty-seven percent of all drug arrests are black. Eighty-one percent of all federal [drug] offenders are black; 60 percent in state prisons are black. Blacks are serving [an average] six-year sentences for exactly the same crime where whites are serving four years. There is a one-in-three chance that a black male will serve time in prison. Can you imagine? What do parents think? And there are other consequences: Fourteen percent of blacks have lost their right to vote – in Texas, its 31 percent. The incarceration rate in the U.S. is 717 white males per 100,000. Blacks – under apartheid in South Africa, the most racist [regime ever], blacks were incarcerated at a rate of 851 per 100,000. In 2004, in the U.S. that rate was 4,919 per 100,000. And then they look around and say, "What's the matter with the black community? Where are all the husbands, the fathers?" [They're in prison.] And [yet] they're only 13 percent of the "problem."