A couple of weeks ago I received an email from Bruce Crosby, the editor of this newspaper, informing me of a retired police detective's ride across America on a horse to protest this countr's war on drugs. At the time, it was believed he was coming through McCook and Bruce asked if I would be interested in sitting down and talking to this guy. Because I'm a former police officer as well and have long thought we were losing the war on drugs, I told him I would and used the contact information he provided me to introduce myself and to set up an interview.
I received an immediate reply from Jack Cole, the Executive Director of LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition). Obviously, the primary reason for the ride across America is to promote awareness of the organization's goals so Cole immediately set the wheels in motion to arrange the interview. Cole retired as a Detective Lieutenant after a 26-year career with the New Jersey State Police. For twelve of those years he worked as an undercover narcotics officer. His investigations spanned the spectrum of possible cases, from street drug users and mid-level drug dealers in New Jersey to international -- billion-dollar -- drug trafficking organizations. He ended his undercover career living nearly two years in Boston and New York City, posing as a fugitive drug dealer wanted for murder, while tracking members of a terrorist organization that robbed banks, planted bombs in corporate headquarters, courthouses, police stations, and airplanes and ultimaty murdered a New Jersey State Trooper
After retiring Cole dealt with the emotional residue left from his participation in what he determined to be the unjust war on drugs by working to reform current drug policy. He holds a B.A. in Criminal Justice, an M.A. in Public Policy and is currently writing his doctoral dissertation for the Public Policy Ph.D. program at the University of Massachusetts. His major focus is on the issues of race and gender bias, brutality and corruption in law enforcement, due mainly to this country's "War on Drugs." He believes ending drug prohibition will go a long way toward correcting those problems. He is passionate in his belief that the drug war is steeped in racism, that it is needlessly destroying the lives of young people, and that is corrupting our police.
LEAP‚s Advisory Board is composed of an impressive list of former law enforcement personnel and elected officials including Larry Campbell, the Mayor of Vancouver, British Columbia and former Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Warren W. Eginton, Judge, U.S. District Court in Connecticut, Gustavo de Greiff, former Attorney General of Colombia, South America, Gary E. Johnson, Former Governor of the state of New Mexico, John L. Kane, Judge, U.S. District Court in Colorado, Bill Masters, Sheriff of San Miguel County in Colorado, Dr. Joseph McNamara, Former Chief of Police, San Jose, California, Robert Sweet, Judge, U.S. District Court in New York, and Patrick V. Murphy, former Commissioner of the New York City Police Department, among others.
As things evolved, the former police officer riding his horse across the country did not come through McCook but took an alternative route. After a series of conversations, we agreed to meet in Cambridge last Sunday. The officer in question is Howard J. Wooldridge, the Media Director of LEAP. When I arrived, he was already at the meeting place with his van, his two horses, and his trailer, Norma Sapp, of Norman, Oklahoma.
Howard was obviously road weary, having jumped in his vehicle and making the drive down to Cambridge from Lexington, where he was spending the night. He was scheduled to speak to the Kearney Rotary Club the following day. He was dressed in his cowboy hat, jeans, cowboy boots and a tee-shirt he always wears that says "Cops support legalizing drugs. Ask me Why."
We spoke for an hour anda half and his passion for what he was doing was evident, the basics of which were covered earlier in the column. He believes that the War on Drugs has been a dismal failure, that it has made criminals out of tens of thousands of Americans who are otherwise law abiding citizens, that it has caused a multitude of deaths because of the participation of street gangs and organized crime jockeying for drug turf, that it has caused massive corruption in police departments across the country because of the incredibly high profit margins involved in selling an illegal product and, that when put on a balance sheet, the negatives of the drug war. I agreed with him that all those things were true but, at the same time, there was no question that drugs ruined peoples lives as well as claimed peoples lives and asked him if he was not concerned that drug use would increase significantly if drugs were legalized, with the effect of ruining and killing far more people. He suggested a zero-sum game where the number of new people trying drugs because they were legal would be offset by the number of people who would stop using drugs because they were no longer illegal, hence the forbidden nature of the behavior would be missing which is why some users do it to begin with.
Howard rode across the country from the East Coast to the West Coast in 2003 and is now riding back in the other direction to promote an issue he and the other members of LEAP are passionate about. When he completes his current journey, he will be the first person to ever ride across the country on a horse in both directions, constantly calling attention to the need to end the current drug war and replace it with legalization, regulation and taxation. He says that the drug dealer is the greatest evil in America today and thousands of people's lives would be saved with legalization. Two of his many recommendations are to make drug overdose calls arrest-free calls, unlike the way most police departments handle them today, because of the pressure to arrest drug dealers rather than to save the life of the drug user. He says that it's a very simple dynamic, that legalizing drugs is pro-life, and criminalizing drugs is pro-death.
The entire issue is obviously a tough call and like almost everything else that exists in our world, there are no obvious, easy answers. This is another issue where the nation is split right down the middle. Both liberals and conservatives favor the continued criminalizing of drugs, both liberals and conservatives favor the legalizing of drugs.
But regardless of where you stand, the LEAP organization in general and Howard Wooldridge in particular sparks debate and discussion about a crucial issue in the lives of many Americans and that's a good thing.