PRØHBTD recently sat down for an interview with the Director of LEAP (Law Enforcement Action Partnership, formerly Law Enforcement Against Prohibition), Major Neil Franklin (ret.), who is at the forefront of the war to end prohibition and promote positive justice and social reform. America is at a social fork in the road in which the country can either end prohibition or continue down the path of criminalization and incarceration. Now that cannabis is legal in six states, has America turned down the path paved in green and gold or down the rough and gravelly road that leads back to 1920s prohibition? Let’s see what LEAP had to say.
What is LEAP?
LEAP was founded in 2002 by a couple of police officers, one from the New Jersey State Police and another from a small town in New York. It is an organization of law enforcement professionals, and although it started with police officers, it expanded rather quickly to include judges, criminal prosecutors, prison wardens, probation folks, federal agents and anyone else in the criminal-justice field who spent time on what we call the frontline of the War on Drugs. We wanted an organization of crime fighters to speak the truth about the so-called War on Drugs and its failures. LEAP has branches in six other countries with 5,000 law enforcement professionals as members and 160,000 supporters worldwide.
How many people are incarcerated for drugs and, more specifically, cannabis?
Currently we have 2.3 million people in our federal and state prison system. To put those numbers in perspective, we made 400,000 arrests for drug-related crimes in 1970, and in 2005, we made 1.9 million arrests. Of the 1.9 million arrests, 43 percent were for marijuana-related crimes. Of that 43 percent, 89 percent of the arrests were for mere possession. (Math nerd alert: That works out to more than 727,000 cannabis-possession arrests in 2005.)
If cannabis becomes legal nationwide, what will be the economic impact?
In a recent study we conducted, [the country] spends $50 billion hard dollars on the drug war at the state and federal level. If we continue to move away from cannabis prohibition into a place with regulation, retail sales and taxes, you can now add another $28 billion that we [currently] lose in tax revenue, job opportunities and other things that come from a regulated marketplace. So at the end of the day, we say prohibition costs us $78 billion every year in direct costs that we can quantify, but we have no idea what we lose by indirect costs. For example, let’s say someone is in prison in California. The hard cost for one year in prison is $50,000. While they are in prison, obviously they don’t have a job for which they are paying taxes, so we lose out on the wages and taxes that would go back into the economy. And when someone has been in prison for a while, they are now saddled with an arrest and prison record. We are not sending them to Yale and Harvard, we are sending them to a place that’s a hiring facility for gang members, so when they are released, they have to work for the gang that protected them on the inside. They must turn to crime when their original crime was mere possession. This adds other indirect costs to society, such as insurance for theft and increased security. We have to recognize that. When we send these non-violent drug offenders into prison, we make our communities more unstable and more dangerous, and it is not cost effective at all.
Prohibition advocates claim that cannabis is a gateway drug. What is your view?
(Snickers) There is not one bona fide study anywhere that indicates marijuana is a gateway drug to anything. Not one, and believe me, there have been many, many attempts. So say maybe they are right. Its illegality puts it into the same physical space as other drugs like cocaine, meth and heroin, and now if alcohol was illegal, we would be saying alcohol was the gateway drug. If tobacco was illegal, we would say that was the gateway drug. The fact that marijuana is illegal contributes the concept that it is a gateway drug. We arrest 600,000 people every year for marijuana possession. Marijuana is only a gateway to entering the criminal justice system.
Do you see prohibition as a moral crusade, or is it a moral crusade in a guise?
Just like with alcohol prohibition, it started as a moral crusade. We were trying to legislate morality. It was also a way to control certain groups of people. I think the very first law we had back in the late 1800s prohibiting any type of drug was opium, and thelaw only applied to Chinese immigrants. If you come forward in history to the 1930s and 1940s, we had a booming population of Mexicans in the southwest, and they took many available jobs. Prior to that, the term for this leafy matter was cannabis and hemp. But then we ended up with this term marijuana because, in an attempt to deal with the Mexican population of workers, [the prohibitionists] created this derogatory term. The crusade against marijuana started with the main perpetrator, Harry J. Anslinger, who was what we consider our first drug czar. He was also the one who took this from a United States issue to the international playing field. So we owe him a lot, I guess (snicker). He partnered with Randolph Hearst, who basically controlled what could be called the Internet or social media of its time, and Anslinger got to publish whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, in those newspapers. You are in the era of Reefer Madness demonizing cannabis. The movie and the newspapers fostered this whole brainwashing thing, and I think you’re right, it is largely a moral crusade trying to legislate morality. At the end of the day, they had it upside down. If you want to talk about morality from the Christian perspective, I think the last thing that Jesus Christ or the Christian community wants is to have so many people in prison for using a plant that God placed on the planet. Jesus Christ was about free will, compassion and prison abolishment. Whenever we have tried to legislate morality, it’s been a complete disaster.
What are the early crime stats where prohibition has been repealed? For instance, Colorado noted a 10-percent drop in crime. What is the impact on violent crimes?
The United Nations currently estimates that the global market brings in $322 billion dollars for all illicit drugs, and cannabis accounts for close to 60 percent of all drug business and proceeds. If we were able to end the prohibition of cannabis on a global scale, we could take away 60 percent of [the illicit business] that comes from cannabis. That’s a financial blow to any organization. In Mexico, we now see a shift away from cannabis because the Mexican farmers no longer see it as profitable, and the best weed is being grown in the United States. Those folks who were growing cannabis are now becoming more involved in some of the other illicit drugs like heroin, cocaine and meth. There is going to be a big shift in the marketplace, but at the end of the day, there is going to be a reduction in crime as we continue to regulate the marijuana market. I think that with the success of the regulated market for marijuana, we will see a reduction in violent crimes.
Other countries such as Portugal legalized drugs, and it had a positive impact on their society. Would this work in the USA?
I hear people say, “Well, that’s Portugal, not the United States. We are different.” Will it work exactly the same way? Probably not. But will it improve things? Most definitely. Just the fact that we would move away from a criminal-based system [would help]. Currently, we’re trying to solve a public health issue with criminal justice solutions. It doesn’t work, so they flipped it in Portugal. You are trying to solve a public health problem with public health solutions, and it’s working. So my suggestion would be that we start small-scale here, you know, take a city or a state and see how treating it as a public health issue works. The main thing here is that people are beginning to see that our drug policy reform efforts are working and producing something positive. With positive results like Colorado, we will continue to move in that direction.
If prohibition is lifted, how does this affect organized crime like the Mexican cartels?
It’s like any other organization, they need money, right? Without money, you aren’t going to survive, and you have no influence over anyone. You take the money away from these neighborhood gangs, whether it’s the Bloods, Crips, MS-13 or 18th Street Gang, and they lose their influence, power and control with our young people. They lose their recruitment power. People, mainly other cops, have argued with me saying, “Well, they will just move on to other criminal activities,” and I say, “So how about naming some of those other criminal activities for me?” Okay, so they just commit more robberies. You rob a convenience store and get 15 or 20 bucks a hit. Are you going to rob someone coming from the ATM? Number one, you are eventually going to get caught because of all the cameras and technology. Let’s say you get away with it for a couple weeks, but in the end, you may end up with maybe a thousand bucks or two thousand bucks. Or number two, someone may shoot you in the process. But if you’re selling drugs for a week or two, you’re literally going to end up with $20,000 or $30,000, possibly more depending on your marketplace. Basically, I’m saying there is no other crime, and it’s only a crime because we prohibited drugs, and there is no other work out there for a criminal that will bring you anywhere near the money you can make selling dope. You’re not going to recruit a lot of people into your gang when your business is robbing people.
Since the Nixon declared the War on Drugs, the U.S. spent over $1 trillion on it. Has it failed?
It never had any chance of succeeding. I don’t even consider it a failure because when you consider something a failure, you are saying it had an opportunity to succeed. There was no way it could. You know, there was only one case study to look at, and it was alcohol prohibition, a huge failure from beginning to end. I don’t know how we ever expected success from drug prohibition. It was lost right out of the gate back in the 1970s. If you really want to be serious, it was a loss in 1914 when we started the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act. If the problem they truly wanted to solve was drug addiction, you know what? The rates increase, and they continue to increase for drugs like heroin and cocaine. If it was about crime, the first time our nation had an extremely high rate of homicide occurred during alcohol prohibition, and the second time is now. People talk about how we had this decline in violent crime, and we are at the lowest point in the past four decades, but if you compare [the rates] to the span of time between alcohol prohibition and the drug war, it comes nowhere close. You can take the lowest homicide rate in this country between 1970 and now, and you can’t even come close to where we were at in the 1940s, ʼ50s and ʼ60s. If the financial cost and the amount of people imprisoned all increased and continue to increase, you have abject failure.
Where do you see policy going?
What I see is a steady process of drug policy reform, but it’s coming on the heels of what most people see and understand as criminal justice reform. They think of beginning the process a little backward. What they are currently trying to solve is the symptoms of the War on Drugs. They are trying to solve mass incarceration; they are trying to police community relations; they are trying to solve the ineffectiveness that law enforcement has solving violent crime; they are trying to deal with civil asset forfeiture and roll back some of its policy; they are trying to solve the increases in heroin addiction; they are trying to solve some other criminal justice-related things. At the end of the day, if they flipped it upside down and really tried to end drug prohibition, those things that I just mentioned would disintegrate. We started eating the elephant from the wrong end. It’s like how pythons can eat a porcupine: They start head first. Right now, [drug prohibition] is trying to eat the porcupine ass first.