A former undercover narc who busted drug dealers in Baltimore, Maj. Neill Franklin is an unlikely advocate for loosening America’s drug laws. Even more unexpected is the fact that he probably holds the most liberal views of all those lobbying Congress for reform. But Franklin, more than anyone, also has the credentials to back up his talking points. He says his 23 years with the Maryland State Police Department — spent confronting addicts, hauling in dealers, training cops to search and seize narcotics — convinced him that the War on Drugs has failed. He believes substance abuse must be treated as a public health issue, not a law enforcement operation.
“In simple terms, the War on Drugs is the criminalization of people who use and sell drugs,” says Franklin, now the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), an educational nonprofit that has swelled to 160,000 members since its founding. “It is the policy we have chosen in managing this use of drugs which has become more problematic than drug use itself.”
Franklin got a first-hand look as one of the war’s foot soldiers trying to stop the flow of marijuana and heroin into Baltimore. “Initially, I thought they deserved [jail time],” Franklin says. “We used the lingo: We called them dirt-balls, anything you can think of — junkies, degenerates.” Franklin saw young kids, barely 10 years old, acting as lookouts for crews involved in the drug trade, and he saw bodies of rival gang members, killed in shootouts and drive-bys. Upset, he initially responded to the violence with crackdowns. After each arrest, “all we did was create job openings that others fought for,” he soon realized.
He lost all hope in waging a punitive battle against narcotics in 2000, when his good friend Ed Toatley, a 37-year-old trooper with the Maryland State Police Department, was killed in an undercover drug buy. Sitting in a SUV, Toatley handed a 23-year-old dealer $3,000 in cash. Instead of delivering the drugs, the dealer shot the decorated officer in the head. Investigators say Toatley’s cover wasn’t blown; the dealer just planned to rip off his competitor.
Research, combined with some heavy thinking, convinced him to alter his views. Able to spout off statistics like he’s reading them from a book, Franklin points out that since the War on Drugs began, more than 39 million have been arrested for nonviolent drug offenses — many of them black and Hispanic — quadrupling the prison population and costing us a trillion-and-a-half dollars in criminal justice-related costs (cops, courts, prison cells). Community relations with police throughout the country are strained, Franklin speculates, because of negative interactions from drug searches and arrests. The drugs themselves, he adds, are cheaper, more available and stronger than four decades ago. To him, that appears to be a losing strategy.
Franklin, who is African-American, didn’t immediately know what to do with his change of heart. He discovered LEAP’s website in 2003, a couple years after it developed out of a conversation between two cops. One was Jack Cole, a retired detective with the New Jersey State Police who spent 14 of his 26-year career arresting users. (He came to believe that serving time turned these individuals into criminals.) The other was Peter Christ, a retired police captain from upstate New York who took a libertarian slant on the issue: thinking that people should have the freedom to choose what substances they wanted to use. Hearing from other officers who shared their views, they created LEAP and expanded its ranks to include representatives from every aspect of law enforcement that deals with drugs — cops, sheriff deputies, DEA and FBI agents, prosecutors, judges, prison wardens and probation officers — to share a unified message with voters. Franklin signed up in 2008.
Converted, Franklin advocates full legalization of drugs (from marijuana to heroin). This seems to mark a major shift from his work as a cop, where he would make an arrest for even a trace amount of an illegal substance. But in a way, Franklin’s position hasn’t changed that much. He doesn’t want it to be a free-for-all for hard drugs (which is pretty much what we have now, he believes), but he thinks they should be regulated so that their use can be monitored. That oversight reduces the likelihood of an overdose and gives professionals an opening to provide education and possibly, medical treatment for addiction. In essence, it’s the same as existing regulations for alcohol and cigarettes.
Franklin doesn’t expect an overnight shift in policy, but he does hope that the legalization of marijuana in some states will be an impetus for further change. “The linchpin is marijuana,” he says. “I think if we could take one drug — and marijuana is good because it’s so prevalent — and change the policy to legalize it, regulate and control it, people will see a number of things. Number one: they see, wow, the sky didn’t fall,” he says.
Nor does he believe there will be an uptick in abuse of pot or a rise in fatal car accidents in the four states and in the District of Columbia where marijuana is legal for recreational use; instead, he predicts, fewer costs in law enforcement resources in both time and tax dollars, more sales tax revenue, a boon for sluggish job markets, a decrease in alcohol abuse and a drop in painkiller overdoses. If he’s right, and legalization in Colorado, Washington and other early adopters is a success, Franklin says it will be much easier to broach the more radical topics of legalization, such as treatment centers where a person could receive methadone or heroin, changes in the law to require all cops to carry naloxone (which reverses opioid poisoning) and giving amnesty to good samaritans who report ODs.
These are far more radical proposals than most you’ll hear on Capitol Hill. Several groups — National Organizational for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), Americans for Safe Access, the Marijuana Policy Project and Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access — focus explicitly on legalizing marijuana (not other illegal substances), sometimes only for medical purposes. Even the Drug Policy Alliance, perhaps the highest-profile advocacy group for reform, has limited its message to legalizing marijuana and a select group of psychedelics like MDMA (commonly known as Ecstasy or Molly), LSD and psilocybin mushrooms. The group is pushing to pilot supervised injection facilities in San Francisco and New York, but it largely pushes off which other drugs should be legalized as an unsolved question, according to a platform on the group’s website.
Although it’s become the face of some legalization campaigns, LEAP primarily operates as “a speakers bureau,” Franklin says. At first, they took their message to anyone that would listen: Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, college campuses. Today, they win audiences in the halls of Congress. Their persuasive power comes from their knowledge of the black market, similar to the way that Vietnam Veterans Against the War once spun their firsthand experience into a pacifist message. Notably, this allows LEAP to go toe-to-toe with other law enforcement groups, even as it delivers a stronger message than most drug advocacy groups, who are fearful of using the “L-word.” “We have always used the word [legalization]. We tend to be a few steps ahead of everyone else. We can do that. We’re cops, we’re judges. We can push the envelope.”
Still, the work is a constant uphill battle. Retired captains, for instance, are willing to be vocal, but it’s tough for LEAP to recruit active-duty cops as speakers. “Many who have signed on as members — not speakers — do it covertly because they face retribution,” Franklin says, listing several highly publicized examples of firings because those individuals shared LEAP’s views. One arose at the Mexican-American border in Deming, N.M., where a young Border Patrol agent, Bryan Gonzalez, expressed his frustration with how pot’s criminalization supported violent cartels across the fence to another agent. He mentioned LEAP and was soon fired for holding “personal views that were contrary to core characteristics of Border Patrol Agents, which are patriotism, dedication and espirit de corps.” Another, Joe Miller, was removed from his position as a probation officer in Mohave County in Arizona after signing a LEAP petition supporting California’s failed ballot measure to legalize weed in 2010. (Both went to court to appeal their cases.)
For too many years, police chiefs pressured their officers to handcuff and lock up nonviolent drug offenders; now, Franklin believes that education will eventually prompt those same departments into rethinking their response — prioritizing compassion and care over incarceration.
LEAP’s education work prompts Franklin to recall the lesson learned a century ago when this country placed a federal ban on alcohol. To overturn the 18th Amendment, reformers battled state-by-state until the movement could not be ignored. In a political process that took nearly 14 years, the law was repealed, taking back control from the Mob’s underground smugglers and instating strict government regulations on liquor. Now that several states have taken the first steps toward legalization, Franklin figures that another big change in drug policy will occur before 2026.
He can’t wait.
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