Drug war dropout calls effort a ‘failure’

For more than 14 years, Jack Cole fought the war on drugs as a New Jersey state narcotics agent.

Now, he’s had enough.

“It’s not only a dismal failure, but a terribly destructive policy,” he said.

Cole said he quit the narcotics force in New Jersey after realizing that the war on drugs not only cost billions in taxpayer money and landed millions of Americans in jail, but also had done little to curb the country’s drug problem.

In fact, Cole believes that the drug war – beginning in 1970 during Richard Nixon’s first term and continuing today – may have helped escalate a national drug problem that only the end of drug prohibition can cure, he said.

Cole spoke as one of the founding members of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a nonprofit organization of ex-police officers, federal agents, judges and prosecutors who have turned away from the nation’s drug enforcement policy.

His speech Sunday at the Lawrence Public Library was part of the Drug Policy Forum of Kansas lecture series.

Cole said that when he began working with the New Jersey state narcotics unit, which ballooned in size from seven officers in 1964 to 76 in 1970, hard drugs like cocaine and heroin were rare, even across the river in New York.

At one point, Cole took part in the largest heroin bust in the country’s history – less than 20 pounds, a paltry amount compared with the multiton amounts federal agents find today.

But after police inflated street values and bust quantities in the media – in part to keep federal dollars flowing to the state – many people believed that selling drugs was both profitable and common, Cole said.

“By the end of that first year, we had all kinds of people to arrest,” he said.

The problem has grown out of control since then, he said. Drugs that were once expensive and weak are now cheap and much more pure. And the culture of prohibition has made buying a bag of pot easier than buying beer or cigarettes for many young people, he said.

All the while, federal agencies spend money to fight the drug war at record levels. In 1972, the budget for the then-newly founded Drug Enforcement Administration was $65 million. Today, the DEA spends more than $2 billion annually.

Cole questioned the results of the high spending. More than 1.7 million people are arrested on drug charges every year – more than 700,000 of those because of marijuana possession or sale.

Still, drugs are everywhere. The crime and violence that go along with drugs in the cities of America won’t stop, he said, unless the profitability of selling them ends as well.

The only real solution, Cole said, is to legalize all drugs, take them off the streets and put them in drugstores and clinics.

Fewer people would die from overdoses, and the criminal culture that surrounds the sale of illegal drugs would disappear, he said.

The idea isn’t likely to happen anytime soon, regardless of positive results in some European countries.

But for someone who spent more than a decade putting drug users behind bars and ruining their lives for little reason, Cole said he has to do something to try to end a never-ending war.

“We spent our entire careers fighting against drug abuse,” he said. “There is no way to stop it – not with the policies we have today.”