Stopping the Madness: Ex-Police Detective Howard Wooldridge on the Costly Failure of the War on Drugs

Posted In: Politics, National, Interviews, Opinion,   From Issue 642   By: Robert E Martin

02nd August, 2007     0

Since the War on Drugs  (or Drug Prohibition) began back in 1971 under the Nixon Administration, United States taxpayers have spent over $1 trillion dollars and arrested 36 million Americans with zero return on the investment, as hundreds of warehouses filled with illicit drugs continue to spread across our country.

As a result of this 36-year campaign, street drugs today are cheaper than ever to acquire and easier to buy than when Nixon first declared his war. 

If you don't believe me, consider this excerpt taken from a current Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) pamphlet: "Drugs are readily available to America's youth, and many see little risk in using illicit drugs."

Howard Wooldridge is a rare breed of police officer. Now in his mid-50s, he spent 18 years as a working cop, twelve years working the streets and three years as a Detective in Lansing, Michigan. 

In 1994 Wooldridge moved to Texas and began involving himself with a campaign to educate the public and address the economic & human travesty of drug prohibition by forming a national organization called LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition).

In four years, LEAP went from five founders to a membership of well over 5,000 law enforcement professionals across the United States, mostly comprised of former drug warriors including fellow police officers, judges, prosecutors, DEA and FBI agents, and prison wardens.

Today Wooldridge spends much of his time based out of Washington, D.C., lobbying Congress and meeting with State Senators and Representatives throughout the country in an impassioned endeavor to return that rare commodity of sanity back to the manner in which public policy is shaped.

Part of LEAP's mission is to educate the public, media, and lawmakers about the failure of current drug policy by presenting a true portrait of the history, causes and effects of drug abuse and the crimes and costs to society related to drug prohibition.

But most important, as a former police officer, and in the crusading vein of Frank Serpico, Wooldridge is on a quest to articulate the truth as he sees it about the financial and human costs associated with current policies, and the disconcerting police corruption and misconduct that becomes an unfortunate by-product from three decades of pursuing a failed drug war.

Recently, Gov. Jennifer Granholm proposed eliminating the notorious 'mandatory minimum' sentencing requirements in Michigan that are costing state taxpayers $31,000 per day per inmate for room & board in our State Prisons. 

I had the opportunity to sit down with Wooldridge, in between his lobbying efforts with our own State Legislators, encouraging them to adopt her plan.

Review:  You spent 18 years of your life as a law enforcement officer.  How did you make the 'leap', as it were, from officer to activist against the policies associated currently with the War on Drugs?

Wooldridge:  I spent enough time in the trenches to learn what was really going on, plus my experiences as a Detective taught me that 70-90 percent of the caseloads in our Courts centers around the policies set by Drug Prohibition.

Once you catch a crack addict that's broken into a person's home and ask them why they did such a thing, they tell you its to get $200.00 to buy their daily supply of crack. That's been true since the late 1990s and is an experience borne out across America.

I know the key to reducing crime and improving our quality of life is to end this inane drug policy - the same as ending alcohol prohibition did in 1933 and we witnessed an extreme drop in crime.

I've probably met with 350 Congressional offices and tell them the same story. We've spent over a trillion dollars on this war with a zero return on investment. Drugs today are cheaper and easier to buy than when the War on Drugs started back in 1971. Can you imagine what that money could have done for our country?  Spending it on this war has been totally meaningless in terms of fashioning any positive effect for America.

Review:  Many experts from many professions have been advocating decriminalization for close to 20 years now, yet our elected leaders never seem to listen.  Don't you find that frustrating?  You talk to politicians every day. To what do you attribute their reticence to adopt reforms?

Wooldridge: As with most things in life, you have to follow the money. My best information is that one of the largest lobby groups in Washington, D.C. is the pharmaceutical industry.  They fear marijuana as a competitive drug because of its low cost - you can grow it in your back yard like Jefferson did; plus it's highly effective - ask any oncologist or the Nurses' Association.

The drug industry would suffer between 1 to 5 percent losses somewhere between $4 to $20 billion dollars per year in gross sales if decriminalization were to happen.

What's easier to do, place it on the shelf next to pills or put $100,000 in the freezer for each Congressman and Senator to keep it illegal?

Secondly, you have the liquor industry. Millions of people from time-to-time put down their Jack Daniels and pick up a joint instead. They would face losing hundreds of millions of dollars in sales.  Again, follow the money.

Finally, you have the 'morality issue'. There are people in this country who feel it's immoral to use a mind altering intoxicating drug, and marijuana does fit that profile. So the same people that brought you alcohol prohibition in 1919 now bring you pot. The minute alcohol prohibition was lifted, 20 states made pot illegal exactly so you could not switch to another mind-altering drug.

Review: How about other officers in your profession?

Wooldridge: Not to be discounted, once again you need to follow the money. My profession is guarding paychecks and union membership. I met with the Fraternal Order of the Police in Washington, D.C., and their leading officer was crystal clear. His union has 324,000 members and is more concerned with guarding paychecks and building more prisons.

The Sheriff Association relies on drug-war money for 20 percent of their budget, on average. That's a huge chunk of their revenue.

Then you have Wackenhut, the private prison industry, spending $70 billion this year on new prisons, trying to make the War on Drugs into an effective policy.

Everybody has his or her finger in the pie.

Review: But if you contrast that to the cost of lost lives and insurance claims due to breaking and entering, and a host of other factors, why don't politicians balance the cost of this failed policy against the benefits that could be derived from re-directing that money into other areas?

Wooldridge:  You have to remember, Bob, that politicians aren't elected to save money. Their lives depend on spending money. If they can say they're building a new prison in the middle of Michigan that is going to employ 500 people with good paying state jobs and benefits, it helps them get re-elected.

There is a huge prison/industrial complex in Michigan. Far too many politicians are controlled by power, ego, and money. They like to have people kiss their ring and everything else. That's the other big chunk of this. The PAC money is huge.

Then you have 'ego', meaning the hardest three words to say in the English language are 'I Was Wrong'. Imagine Bush coming out and saying, "yes, we've spent $1 trillion dollars for 30 some years and I'm sorry ladies & gentlemen, it's been completely ineffective. Prohibition is a bad concept. It's time to return to a controlled system where government regulates and taxes these drugs.'

That's not how you get re-elected. It takes a real man or woman to admit they were wrong.

Review: Well, to me that only underscores the frustration and futility of the situationŠ

Wooldridge:  You must never give up hope. There are changes happening as we speak. In my own experience, the freight train of the Drug War mentality - namely, if you incarcerate enough people one day you'll make it too hard to buy these drugs - stopped around year 2002-2003. I see this at the Rotary Clubs that I address. Most of those attending admit the policy is not working. Nobody talks about the strategy of prohibition, but America understands today that it is a failed policy and will never be successful.

People are hungry for new ideas, which is why LEAP is able to book so many engagements with these groups.
To me it is very huge that Gov. Granholm wants to eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing in Michigan because the state does not have the money, especially for incarcerating non-violent drug offenders. She said, 'we need to lock up the people we're afraid of, not mad at because they chase pot and not whiskey'. 

It might take another 10 years, but money is a great motivator. Michigan is the first state to pursue this reduction of mandatory minimums since the drug war started. 

Marijuana may be a bad choice, as is any mind altering intoxicating drug, but its not a societal problem.  Every credible study shows the 'gateway argument ' that pot will lead to harder drugs, is simply not true.  But mainly, people will do anything to stop a regulated tax market for marijuana, because they view it as immoral - even though the Holy Bible used by Christians and Jews advocates the use of alcohol - wine, specifically.

Review: Again, its' hard to see hope here.

Wooldridge:  Many states have been successful in moving forward. Texas went for a treatment as opposed to incarceration approach back in 2003 through the legislature, and Maryland followed suit a year later. Texas didn't do it for humanitarian reasons, but because they didn't have the money to build more prisons.

Twelve states in five now have access to God's Medicine and medical marijuana initiatives will probably be on the Michigan ballot in 2008. I think people in Michigan will vote for this measure and it will pass.

Review: I'm interested in the process when you working as a police officer that changed your thinking on this issueŠ

Wooldridge:  It can be explained in one seismic event: the first fatal accident I witnessed by a drunk driver.  That solidified my focus to getting drunk drivers off the roads. I arrested hundreds of drunk drivers and wrote tickets for speeding cars at red lights, because to my mind public safety is improved when an officer does that.

The year before I became involved with LEAP, I started seeing too many officers pursuing people for simple possession of marijuana during a traffic stop. That takes officers out of service and reduces public safety.

You can spend 40 hours chasing Rush Limbaugh and in that time my colleagues in Florida could have arrested two child predators.

The trouble is the way these drug laws are written. Simple possession must be investigated and punished, so cops spend too much time chasing Whitney Houston and public safety suffers.

Any specialist will tell you that if a person has self-destructive tendencies or behavior, the only line of defense is family, friends, and colleagues. If those layers of defense can't stop you, the police certainly cannot. You cannot fix stupidity in the privacy of one's home. And if you do try to fix that, you miss the drunk drivers actually running people over.  I'm trying to fix that and it's what drives me forward.

Review: What is the biggest misconception people harbor about decriminalization?

Wooldridge: The notion that if you make these drugs legal and regulate them, use will skyrocket.  Consequently, people will lose their homes and jobs and social chaos will reign with tens of millions of people using hard drugs.
To my mind, that's the last question out there with any merit. And my response is that I'm not qualified to answer it. You need to talk to doctors and addiction psychologists.

However, the ones that I have spoken with all note that more people try illegal drugs because they are illegal - it's like a glamour factor - the forbidden fruit. Whereas if you decriminalize it, suddenly you don't have gangs selling it next to schools and giving away free samples to kids.

Look at World War II. Free cigarettes were given in every K-ration package, so 9 million fighting men had cigarettes and 3 million of them were killed from lung cancer after smoking for 40 years. A drug dealer is a drug dealer, regardless. If you're selling something addictive and out to make money, you're a drug dealer.

Review: What is the most challenging thing about turning things around at this stage?

Wooldridge:  Getting people informed, hands down. Educating the public is where I spend all my efforts.  When people understand that 100 years ago you could buy heroin at the local pharmacy with less social chaos than you have today by allowing a Pablo Escobar to operate or an Al Capone, then you start to reach a 'tipping point' of understanding.

People need to know that every drug taken away from society is replaced, which is why I'm urging Congress to call for a bi-partisan blue ribbon commission to answer questions as to why a regulated market would be superior to the current system where criminals & terrorists are in charge of ten different street drugs.

I think Granholm's proposal may be highly significant.  People need to contact their legislators, so politicians get comfortable with looking at alternatives to building more prisons that don't work and realizing that they don't need to worry about not getting re-elected if they discuss the topic.

It's a no-brainer to simply regulate & tax marijuana It would be a huge monkey off the back of law enforcement and open new revenue sources to the state.

A Harvard professor has estimated that nationally this approach would realize $2.6 billion dollars in revenue. That's $60 million dollars in Michigan alone. Meanwhile, law enforcement in this state spends $160 million chasing Willie Nelson.   That would result in over $200 million savings in Michigan.

You have to understand the dynamics of Mandatory Minimum sentences. We know today that drug dealers accept long prison terms as a condition of their employment. Every time you arrest one, another will take his place because there's too much money involved.

The producers understand they're going to lose 10 percent of their product between the jungles of Columbia and the streets of Saginaw, so they start with 110 percent and build that 10 percent loss into their shipments. With every kilo or truckload of dope & guns seized, it means nothing. The price is still going down on both cocaine and heroin.

Review: Any final thoughts?

Wooldridge: Each person in Michigan should understand that it costs $31,000 per year for 20 years for each prisoner is caught and incarcerated in jail.

Law enforcement in this context is a mosquito on the butt of an elephant, and every narcotics officer knows this. But unless you ask direct questions, they'll shut up because of their job and their union.

For a lot of drug enforcement officers, they get to make good bucks waving guns around. It's fun to some of them and exciting work; otherwise they wouldn't be doing it. Dealing with a stolen bike isn't as fun as kicking in a door to many of these officers.

I don't look to others in my profession to agree that decriminalization is a good & sound policy, because there's too much money involved.

And basically, that's it. Unless you'd like to talk about the destruction of the 4th Amendment and police corruption that has also come along with our current drug policies; but I don't think we'll have time or space for that now.

If you would like to learn more about LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) or make a contribution or become a member, you are encouraged to phone 781-393-6985.


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