Cops and Harm Reduction Hotties, Oh My!

Silja J.A. Talvi

You wouldn’t have expected it during any other week, but for a few days in mid-November, pot smoke wafted throughout the hallways and meeting rooms of the Westin Hotel in Long Beach, California.

Burly LEAPers were treated like celebrities in their own right, easy to spot because of their buzz cuts, cowboy hats and/or extremely large lettering on their brightly colored t-shirts: "Cops Say Legalize Drugs. Ask Me Why."

Upscale hotels aren’t typical hangouts for barefoot young hippies, recovering addicts, or a handful of self-described harm reduction hotties” toting their own 12-month calendar and information about how to minimize disease and other damage from injection drug use. 

But here they were, rubbing elbows with retired police chiefs, academics, addiction specialists, attorneys, non-profit directors, religious leaders and formerly incarcerated prisoners.

The occasion? The 2005 International Drug Policy Reform Conference, organized by the Drug Policy Alliance. With nearly 1,000 registrants from all over the United States and many parts of Europe, Latin America and Canada, the event offered attendees nearly 75 sessions over three days, on topics such as harm reduction psychotherapy, rogue anti-drug task forces, and cutting edge cannabis research in Canada.

The group causing the biggest buzz, by far, were the representatives of LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which calls for an end to the drug war altogether. In the three years since the group’s founding, the not-for-profit has cultivated an impressive advisory board with the likes of former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson; Joseph McNamara, San Jose’s former police chief; Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell; former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper and U.S. District Court Judge John Kane.

Years ago, police officers would only have mingled with this crowd as undercover agents, but here, burly LEAPers were treated like celebrities in their own right, easy to spot because of their buzz cuts, cowboy hats and/​or extremely large lettering on their brightly colored t-shirts: Cops Say Legalize Drugs. Ask Me Why.” 

A LEAP panel discussion yielded shocking stories from the drug war front lines. Admissions from LEAP Director and former New Jersey state police lieutenant Jack Cole, a 26-year veteran and narc, surprised even this drug war-savvy crowd. We lied regularly about the numbers of drugs we were seizing,” Cole said, explaining that if his fellow officers were lucky enough to bust someone for one ounce of cocaine, they’d immediately look for a cutting agent to double the amount of the seizure. And if a seizure’s street value stood at $1,500, the cops would bump it up to $20,000. Who’s to question it,” Cole asked. 

Other panelists spoke of leaving the profession because they couldn’t stomach the lies or the corruption, especially when they noticed fellow cops striking deals with the people they were supposed to arrest, selling and smuggling drugs, and buying cars, trips and multi-million dollar homes with their proceeds. 

Garry Jones, a retired senior lieutenant who has worked in prisons across the country, including the federal system, recalled instances where people would come to prison on visiting day just to buy drugs from the inmates. My [colleagues] were bringing drugs inside the prisons, making big money … There was no way to escape drugs in prison. You couldn’t do it yesterday and you can’t do it today,” he said.

Jones said that he was particularly troubled to see ever-increasing numbers of African American men being locked up, often on drug-related offenses. 

In this session and many others, plenty of talk was devoted to the plight of the poor people and people of color who make up the vast majority of American jail and prison populations. The few formerly incarcerated men in attendance echoed the sentiment that it felt good to hear so many people acknowledging the seriousness of the problem.

But if there’s one thing that prison teaches longtime inmates, it’s that there’s no point to talking if you can’t back it up. People who have been locked up tend to have little patience for bullshit, even if it’s well-intentioned and comes from a gentle medical marijuana activist selling colorful, close-up pictures of fat buds, or from red-eyed college students passing joints on the hotel patio.

Building a movement with integrity has to be about more than weed,” says Dorsey Nunn during the conference’s only session by and about the formerly incarcerated. 

Nunn, a former crack addict and prisoner, is now the program director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, and co-founder of an advocacy group, All of Us or None.

There are a lot of people advocating on our behalf,” he said, but are we allowed to come and sit at that table with them?” Nunn’s question was straight and to the point, but the sentiment is still relatively new within the drug policy reform movement. 

Just as the drug policy reform movement has benefited from the insight and visible presence of LEAPers, so, too, can it be made more powerful and effective if it creates more seats at the table for the men and women who have lived through this brutal war, and experienced it from the inside out.

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Silja J.A. Talvi, a senior editor at In These Times, is an investigative journalist and essayist with credits in many dozens of newspapers and magazines nationwide, including The Nation, Salon, Santa Fe Reporter, Utne, and the Christian Science Monitor.
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