ST. LOUIS — When I joined the Los Angeles Police Department in 1980, I was a strong supporter of the notion that illegal drugs should stay that way and that the enforcement of drug laws should be a top priority.
But my views quickly changed once I hit the streets. Assigned to the rugged 77th Street Division in the heart of South Central, I saw firsthand the social problems one could find in any community awash in the trafficking and use of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and other controlled substances.
During my first months on patrol, after handling hundreds of drug calls and arresting scores of people for possessing various illegal substances, I began to doubt what my peers and I were doing.
I saw violent criminals walking the streets because the jail space they rightfully deserved was occupied by nonviolent drug offenders. When we carted small-time drug dealers off to prison, I saw other sellers quickly step in to fill the void.
I started to view most people involved with drugs either as broken souls who made self-destructive choices or as harmless people who indulged their appetites in moderation — not as crooks who needed to be punished.
I tried to reconcile what I saw with my views about firmly enforcing drug laws. At first I accepted the arguments of politicians, policy wonks and my peers who asserted that ever harsher laws and firmer enforcement would turn back the tide of illegal drugs.
But by the end of my tenure with the LAPD I came to believe that marijuana — a drug I had never seen anyone overdose on or influence anyone to do anything more violent than attack a bag of potato chips — should be legalized.
I held a bifurcated stance toward illicit drugs — legalize pot but strictly enforce existing laws against the rest of the stuff — through my time with the Redmond, Wash., police department and into my graduate studies.
As the years passed, however, I saw a nation fighting harder, devoting more money and jailing increasing numbers of individuals — all the while falling further behind in the war on drugs.
The price of the drugs didn’t rise with increased interdiction, usage rates didn’t fall and the number of lives damaged or destroyed by chronic use, overdose and drug-related criminal activity mounted. No matter how much I disliked the idea, I became convinced the United States should legalize illicit drugs.
Ever since I concluded we should call off the hounds, I have discussed my ideas with people in many walks of life.
Interestingly, both my hardiest supporters and my harshest critics come from the same group: my law enforcement associates. Many of them on both sides of the debate share my views about the futility of the drug war and agree it carries a substantial downside.
What generally separates those who agree with me from those who don’t is their take on a question they almost invariably put to me: Won’t legalizing drugs lead more people to take them and thus make things worse?
I do not know whether legalizing drugs will increase their popularity. But I suspect that if we approach legalization thoughtfully and pursue a sensible post-legalization strategy, then the drug rolls will not swell. They may in fact decline.
But even if more people do take drugs in the wake of legalization, we would live in a society where citizens suffer far less from the predatory crimes spawned by the illicit drug trade.
In the end, we cannot protect free adults from their own poor choices, and we should not use the force of law to try. In a free society negative consequences befall people who use their freedom to do foolish things.
Victimless self-destructive behavior is its own punishment, not the business of the legal system.