It's understandable why when many people first see Howard Wooldridge, they might at first think he's a crank.
The slender, mustachioed man of middle-age frequently wears a cowboy hat, and has been known to get around town on a horse. He also wears a black shirt with loud, conspicuous lettering on both the front and back. You'd be forgiven to dismiss him as a religious zealot proclaiming the coming apocalypse, or a disciple of Lyndon Larouche.
But look closer. The shirt reads: "COPS SAY LEGALIZE DRUGS: ASK ME WHY."
And people do.
"I get stopped just about everywhere," he says. "The shirt works. I have several different for different occasions – I can get my point across in 30 seconds in an elevator, a few minutes in a restaurant, or full-blown speech at a Rotary Club."
If he doesn't leave people convinced, he at least leaves them asking the right questions.
So does Norm Stamper, former police chief for the city of Seattle.
"People ask how a former cop could say drugs should be legalized, but it's precisely because I love police and love police work that I'm saying it. The drug war stops real cops from doing real police work. It's corrupting. It's wasteful. And it has wrecked communities."
Wooldridge and Stamper are featured speakers for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a relatively new but powerfully motivated group of current and former police officers, judges, prosecutors, and politicians who have come out against America's failed war on drugs.
LEAP was founded in 2002 by Jack Cole, a 26-year veteran of the New Jersey State Police. Cole spent 12 of those years as an undercover narcotics detective. According to his bio, it was his post-retirement struggle with the "emotional residue" left over from his work as a narcotics officer that led him to the realization that the war on drugs has failed.
After forming LEAP, Cole, Wooldridge, and three other founding members hit the public speaking circuit, talking to government classes, Rotary Clubs, and campus organizations. They wrote op-eds for local newspapers, and they debated on radio programs. In just under five years, LEAP now claims more than 6,500 members.
Proponents of drug prohibition tend to dismiss reform groups like NORML or the Drug Policy Alliance as fringe ideologues (politicians seem fond of dismissing the latter group for no other reason than that it gets its funding from George Soros). But when decorated police officers, former police chiefs, and ex-judges and prosecutors speak up, audiences can't help but take notice.
These aren't stoners. They're former public servants, and many risked their lives for a cause they now say is mistaken.
That's powerful stuff. When a guy tells you he regrets what he's done for most of his career -- and what he could well have died for -- his words take on a unique credibility and urgency.
One common characteristic you'll find in many members of LEAP is guilt. Most of these former officers lug around a weighty burden. Many concede they realized early in their careers that the drug war was a failure, and would always be a failure. They regret now that they didn't speak up sooner.
Stamper says in LEAP's promotional video, "Even though I knew that the drug war was harmful financially and psychically and spiritually . . . I should have been saying much more of that, much more strenuously."
One thing LEAP's members can attest to that other drug war critics can't is the drug war's corrupting influence on police officers.
Tony Ryan, one of LEAP's newest member and a well-decorated, 36-year Denver police officer recently wrote in an op-ed, "the huge lure of money is always there, either through bribes by drug dealers, or during busts where piles of money are lying around. Corruption of law enforcement was at its highest during alcohol prohibition and we see it now with drug prohibition."
Any Lexis or Google News search will confirm Ryan's warning about corruption a dozen times over. That's not an indictment of police officers. Rather, it's an indictment of policy that puts police officers in situations where temptation and corruption come begging. But it's still a difficult argument for someone without law enforcement experience to make. Coming from a retired cop – in fact from dozens of them affiliated with LEAP – it becomes impossible for drug war proponents to ignore.
LEAP's message is powerful. I've now heard or seen four of its speakers' presentations. They use tales from the front lines to illustrate their broader points on public policy. Their delivery is authentic and gently persuasive, not didactic. They come from all political stripes, from hippy-ish liberals to live-and-let-live libertarians to law-and-order conservatives, the latter having come to the realization that the drug war consists of bad laws that cause much disorder.
For several years now, LEAP has been looking for a debate with the country's top drug policymakers – anyone from DEA Administrator Karen Tandy to Drug Czar John Walters to powerful prohibition politicians like Indiana Rep. Mark Souder.
So far, they've had little luck. That's too bad. If the drug war is still as important and necessary as our leaders in government say it is, it's champions should be able to defend it--especially against the law enforcement officers they've asked to fight it.
Radley Balko is a senior editor with Reason magazine. He publishes the weblog, TheAgitator.com.