When he was new in “blue,” Robert Owens was the scourge of East Los Angeles junkies, racking up record-breaking numbers of heroin arrests.
But even then, the young Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy wondered if all the collars and the time and resources it took to make them were making any difference.
Those doubts only grew during the rest of his 38 years in law enforcement, including his 22 years as police chief in gritty Oxnard, Calif.
Today, at 74, Owens is an outspoken proponent of ending America’s drug war, which has been waged for nearly four decades at an estimated cost of $500 billion. Despite the best efforts and intentions of anti-drug policies, it simply hasn’t worked, he says.
“This country is long overdue in recognizing that not only have we lost the war on drugs, but we have squandered billions of dollars and untold numbers of lives,” said Owen, who now coordinates law enforcement internships at the University of Texas in San Antonio.
Owen is not alone. He is one of 2,000 members of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an organization of current and former police officers, judges, prosecutors, prison guards and others across the country and in Canada and England.
All have toiled in the trenches of the drug war and now consider traditional approaches futile. Though there is not unanimity, most in the group believe that the government should regulate the distribution and use of illicit substances and offer treatment instead of prison time to those caught in their grip.
The group’s board of advisers includes former police chiefs of New York City, Seattle, Wash., and San Jose, Calif., along with current federal court judges in Denver, New York City, and Bridgeport, Conn. It also counts former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson as a supporter, as well as the sheriff of San Miguel County, Colo.
“This is not a tie-died group,” said Mike Smithson, who runs the group’s speakers bureau.
Perhaps not, but they are misguided and far out on the fringe of the drug issue, said a spokesman for the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy.
“It’s simply an irresponsible message to put out there,” said Rafael Lemaitire, deputy press secretary for the anti-drug office.
By any measure, Lemaitire said, the drug war _ which employs police work, public education and treatment to attack the problem _ has been effective in driving down drug use in America. In 1979, at the peak of the drug epidemic, 14 percent of the U.S. population said they had used drugs in the past 30 days. Now, that number is 6 percent.
And, he said, everyone knows at least one person whose life was ruined by drug use, and whole neighborhoods and communities besieged by drug-related crime. To give up on the battle would mean more misery, criminality and despair, he said.
“It’s ludicrous to think that any law enforcement person would want to put people and communities at greater risk,” Lemaitire said.
But Owens and others affiliated with his group contend that the war on drugs has succeeded in little more than packing America’s prisons with low-level offenders. If the battle is being won, they ask, why is the scourge of methamphetamine use spreading around the country? Why is the marijuana bought on the street today more potent than it was 35 years ago?
“This is not a war on drugs. It’s a war on people,” said LEAP executive director Jack Cole, who worked for 12 years as an undercover narcotics officer with the New Jersey State Police.
Cole and others in the group acknowledge their beliefs are hotly controversial, but they contend that there are far more police officers and others who share their point of view but can’t risk the ostracism and professional damage that could occur if they went public. In fact, the organization welcomes members who want to remain anonymous and promises them their identities will never be revealed.
For now, the group’s aim is to spark a public discussion of the worth of the war on drugs, as it now is being fought, Owens said. He and others like him want to use their front-lines credibility to open a national conversation on the topic.
“We’re planting seeds,” Owens said.
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(Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)shns.com)