Why Growing Numbers of Police Are Slamming Drug Prohibition

By Tony O'Neill 06/14/11
For decades, police were convinced that total prohibition was the only way to end America's deadly drug wars. Now thousands of cops are not only having second thoughts but actually taking to the streets in protest.

“I was pro-prohibition: that’s what my training was about!” says Major Neill Franklin, Executive Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), who previously served for 33 years with the Maryland State Police and the Baltimore police forces on the front line of America’s longest running war. “Even though I grew up in Baltimore and saw what was going on, we were taught and trained to believe that if we push hard enough, if we lock up the people involved, then this will eventually dissipate, or at least be reduced to a manageable level.” He gives a long, world-weary sigh. “Of course back then I had no clue...You just can’t tell somebody not to use and they’re gonna stop using! As long as there are people willing to buy, and as long as people don’t have employment, then you’re going to have an illicit drug trade. I saw that we made these arrests—we locked up dealers and users alike—and it might get quiet for a few days, or even a couple of weeks, but give it time and it all starts up again.”

This is a man whose time in law enforcement was highly successful by anyone’s barometer. In the course of his career, he ended up becoming a Commander and leading a number of narcotics task forces. He was promoted and recruited so often that he once joked, "Every time I turned around, I was in a new position.” The idea that this stalwart drug law enforcer would one day become one of America’s most outspoken and proactive critics of prohibition seems shocking. But once Franklin starts to talk about his conversion from drug law zealot to dedicated reform campaigner, the cool logic of his position becomes clear. 

Like many people, my impressions of what it would be like to serve as a narcotics cop in Baltimore are shaped by The Wire, Dan Simon’s now-legendary HBO portrait of a city out of control, with police fighting a largely futile battle against drug gangs and city bureaucracy, and the moral lines between cop and criminal often becoming blurred. Franklin acknowledges that the show painted a realistic portrait of Baltimore in the late ‘90s, but it was very different when he first hit the streets.

Those of us who agree that prohibition has been a failure can sometimes get sucked into pessimism. But when you speak to a man who has lost friends in this war and is still willing to risk alienating his old comrades by speaking out, it’s hard not to feel inspired.

“The illicit trade in Baltimore back then revolved around heroin it was—and remained—the primary drug,” Franklin tells me. “When I started working undercover around 1980 and '81, it wasn’t as violent as it is today. Most of the violence was contained among the players in the illicit drug trade. When we worked undercover we didn’t even carry guns! Many times I went by myself; I had no back up. We each had our own areas that we worked. We went in, befriended people, got to know the places and eventually got to know who was selling what. That’s how we made buys, and that’s how we developed cases.”

This relatively stable scene would soon change. In the late ‘80s and the ‘90s, the Baltimore drug business “became a lot more violent. A big reason for that was that law enforcement—with the persuasion of federal government and financial grants and other money coming from the Department of Justice—started to dismantle the many drug organizations that were out there. Many of these organizations in Baltimore were huge.”

These successes brought unexpected consequences, Franklin explains. “When we started infiltrating these organizations and breaking them up, we left a huge void in the market. The demand for the drugs has always been there and will always be there—so many young entrepreneurs saw this as an opportunity to come in and grab a share of the market. That’s when we saw the advent of the open-air drug markets. These younger guys realized they had to arm themselves to protect their share and that brought about a massive upturn in street violence. That’s the reason so many of our neighborhoods today have the problems they have with firearms. We were constantly told that eventually it would get better, but it just wasn’t happening. That’s when I met Mayor Kurt Schmoke.”

When Schmoke, Baltimore’s first black elected mayor, declared on television in the late ‘80s that the war on drugs was not working, he was articulating something that had only been whispered in political circles until then. (To put that in context, this was the era when President Regan’s “Just Say No” campaign was in full swing.) Franklin’s encounter with the outspoken politician had a lasting effect on him. He was assigned to the mayor’s needle exchange policy board in the mid-‘90s, when he was a Lieutenant with the Maryland State Police. Schmoke had been a prosecutor before he became mayor: “He spoke about the cases and the violence surrounding the illegal drug trade, and how his communities were becoming more and more violent related to this trade. But also he started speaking from a medical perspective. Along with his health commissioner, he had come up with the idea of a needle exchange program for the city of Baltimore, to try and reduce to the spread of H.I.V. and hepatitis. It resulted in a significant reduction of new cases of AIDS in Baltimore. Just hearing someone say those things—from such a radically different perspective than the one I had been taught—was incredibly powerful.”

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Tony O'Neill, a regular contributor to The Fix, is the author of several novels, including Digging the VeinDown and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He also co-authored the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie). He lives in New York with his wife and daughter. You can follow Tony on Twitter.