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.”

But after his time on the board, Franklin was “right back to it,” as his law enforcement career continued to blossom. “I had to disregard all of that, because my job was to enforce the laws as they stood.” It was a few years later, soon after he retired from the force, that something else happened to change his worldview drastically: the murder of his friend and comrade Ed Toatley.

“I first met Ed Toatley in the 1980s,” Franklin recalls. “Shortly after he came onto the Maryland State Police he went into undercover narcotics work. If you did not get along with Ed, the issue was probably with you. I think that’s what made him the most effective undercover agent that the state of Maryland had ever seen. Many other agencies wanted to use him to work narcotics, including the FBI. In fact, the only time I can recall seeing him in his uniform—other than when he first came on—was the day we laid him in his coffin.”

Franklin’s voice becomes heavy with emotion. “Ed had three kids, a beautiful family. He worked for me on a number of occasions. At my retirement party that March [1999], Ed was the one who presented to me what is every trooper’s most prized possession—second to their retirement badge—when they retire: a shadow box. The shadow box contains all of your insignia, all of the things that went on your uniform; it tells the entire story of your career.”

Toatley was working on an undercover sting operation in Northeast Washington in late 2000. “He was supposed to be making this final buy from this individual within a couple of weeks,” Franklin recalls. “The buy was going down on October 30th.” Toatley had a reported $3,500 in cash to exchange for crack cocaine.

“The car Ed was driving was wired for sound, and had hidden cameras. So he picks up the bad guy, whose name is Kofi Orleans-Lindsay, and the guy directs him on the drive to pick up the drugs. They pull in a residential neighborhood and the guy leaves, supposedly to get the drugs.”

Kofi Orleans-Lindsay left Toatley’s unmarked Toyota 4-Runner around 8:30 PM. He came back a few moments later with a .380 semiautomatic pistol tucked in the pocket of his sweatshirt. “He returns and pauses for a moment outside the car to finish his cigarette…And then he reaches over and shoots Ed at point blank range in the side of the head.”

Franklin and his wife made the 54-mile drive to the hospital were Toatley had been taken. “I probably broke every land speed record there is. We get to the hospital and the place is packed. Friends, coworkers, family…But he had already passed.”

The murder of Ed Toatley sparked a nationwide manhunt for his killer, who fled to New York. A year later, 24-year old Kofi Orleans-Lindsay pled guilty to first-degree murder, and was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. “The thing was a rip,” says Franklin, bitterly. “He’d just decided he was going to keep the drugs and the money, so he shot Ed in cold blood. That’s what this whole game is about.” His voice rises: “I don’t care if you’re a drug dealer on the street like Kofi Orleans-Lindsay was, or whether you’re in the business of big pharma, or the privatization of prisons, this war is all about money. Sure, there’s money being made by the people who stand out on street corners and sell this stuff, but there’s a lot more money being made on the other side.”

The loss of his friend prompted a long period of personal reflection on the direction of the war on drugs that eventually led Franklin, the one-time undercover narcotics cop, to LEAP. “I was looking for answers. I stumbled across their website, which was fairly new at the time, and contacted them via email.” He began working with LEAP in earnest in 2008, with the same drive that once propelled him up the ladder of the Maryland State Police. “As of now, LEAP is 24/7 for me.” He has been Executive Director since July 2010.

A rapidly-growing voice in the drug law debate, LEAP represents 50,000 people worldwide, including “a few thousand who are cops, judges, prosecutors and corrections officials. That’s one of the areas where we’re trying to grow, and when we speak to law enforcement one-on-one, most of them agree with us more than they disagree. But it’s difficult, because it’s hard for anyone to accept that most of what we have done in our career has really meant nothing in terms of actually solving the drug problem. Not only that, but the actions we’ve taken have often been detrimental to our communities in one way or another? That’s a bitter pill for a lot of people to swallow.”

As unpopular as it might be with sections of his own community, Neill Franklin has made it a personal mission to get this message out. A frequent guest of news panel discussions, he is almost guaranteed to wrong-foot even the most ardent prohibitionist.  Intelligent, well-presented and eloquent, he also speaks with compelling moral authority. After all, this is a man who risked his life for decades fighting this war. He has been responsible for countless arrests and had a hand in taking down several criminal organizations. When someone like Neill Franklin turns around after 33 years and tells you that this thing isn’t working, only a fool—or a politician—would disregard his testimony.

Those of us who agree that prohibition has been a failure can sometimes get sucked into pessimism. The idea that things will not change—so why bother?—can be seductive. 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.

“You can say what you want about why we don’t change our drugs laws,” Franklin muses, after we talk about how hard it can be to change hearts and minds, “and sure, we always here a lot of stuff from the other side about how we do this to save the children or whatever, but the simple reason is this: too many people are making literally billions from the illicit drug trade. And believe me, it’s not those young men standing out on the corners who are making it. They are the ones getting the least of what’s being generated.  If we were really serious about helping our kids and our communities, we’d put our energies into education and treatment, and teach people, so they make the right decisions, period.” 

Tony O'Neill is the author of several novels, including Digging the Vein and Down and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He is the co-author of 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. O'Neill has interviewed Jerry Stahl and argued against abstinence, among many other stories he's done for The Fix.

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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.