Award-winning investigative journalist (and dad) Peter Gorman has spent more than 20 years tracking down stories from the streets of Manhattan to the slums of Bombay. Specializing in Drug War issues, he is credited as a primary journalist in the medical marijuana and hemp movements, as well as in property forfeiture reform. His work has appeared in over 100 national and international magazines and newspapers.
Peter Gorman's love affair with the Amazon jungle is well-known to people in the field. Since 1984 Mr. Gorman has spent a minimum of three months annually there generally using Iquitos
Peru as his base. During that time he has studied ayahuasca the visionary healing vine of the jungle with his friend the curandero Julio Jerena. He has collected artifacts for the American Museum of Natural History botanical specimens for Shaman Pharmaceuticals and herpetological specimens for the FIDIA Research Institute of the University of Rome. His description of the indiginous Matses Indians’ use of the secretions of the phyllomedusa bicolor frog has opened an entire field devoted to the use of amphibian peptides as potential medicines in Western medicine.
by Peter Gorman
After nearly four decades of fueling the U.S. policy of a war on drugs with over half-a-trillion tax dollars and increasingly punitive policies, our confined population has quadrupled over a 20-year period making building prisons this nation's fastest growing industry. More than 2.2 million of our citizens are currently incarcerated and every year we arrest an additional 1.6 million for nonviolent drug offenses—more per capita than any country in the world…”
I know. That sounds like something you’d read in this column. Thing is, that quote is actually taken from the opening section of the Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) website. LEAP was founded in March. 2002 by five police officers to give voice to members of policing agencies who feel the drug war’s a failure and prefer legalization and regulation to the black market and incarceration. Modeled after the group Vietnam Veterans Against the War, LEAP’s members hope that their experience in fighting the war on drugs will make their decision to call for an end to the war on drugs—they’re after legalization and regulation of ALL illegal drugs—one as equally unassailable.
“We are the people who fought the war on drugs,” Jack Cole, LEAP’s Executive Director and a retired detective lieutenant—26 years with the New Jersey State Police and 14 in their Narcotic Bureau, mostly undercover, told Skunk recently. “I bear witness to the abject failure of the U.S. war on drugs and to the horrors these prohibitionist policies have produced.
The whole concept of the WoD is wrong, says Cole. “You declare war, you need soldiers. You have soldiers, they need an enemy. So we’ve effectively taken a peacekeeping force—the police—and turned them into soldiers whose enemies are the 84 million people who have tried illegal substances in the US.”
And to be an effective soldier, of course, you’ve got to dehumanize your enemy. “When I started out in narcotics,” says Cole, a no-bs straight-talker, “I believed everything they told me. Drugs were bad. The people who did them were less than human. I was all for locking them up.”
What changed his mind?
“When I realized that I liked the people I was trying to catch a lot better than some of the people I worked with,” he laughs.
In the three years since its founding, LEAP has grown from the group of five to over 2,000. Membership now includes Federal Judges, prison wardens, prosecutors, DEA agents and a host of other law-enforcement groups. Its Advisory Board reads like a Who’s Who of public figures who are outspokenly against the drug war, from federal judge Robert Sweet to Colombia’s former top drug-crimes prosecutor Gustavo de Grief to former Chief Coroner for British Columbia Larry Campbell, and former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson. With its stated mission “to reduce the multitude of unintended harmful consequences resulting from fighting the War on Drugs and to lessen the incidence of death, disease, crime and addiction by ultimately ending drug prohibition,” LEAP is perhaps the least likely—but likely to be the most impacting—anti-drug war group in the Americas.
To get their word out, LEAP established a Speaker’s Bureau in 2003 comprised of former drug warriors. To date it’s grown to 85-speakers who’ve given more than 1,000 talks. But while most drug reformers spend a great deal of time preaching to the converted, LEAP’s speakers try to get themselves booked into Chamber’s of Commerce, Lion’s and Kiwanis’ Clubs, Rotarys, onto military bases and into other staunchly conservative venues.
Mike Smithson, LEAP’s Speaker’s Bureau Coordinator, says having those crowds is vital if change is going to come about. “You get Jack Cole or some of our other speakers in front of a group of people who are gung ho for the drug war and he’ll just turn them inside out on the issue. When people are willing to listen—and they listen to us because we have been there—and hear about the impact of current drug policies on police-community relations, the financial costs, police corruption and the rest of the drug war’s impact, well, most of them get it pretty quickly. Regulate and control these substances and we might be able to keep them out of the hands of children and out of the school yards. Kids say it’s easier to get drugs than a beer. Why is that? Regulation and control.”
Of course it’s not always easy for someone in law-enforcement to come out of the closet with a position so opposed to the status quo, which is why most of LEAP’s membership is made up of retired officers. One of those who is still on active duty is John A. Gayder, one of the founders of LEAP and its current Secretary, as well as a Constable with Niagara Parks Police in Ontario, Canada. Gayder, who is very careful to note that “I may never speak, or been seen to be speaking as a representative of my department”—says he helped start LEAP because “our drug laws are not only not working, they are actually making things worse by enriching gangsters, ruining lives, diverting resources and killing people.”
Gayder is quick to point out that he doesn’t think using drugs is a “wise choice”, but thinks “going to jail and getting a criminal record that will likely screw up a person’s life far worse than the biggest bag of cannabis ever will.”
Gayder’s personal opinion is that there are probably a great many officers who agree with his private stance on the drug war, but for a variety of reasons they’re not willing to speak out. “Some are probably intimidated about coming out,” he says, adding that the pressure he felt on the job when he first made his views public was not as great as many might imagine. “For a lot of officers it’s just not a big issue. They have no real passion for it. For me it was something that bothered me deeply, which is why I speak out.”
One of LEAP’s newer speakers is also from Canada. Alison Myrden, a former correction officer and one of the first people to get the right to possess and use marijuana medically (for multiple sclerosis), joined the LEAP Speaker’s Bureau in 2004. Myrden knows about the pressures some people face in coming out against the drug war. After MS forced her into early retirement, she discovered the benefits of medical marijuana on her shakes and as a pain reliever and was able to return to her job in the courts two or three times a week. Then, rather then be a law-breaker, she asked the Canadian government to help get marijuana for her.
“Well, I found out that my name was going to be leaked by a reporter in Ottowa who had gotten hold of the names of those of us who’d asked the government for cannabis and that sent me into a panic. I was not ready to go public. So I had to go to my family and my bosses and explain that I was coming out. And when I first did I had a lot of people thinking I was ruining my family and my good name—it was scary. But when people began to focus on my having a career in law enforcement and that I was trying to change the laws, not break them, people began to change.”
Since then, her disease progression has forced her to retire again, but she has become a noted activist. Then, about a year ago Jack Cole approached her and asked her to become Canada’s first LEAP female speaker. Myrden did her first event with them last June on Parliament Hill, speaking for LEAP to a mixed crowd of several thousand. Since then she’s done several others. When she speaks, she speaks as both a retired Corrections officer and a medical marijuana user. She’s fired up on both levels. “I don’t think sick people should ever pay for pot and they should never never run out,” she says emphatically. “On the other hand, I’m not comfortable with someone 12 or 13 smoking a joint,” she says. “But at the same time I don’t want to see those people in court and having criminal records for it. Just regulate it and tax it and that will help keep it out of the hands of those 12-and-13-year olds.”
In the end, while much of what LEAP’s members say is material those of us who’ve been fighting to end the drug war already know, it’s refreshing to hear members of law-enforcement say it. If the courage of these folks inspires others, there may just be a glimmer of hope that one day the War on Drugs will be seen for what it is—a cruel hoax perpetrated on the many by the few for political and financial gain—and finally be put to rest. Skunk salutes you, LEAP.
It would all be funny if people weren’t dying and the jails weren’t full.