LEAP in the News | LEAP

LEAP in the News


Submitted by:
Stephen Downing, Retired Deputy Chief from the Los Angeles Police Department
On behalf of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition

Meeting of the Board of Supervisors, Los Angeles, CA
Tuesday, January 24, 2012, 9:30am, Board Hearing Room 381B

Thank you for the opportunity to present my views in opposition to Agenda Item 19 to
reconfigure, modernize, and expand the overall county jail facility system at an
ultimate cost of $2.66 billion.

My name is Stephen Downing. I am a resident of Los Angeles County, a retired deputy
chief from the Los Angeles Police Department and a member of the executive board of
Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an organization of criminal justice professionals
who bear personal witness to the wasteful futility and harms of our current drug policies …
and their generous contribution to the facility and population growth afforded the prison
industrial complex.

Today, the discussion should not be about building more prisons. It should be about how
we can eventually abolish the prison industrial complex.

We continue to nourish its cancerous growth by handing to law enforcement the State’s
social, political and economic problems –all in the name of SAFETY and SECURITY.

We take the easy way out by criminalizing those problems and caging our people rather
than nurturing the great potential of all of our country’s human resources.

Connie Rice sums it up very well in her book in, Power Concedes Nothing –The font of
her outstanding work is to seek means by which to eliminate counterproductive law
enforcement strategies and replace them with a community public health approach –and,
based upon my 20 years of experience with the Los Angeles Police Department, I
couldn’t agree more.

There is a world beyond surveillance, policing and imprisonment and if we invest in that
world rather than helping to expand the prison industrial complex we can truly become the
country that our founding fathers envisioned.

I would like to recommend that you help us do that by insisting that no more prisons are
built in Los Angeles County. Do that, both for us and as an example to the rest of the

Rather than build more prisons you can implement policies that help reduce the choices that
police make about which people to target, what to target them for, and when to arrest and
book them.

Restricting budgetary allotments and passing a lowest law enforcement priority ordinance can play a major
role in who gets locked up and how many prisons we don’t have to build.

The prohibitionist policies of this country have destroyed generations of our young people, fueled the growth
of street gangs in Los Angeles from two with a membership of less than one hundred 40 years ago to 33,000
across the Nation with a membership of 1,500,000. Two years ago the cartels controlled the drug trade in 250
Amerian cities. Today they occupy 1,000 American cities. In short, the war on drugs – or better put – the
war on the people –has become the major contributor to the cancerous growth of the prison industrial

The third rail of drug policy that police and politicians refuse to touch has been short circuited. It has no
power to drive this unjust war and its corrupting influences any further. The people have pulled the switch.
Three out of 4 Americans now see the war on drugs as a failure and 55% now support legalizing marijuana.
Listen to them. Refuse the sheriff’s bid to build more prisons. It is time for our elected leaders to pick up that
third rail with both hands and throw it into the vast sea of failure where it belongs.

If you refuse the Sheriff’s request and acknowledge that the war on drugs is a failure and that a public health
approach portends a better future we can quickly bring an end to the criminal power behind the black-
markets, the violence and the rates of incarceration the war on drugs has created.

The cartels, street and prison gangs and the industrial prison complex will concede nothing until their power
is torn away. And the only way to do that is by eliminating the drug policy that has allowed them, rather than
the people, to thrive.

Thank you.


New York Times

Police Officers Find That Dissent on Drug Laws May Come With a Price


PHOENIX — Border Patrol agents pursue smugglers one moment and sit around in boredom the next. It was during one of the lulls that Bryan Gonzalez, a young agent, made some comments to a colleague that cost him his career.

Stationed in Deming, N.M., Mr. Gonzalez was in his green-and-white Border Patrol vehicle just a few feet from the international boundary when he pulled up next to a fellow agent to chat about the frustrations of the job. If marijuana were legalized, Mr. Gonzalez acknowledges saying, the drug-related violence across the border in Mexico would cease. He then brought up an organization called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition that favors ending the war on drugs.

Those remarks, along with others expressing sympathy for illegal immigrants from Mexico, were passed along to the Border Patrol headquarters in Washington. After an investigation, a termination letter arrived that said Mr. Gonzalez held “personal views that were contrary to core characteristics of Border Patrol Agents, which are patriotism, dedication and esprit de corps.”

After his dismissal, Mr. Gonzalez joined a group even more exclusive than the Border Patrol: law enforcement officials who have lost their jobs for questioning the war on drugs and are fighting back in the courts.

In Arizona, Joe Miller, a probation officer in Mohave County, near the California border, filed suit last month in Federal District Court after he was dismissed for adding his name to a letter by Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which is based in Medford, Mass., and known as LEAP, expressing support for the decriminalization of marijuana.

“More and more members of the law enforcement community are speaking out against failed drug policies, and they don’t give up their right to share their insight and engage in this important debate simply because they receive government paychecks,” said Daniel Pochoda, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, which is handling the Miller case.

Mr. Miller was one of 32 members of LEAP who signed the letter, which expressed support for a California ballot measure that failed last year that would have permitted recreational marijuana use. Most of the signers were retired members of law enforcement agencies, who can speak their minds without fear of action by their bosses. But Mr. Miller and a handful of others who were still on the job — including the district attorney for Humboldt County in California and the Oakland city attorney — signed, too.

LEAP has seen its membership increase significantly from the time it was founded in 2002 by five disillusioned officers. It now has an e-mail list of 48,000, and its members include 145 judges, prosecutors, police officers, prison guards and other law enforcement officials, most of them retired, who speak on the group’s behalf.

“No one wants to be fired and have to fight for their job in court,” said Neill Franklin, a retired police officer who is LEAP’s executive director. “So most officers are reluctant to sign on board. But we do have some brave souls.”

Mr. Miller was accused of not making clear that he was speaking for himself and not the probation department while advocating the decriminalization of cannabis. His lawsuit, though, points out that the letter he signed said at the bottom, “All agency affiliations are listed for identification purposes only.”

He was also accused of dishonesty for denying that he had given approval for his name to appear on the LEAP letter. In the lawsuit, Mr. Miller said that his wife had given approval without his knowledge, using his e-mail address, but that he had later supported her.

Kip Anderson, the court administrator for the Superior Court in Mohave County, said there was no desire to limit Mr. Miller’s political views.

“This isn’t about legalization,” Mr. Anderson said. “We’re not taking a stand on that. We just didn’t want people to think he was speaking on behalf of the probation department.”

Mr. Miller, who is also a retired police officer and Marine, lost an appeal of his dismissal before a hearing officer. But when his application for unemployment benefits was turned down, he appealed that and won. An administrative law judge found that Mr. Miller had not been dishonest with his bosses and that the disclaimer on the letter was sufficient.

In the case of Mr. Gonzalez, the fired Border Patrol agent, he had not joined LEAP but had expressed sympathy with the group’s cause. “It didn’t make sense to me why marijuana is illegal,” he said. “To see that thousands of people are dying, some of whom I know, makes you want to look for a change.”

Since his firing, Mr. Gonzalez, who filed suit in federal court in Texas in January, has worked as a construction worker, a bouncer and a yard worker. He has also gone back to school, where he is considering a law degree.

“I don’t want to work at a place that says I can’t think,” said Mr. Gonzalez, who grew up in El Paso, just across the border from Ciudad Juárez, which has experienced some of the worst bloodshed in Mexico.

The Justice Department, which is defending the Border Patrol, has sought to have the case thrown out. Mr. Gonzalez lost a discrimination complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which sided with his supervisors’ view that they had lost trust that he would uphold the law.

Those challenging their dismissals are buoyed by the case of Jonathan Wender, who was fired as a police sergeant in Mountlake Terrace, Wash., in 2005, partly as a result of his support for the decriminalization of marijuana. Mr. Wender won a settlement of $815,000 as well as his old job back. But he retired from the department and took up teaching at the University of Washington, where one of his courses is “Drugs and Society.”

Among those not yet ready to publicly urge the legalization of drugs is a veteran Texas police officer who quietly supports LEAP and spoke on the condition that he not be identified. “We all know the drug war is a bad joke,” he said in a telephone interview. “But we also know that you’ll never get promoted if you’re seen as soft on drugs.”

Mr. Franklin, the LEAP official, said it was natural that those on the front lines of enforcing drug laws would have strong views on them, either way. It was the death of a colleague at the hands of a drug dealer in 2000 that prompted Mr. Franklin, a veteran officer, to begin questioning the nation’s drug policies. Some of his colleagues, though, hit the streets even more aggressively, he said.

Mr. Franklin said he got calls all the time from colleagues skeptical about the drug laws as they are written but unwilling to speak out — yet.

“I was speaking to a guy with the Maryland State Police this past Saturday, and he’s about to retire in January and he’s still reluctant to join us until he leaves,” Mr. Franklin said. “He wants to have a good last couple of months, without any hassle.”


This article appeared in the November 28, 2011 edition of The Nation.

They came from all over, tens of thousands of demonstrators from around the world, protesting the economic and moral pitfalls of globalization. Our mission as members of the Seattle Police Department? To safeguard people and property—in that order. Things went well the first day. We were praised for our friendliness and restraint—though some politicians were apoplectic at our refusal to make mass arrests for the actions of a few.

Then came day two. Early in the morning, large contingents of demonstrators began to converge at a key downtown intersection. They sat down and refused to budge. Their numbers grew. A labor march would soon add additional thousands to the mix.

“We have to clear the intersection,” said the field commander. “We have to clear the intersection,” the operations commander agreed, from his bunker in the Public Safety Building. Standing alone on the edge of the crowd, I, the chief of police, said to myself, “We have to clear the intersection.”


Because of all the what-ifs. What if a fire breaks out in the Sheraton across the street? What if a woman goes into labor on the seventeenth floor of the hotel? What if a heart patient goes into cardiac arrest in the high-rise on the corner? What if there’s a stabbing, a shooting, a serious-injury traffic accident? How would an aid car, fire engine or police cruiser get through that sea of people? The cop in me supported the decision to clear the intersection. But the chief in me should have vetoed it. And he certainly should have forbidden the indiscriminate use of tear gas to accomplish it, no matter how many warnings we barked through the bullhorn.

My support for a militaristic solution caused all hell to break loose. Rocks, bottles and newspaper racks went flying. Windows were smashed, stores were looted, fires lighted; and more gas filled the streets, with some cops clearly overreacting, escalating and prolonging the conflict. The “Battle in Seattle,” as the WTO protests and their aftermath came to be known, was a huge setback—for the protesters, my cops, the community.

More than a decade later, the police response to the Occupy movement, most disturbingly visible in Oakland—where scenes resembled a war zone and where a marine remains in serious condition from a police projectile—brings into sharp relief the acute and chronic problems of American law enforcement. Seattle might have served as a cautionary tale, but instead, US police forces have become increasingly militarized, and it’s showing in cities everywhere: the NYPD “white shirt” coating innocent people with pepper spray, the arrests of two student journalists at Occupy Atlanta, the declaration of public property as off-limits and the arrests of protesters for “trespassing.”

The paramilitary bureaucracy and the culture it engenders—a black-and-white world in which police unions serve above all to protect the brotherhood—is worse today than it was in the 1990s. Such agencies inevitably view protesters as the enemy. And young people, poor people and people of color will forever experience the institution as an abusive, militaristic force—not just during demonstrations but every day, in neighborhoods across the country.

Much of the problem is rooted in a rigid command-and-control hierarchy based on the military model. American police forces are beholden to archaic internal systems of authority whose rules emphasize bureaucratic regulations over conduct on the streets. An officer’s hair length, the shine on his shoes and the condition of his car are more important than whether he treats a burglary victim or a sex worker with dignity and respect. In the interest of “discipline,” too many police bosses treat their frontline officers as dependent children, which helps explain why many of them behave more like juvenile delinquents than mature, competent professionals. It also helps to explain why persistent, patterned misconduct, including racism, sexism, homophobia, brutality, perjury and corruption, do not go away, no matter how many blue-ribbon panels are commissioned or how much training is provided.

External political factors are also to blame, such as the continuing madness of the drug war. Last year police arrested 1.6 million nonviolent drug offenders. In New York City alone almost 50,000 people (overwhelmingly black, Latino or poor) were busted for possession of small amounts of marijuana—some of it, we have recently learned, planted by narcotics officers. The counterproductive response to 9/11, in which the federal government began providing military equipment and training even to some of the smallest rural departments, has fueled the militarization of police forces. Everyday policing is characterized by a SWAT mentality, every other 911 call a military mission. What emerges is a picture of a vital public-safety institution perpetually at war with its own people. The tragic results—raids gone bad, wrong houses hit, innocent people and family pets shot and killed by police—are chronicled in Radley Balko’s excellent 2006 report Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America.

It is ironic that those police officers who are busting up the Occupy protesters are themselves victims of the same social ills the demonstrators are combating: corporate greed; the slackening of essential regulatory systems; and the abject failure of all three branches of government to safeguard civil liberties and to protect, if not provide, basic human needs like health, housing, education and more. With cities and states struggling to balance the budget while continuing to deliver public safety, many cops are finding themselves out of work. And, as many Occupy protesters have pointed out, even as police officers help to safeguard the power and profits of the 1 percent, police officers are part of the 99 percent.

There will always be situations—an armed and barricaded suspect, a man with a knife to his wife’s throat, a school-shooting rampage—that require disciplined, military-like operations. But most of what police are called upon to do, day in and day out, requires patience, diplomacy and interpersonal skills. I’m convinced it is possible to create a smart organizational alternative to the paramilitary bureaucracy that is American policing. But that will not happen unless, even as we cull “bad apples” from our police forces, we recognize that the barrel itself is rotten.

Assuming the necessity of radical structural reform, how do we proceed? By building a progressive police organization, created by rank-and-file officers, “civilian” employees and community representatives. Such an effort would include plans to flatten hierarchies; create a true citizen review board with investigative and subpoena powers; and ensure community participation in all operations, including policy-making, program development, priority-setting and crisis management. In short, cops and citizens would forge an authentic partnership in policing the city. And because partners do not act unilaterally, they would be compelled to keep each other informed, and to build trust and mutual respect—qualities sorely missing from the current equation.

It will not be easy. In fact, failure is assured if we lack the political will to win the support of police chiefs and their elected bosses, if we are unable to influence or neutralize police unions, if we don’t have the courage to move beyond the endless justifications for maintaining the status quo. But imagine the community and its cops united in the effort to responsibly “police” the Occupy movement. Picture thousands of people gathered to press grievances against their government and the corporations, under the watchful, sympathetic protection of their partners in blue.

Norm Stamper was chief of the Seattle Police Department during the WTO protests in 1999. He is the author of Breaking Rank: A Top Cop’s Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing (Nation Books).


How can you ask an officer to be the last officer to die for a mistake?

Several thousand miles, and a comparable cultural divide, separate Elkins, W.Va., from San Luis Potosi, Mexico. But recently, they became sister cities of a grim sort when law enforcement professionals lost their lives fighting America’s longest, most costly and least winnable war: the so-called “war on drugs.”

On Highway 57, halfway between Monterrey and Mexico City, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Jaime Zapata died when cartel gunmen ambushed the car carrying him and a colleague, who was wounded.

In West Virginia, 24-year-old U.S. Marshal Derek Hotsinpiller was shot by Charles E. Smith, who was wanted on charges related to cocaine possession with intent to distribute. Two deputy marshals were wounded in the gunfight that cost both Mr. Hotsinpiller and Mr. Smith their lives.

As a former narcotics cop in Baltimore who has lost several of my best friends in the line of fire, I know what U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder meant when he said, “These courageous deputies put their lives on the line and put the safety of others before their own.”

But the attorney general missed the mark badly when he put his faith in business as usual in announcing the formation of a task force to investigate the tragedy in Mexico.

We don’t need another task force. We don’t need to redouble the efforts that have led to almost 35,000 deaths in Mexico since the end of 2006 and countless others here in the U.S., where we don’t even attempt to tally those killed in illegal drug wars.

What we desperately need is to end this “war on drugs” which has done so little to prevent people from using drugs but which has done so much to enrich organized criminals who do not hesitate to use violence to protect their black market profits.

What we need is pure honesty from Attorney General Holder and his colleagues in Washington and in our state capitals. We need our elected officials to summon the collective maturity and political integrity to acknowledge what millions of Americans have known for a long time: The war on drugs has failed, it has made our drug problems much worse and it can never be won.

That’s because the root cause of last month’s violence in Mexico and West Virginia is drug prohibition, not the molecules that people ingest. There is no level of law enforcement commitment, skill or courage that can ever eliminate obscenely profitable, tax-free drug markets that deliver prized commodities to millions of people.

I didn’t always understand this. During my 34-year career in law enforcement, I tried in earnest to enforce the drug laws, thinking I was helping to make a dent with each arrest or seizure. Along the way, several of my colleagues were killed, including one of my best friends, Ed Toatley, a Maryland state trooper who was shot in the head at close range as he attempted an undercover buy in Washington, D.C. in 2000.

After each tragic death, my police colleagues and I pushed ahead on to the next case, and the one after that, thinking that our fallen comrades had paid the tragic price for bringing the scourge of drug abuse under control.

But that belief was wrong. Drug use didn’t wane, and the market didn’t dissipate. Each arrest we scored was simply a job opening for someone else to step up and take the risk for a chance at the lucrative profits inherent in meeting the insatiable demand for illegal drugs.

We should have learned this lesson decades ago, when alcohol Prohibition was a boon to organized crime and fueled disrespect for the rule of law. Drinking remained rampant, and gang violence flourished. But after we repealed Prohibition, Al Capone and his competitors stopped selling liquor. Today, we don’t see Budweiser or Coors distributors killing cops in order to maximize profits.

That’s because, since 1933, we have regulated the distribution and sale of alcohol. We need to do the same with drugs that are illegal today.

Let’s honor the ultimate sacrifices made by Derek Hotsinpiller, Jaime Zapata, Ed Toatley and so many others in the right way. Let’s put their murderers and those who won’t hesitate to murder in the future out of business. Let’s regulate drugs the way we regulate alcohol and tobacco. It’s the only way we can ever win America’s seemingly endless war on drugs.

How many more hardworking and brave law enforcers do we have to see killed in the line of duty before our elected officials will change this policy?

Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (www.copssaylegalizedrugs.com), did narcotics enforcement with the Maryland State Police and the Baltimore Police Department over a 34-year career.

External source: http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/bs-ed-drug-war-20110307,0,4938130.story


Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper is encouraged by the way President Obama talks about changing U.S. drug policy, including thinking more about drugs as a public-health problem. But Stamper is still waiting for the administration to treat substance abuse as a health problem, to end drug prohibition and the drug war.

As a retired police officer who worked for more than three decades to enforce our country’s failed criminal-justice approach to drug policy, I was delighted to hear President Obama recently say, “We have to think more about drugs as a public-health problem.”

The White House drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, who like me is a former Seattle police chief, followed up on his boss’s comments, writing on Huffington Post, “We cannot arrest or incarcerate our way out of a problem this complex.”

Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s drug-control budgets don’t quite match the rhetoric. This president, to date, has maintained a Bush-era budget ratio that devotes twice as many resources to arrests and punishment as it does for treatment and prevention.

Despite the president’s assertion that a more effective drug policy requires “shifting resources,” he simply hasn’t done it. And, realistically, it will be next to impossible to find the resources unless we end the so-called “war on drugs,” stop arresting drug users and move toward some form of legalized regulation.

It is difficult to treat something as a medical problem when it is also a crime. In most states, people risk being arrested if they call 911 to report a drug overdose. And as the president points out, “It may take six months for you to get into a drug-treatment program. If you’re trying to kick a habit and somebody says to you, ‘come back in six months,’ that’s pretty discouraging.”

Imagine how we could improve access to drug-treatment programs with the $77 billion in savings and new revenue Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimates the legalization and taxation of drugs would create.

But our current drug policy is a nightmare even if we don’t take budgetary resources into account.

Prohibition leads to widespread violence as drug gangs fight over turf to sell plants for fortunes. Gangs and cartels make an estimated $500 billion a year in drug sales, giving them power that can bring countries to the brink of collapse.

Think of Mexico, where more than 34,000 have been murdered in illegal drug-market clashes over the past four years, and where police officers face the real-world choice of “silver or lead” (in other words: take the bribe or be assassinated).

When I started in policing, a 1-ton seizure was front-page news. Today, it is routine. Law enforcement sweeps up dozens if not hundreds of people at a time for trafficking. But it does nothing more than create job openings for those willing to take risks for the chance at huge, tax-free profits.

Prohibition also fills our prisons with largely poor and minority drug offenders who, upon release, have great difficulty finding employment after serving long mandatory minimum sentences. It shouldn’t be a surprise that many end up back in the situations that got them in trouble in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not asking you to feel sorry for drug dealers. This is a public-safety crisis that affects us all. Consider that in the U.S. nearly four of 10 murders, six of 10 rapes and nine of 10 burglaries go unsolved, thanks in large part to our policies that force police to chase drugs.

Thankfully, the Obama administration appears to have begun to realize that prohibition is not working. Last month, in response to a question from one of my law-enforcement colleagues, the president called legalization “an entirely legitimate topic for debate,” even though he personally remains opposed.

It’s great to see Obama putting this topic on the table for discussion, especially since just two short years ago, drug czar Kerlikowske declared that legalization was in neither his nor the president’s vocabulary.

While the administration’s evolving rhetoric is welcome, what is needed is a real shifting of drug policy resources away from punishment and toward treatment.

A fundamental change in drug policy seems daunting, but we’ve done it before with the repeal of alcohol prohibition. Today, you no longer see gangs shooting each other over beer and liquor market share. And both the president and Kerlikowske have compared drug use to cigarettes, pointing to the success of public-education campaigns in reducing the number of smokers.

But have they forgotten that we have not sent one person to jail for smoking Marlboros? If we can successfully manage alcohol and tobacco under a public-health model, we can do the same for all other drugs.

Our country and the rest of the world would be a much safer, healthier place if the president and his drug czar would only match their actions to their words, if they would actually treat substance abuse as a health problem, and if they would work to end drug prohibition and the drug war.

Norm Stamper, a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (www.CopsSayLegalizeDrugs.com), was a police officer for 34 years, serving as Seattle’s chief of police from 1994-2000. He is the author of “Breaking Rank: A Top Cop’s Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing.”

Special to The Times (external): http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mackenzie-allen/why-this-cop-asked-the-pr_b_827338.html


You might not think a 65-year-old retired cop would take to the Internet to ask the president of the United States to consider legalizing drugs, but that’s just what I did recently. The answer I got from President Obama in YouTube’s “Your Interview with the President” contest pleasantly surprised me.

[Embedded video]

In stark contrast to when the president literally laughed off discussion of marijuana policy in a similar online question-and-answer session in 2009, Obama responded to me by saying that legalizing drugs is “an entirely legitimate topic for debate.” Although he noted that he remains personally opposed to legalization for now, he acknowledged that “we have been so focused on arrests, incarceration, interdiction… that we don’t spend as much time thinking about how to shrink demand.” This welcome statement validated the viewpoint I developed over my 15 years of trying to enforce the drug prohibition laws.

I began my career in law enforcement as a deputy with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department in 1985. Later, I moved to Washington State to work for the King County Sheriff’s Office in Seattle, where I worked in our most difficult neighborhoods as a patrol deputy and training officer. I also did a stint as an undercover detective making drug buys, running informants and writing and executing search warrants. I long ago lost count of how many drug arrests I made.

You might think my attitude towards drug users would only have hardened over the years, but the opposite proved to be the case. Understand, I in no way condone or support the use of drugs. And crimes committed by drug users to support their habits must be punished as the crimes they are.

What I came to understand, however, is that this is really a public health and education problem and must be addressed as such. I’m old enough to remember when doctors in white lab coats were on TV hawking cigarettes. It took a long time and a consistent public awareness campaign, but tobacco use in America is down dramatically. Can you imagine the mayhem had we outlawed cigarettes? Can you envision the “cigarette cartels” and the bloodbath that would follow? Yet, thanks to a public awareness campaign we’ve made a huge dent in tobacco use without arresting a single cigarette smoker.

The “drug” problems our society is plagued with are, for the most part, actually drug prohibition problems, the result of a black market. We will never be able to legislate people away from self-intoxication. It’s been going on since the first hominid ate a piece of fermenting fruit and got high on the alcohol content. All we succeed in doing by outlawing these substances is create a gargantuan black market for drug dealers and cartels. The illicit market is estimated to be a half-trillion dollars a year. For that kind of money you can by yourself a sovereign country and in some cases the cartels seemingly have. Mexico is engaged in, basically, open warfare with the cartels. The level of violence and brutality is unprecedented.

If the colloquial definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result, what does that say about our “War on Drugs”? We’ve been pursuing this strategy for 40 years. It has cost a trillion taxpayer dollars, thousands of lives (both law enforcement and civilian) and destroyed hundreds of thousands more by incarceration. Moreover, it undermines the safety of our communities by overcrowding our jails and prisons, forcing them to give early release to truly violent offenders.

So, in a country where, all too often, the only voices heard (or at least heeded) are those of large corporations or special interest groups with powerful lobbyists in Washington, I thought the president’s YouTube forum might be a chance to pose a question directly to the person in charge. Long odds to be sure, but a chance nonetheless. Surprise doesn’t begin to describe my reaction upon learning my video question ranked first place in the online voting and would be presented to the president.

It is extremely encouraging to hear President Obama respond to a question about our national drug policy in a reasonable, respectful and serious manner, the first time a sitting president has done so.

This is obviously a complicated, highly-charged issue, with Obama and many elected officials still opposed to legalization. But nothing will ever improve without first acknowledging the need for discussion. In that regard, the president’s YouTube comments are a tremendous first step.

We can only hope his words encouraging a serious debate on the topic prove to be more than rhetoric, and that he will take on the admittedly complicated challenge of revisiting and, hopefully, revising our national stance on drugs.

MacKenzie Allen, a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, is a retired deputy sheriff who did policing in Los Angles and Seattle.