Jaisal Noor, TRNN Producer: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
In what’s being hailed as a historic move by opponents of the so-called on drugs, Attorney General Eric Holder recently informed the governors of Colorado and Washington that the Department of Justice would let those states’ marijuana laws go into effect and allow them to independently implement the ballot initiatives that legalized pot for recreational use in those states.
Now joining us to discuss this is Neill Franklin. Neill Franklin was a police officer in Maryland for 33 years. He’s now the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. He was part of an anti-narcotics task force for the Maryland State Police. Responding to the events that led up to his friends in law enforcement getting killed while enforcing drug laws, he became an advocate for changes in U.S. drug policy.
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Thank you so much for joining us.
Neill Franklin, Exec. Dir., Law Enforcement Against Prohibition: Thanks for having me, Jaisal.
Noor: So, Neil, can you outline your thoughts and your response to this historic move that the Department of Justice will not go after Colorado and Washington for legalizing pot for recreational use?
Franklin: First of all, my response is: a great first step. This is something that has to be done. I think one of the key things here is that the voters of both Washington and Colorado, this is what they wanted. Back in November they voted for this, so this is what they wanted.
Now the Department of Justice in a way is honoring that. He’s—when I say he, Eric Holder has communicated with the governors of both states pretty much outlining eight areas of enforcement that the federal government is going to pay attention to with their limited resources.
Noor: And so opponents of the so-called war on drugs have hailed this as historic, but the prosecution of marijuana is just one limited part of the so-called war on drugs. Can you put this in perspective? Just how big of a role do marijuana arrests play?
Franklin: Yeah. Well, you know, the war on drugs in its entirety—we’re talking about other drugs too. We’re talking about cocaine, we’re talking about heroin, we’re talking about crystal meth and others.
It’s been reported by the federal government that somewhere around 60 percent of the proceeds being made by organized crime, the cartel, organized gangs, local gangs, comes from the sale of marijuana. It’s a huge blow to organized crime. It’s a huge blow to the cartel.
Now, so what does that really mean? Okay. It means that we can begin to dismantle this war on drugs. Most of the arrests that are being made in this country are being made for marijuana. Over 700,000 people every year are being arrested in the United States for the possession of marijuana. This is a great move to ending that.
Noor: So some groups have come out as opponents of the Department of Justice move, mainly police unions, the fraternal order of police, other very powerful, influential groups. Can you tell us about their opposition and what role they play in the so-called war on drugs? This is not often discussed in the media.
Franklin: Well, most of the groups who are coming out opposing this move are either police leaders like the International Chiefs of Police, the Sheriffs Association, and unions such as the Narcotics Officers Association, and so on. So what that means is we’re looking at police leaders who are typically following the party lines of their mayors who put them in place as police chiefs.
But you know what? There’s one good part here. Sheriffs are elected by the people. And there’s a sheriff who was at the hearing yesterday from King County in Washington State, Sheriff Urquhart, and what he said is we need to honor the wishes of the people. The people have voted. He said that we in law enforcement have failed the people by refusing to honor their wishes in the past. He said that the war on drugs has failed and we in law enforcement have a responsibility to move in a new direction. That takes courage when you have your counterparts, your peers saying something else. He’s absolutely right in his analysis of this and that we in law enforcement need to change our perspective.
He also said that you know what? Law enforcement is always lagging behind and slow to change. We need to step it up a bit and we need to change. They’re going to continue to push back at those levels when unfortunately many of our police leaders have a vested interest in this. Okay? Federal dollars flow into law enforcement agencies who enforce these policies. And I think that’s about the change, because those dollars come from the Department of Justice. So we’re going to see a slow change regarding that.
Noor: And I talked to one former police officer who was a former lobbyist in Washington, D.C., and he said that it’s the police and prison guard units that are the number-one lobbyists to keep the war on drugs going. So talk more about what the power is, their influence is, and just what kind of influence they have in Washington and in states around the country.
Franklin: They have a lot of influence. They have a lot of money. They’re a special interest. They support a lot of our policymakers in Washington and at the state level.
And, yeah, I mean, this unfortunately has become big business for everyone, not just the private prisons, not just for those companies that support private prisons and so on. But unfortunately we have asset forfeiture, you know, where police agencies seize money and property from people who are violating our drug laws. You know.
And it’s also about the lifestyle of narcotics officers. It’s nice to be able to come to work wearing soft clothes, plainclothes, set your own hours, work tons of overtime, call your own shots day-to-day. And as this continues to change, their lifestyles are going to change. You know what? Some of them have to go back and work in uniform, you know, pushing patrol unit, follow a set schedule, and that’s not received well by many who have been in narcotics for such a long time.
Noor: And so, this policy’s been criticized, especially now with the economy in such dire straits, with schools closing across the country, other community centers, other resources being closed. But the U.S. still has money, billions of dollars every year, to keep these prisons open and to keep locking up drug offenders.
Franklin: But just think about this. Currently we’re spending over $50 billion across this nation every year on enforcing our drug policies. So that’s from arrests all the way through parole and probation.
Now imagine this. If we can now begin to divert some of those dollars into community centers, into recreational centers—for instance, right here in Baltimore we closed a couple of years ago 18 PAL centers, 18 centers where kids were going after school, you know, and doing homework and interacting with police, staying off the street corners. We closed 18 of them.
Now, imagine if we can reopen those and more, giving these kids something to do, keeping them off the street corners. And when you think about it, at the end of the day, you know, if we continue to move forward with shutting down the war on drugs, you know what? Many of these kids won’t have reason to be on the street corners peddling drugs. This is a great beginning for that.
Noor: So, finally, so far just two states have legalized the recreational use of marijuana. Do you think this move by the federal government will open the floodgates, essentially, and encourage other states to take similar measures?
Franklin: Yeah. It’s going to create great opportunity. One example—actually, two, side by side, Maryland and Pennsylvania. We had policymakers from both states a few months ago introduce legislation to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana here in both states. There were a number of policymakers that were reluctant to move forward or even to support it, even though they know that we have to go this way. They were reluctant because the federal government was not behind it in any way, that it was still illegal federally to make this move.
Now it kind of removes that weight from their shoulders and they relax a little bit more. And I think you’re going to see more state policymakers come out in support of similar policies, like in Washington and Colorado.
And let me tell you another reason why this is so significant. Other countries are looking at Washington and Colorado. That Uruguay recently—the legislators in Uruguay recently moved to legalize marijuana in that country—they’re not a state; a country in Central America. That is critical. You’re going to see more of this, because now that the United States is beginning to make some change, so will other countries that have been wanting to do this for so long.
Noor: Neill Franklin, thank you so much for joining us.
Franklin: Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.
Noor: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.