2011-10-20 / News

Ad hoc group committed to legalizing drugs speaks at library

BY MARGO SULLIVAN


JACK COLE JACK COLE A movement to legalize narcotics found local supporters during an Oct. 13 presentation at the Jamestown Philomenian Library. Some 30 islanders turned out to hear Jack Cole, a retired Garden State detective, deplore the failures of the U.S. war on drugs and his own role in a policy he eventually realized was disastrous.

As an undercover detective, Cole devoted 14 years to throwing drug dealers and users in jail, he said, but now thinks the effort did more harm than good. With four other retired police officers, he has started a grass roots movement to change the U.S. drug policy. The nonprofit organization, dubbed Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, boasts 50,000 members, Cole said.

They are convinced legalizing drugs – meaning all drugs, including heroin and cocaine – will end the human tragedy and waste due to drugs.

“It’s the longest war in U.S. history,” Cole said, and 2.3 million people have gone to prison.

But after 40 years of the drug war, Cole said, drugs are cheaper and more readily available to children.

“That’s a failed policy,” he said. Cole retired as a detective lieutenant after a 26-year career with the New Jersey State Police. For 14 of those years he worked as an undercover narcotics officer.

Supporting Cole’s view, Beth Comery, Providence’s first woman patrol officer, described her rookie disillusionment over the unfair way drug laws were enforced.

Comery, a Providence police offi- cer from 1976 to 1982, said the drug task force focused on South Providence and Olneyville, which are economically depressed areas, and arrested blacks and Hispanics. She remembers wondering if there were any drugs at Brown University or at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Comery left the police force in 1982; now she is battling to legalize drugs in Rhode Island. Earlier this year she testified at the State House in support of a bill to decriminalize marijuana. Rhode Island lawmakers missed a chance to legalize marijuana during the last legislative session, but she said the issue will be coming back before the General Assembly.

Forty lawmakers co-sponsored the legislation, but it died without coming to a vote. Comery said Speaker of the House Gordon Fox told her the time wasn’t right when she asked why the bill failed. Massachusetts and Connecticut have already passed laws decriminalizing marijuana, she said.

Cole and Comery came to Jamestown through the efforts of the Rev. James Keller, retired Presbyterian minister, and former state Rep. Norma Willis. The two had communicated about the misguided U.S. drug policy after her letter was published in the newspaper. He also wrote a letter (“End the drug war: Legalize all drugs”) published in the Providence Journal. Willis read it, contacted him and encouraged him to write an article about his experiences with the drug war in Mexico.

Both Keller and Willis are Jamestown residents. They eventually bumped into each other at Mc- Quade’s, Willis said.

Keller told the audience he had witnessed the destruction the drug war wreaked on Cuernavaca, Mexico.

“What is happening in that beautiful city, so close to our hearts, is horrendous,” he said. “Nobody’s going to Cuernavaca.”

The U.S. could effectively put the cartels out of business by legalizing drugs, he said, similar to the 1933 repeal of prohibition that ultimately destroyed mobsters like Al Capone.

Although Cole marshaled impressive statistics to show the drug war has failed by every measurable criteria – supply and demand have both increased, and prices have fallen, making drugs easier, not harder, to find – everyone was not convinced.

“I don’t think it can be that easy,” Keller DiLuglio of Jamestown said after the question and answer session.

Middletown has the state’s fourth worst underage drinking problem, she said. Given that fact, she’s doubtful the state or local government will have the means to regulate illegal drugs if these substances should suddenly hit store shelves.

“I’m very nervous about regulation,” she said. “So many different drugs out there can kill people.”

Cole, who said he couldn’t sleep at night over guilt for his role in the war on drugs, estimates he put 1,000 people in prison, often by infiltrating small groups of friends and suggesting they “get high.”

He also called federal drug laws “the most racist laws that have existed since slavery.” According to statistics he cited, more whites than blacks consume or sell illegal drugs, but blacks are “three times more likely to be arrested and eight times more likely to go to prison” on a drug charge. They stay in prison longer, sentenced six years “on average” compared to only four years that white people typically serve for the same offenses.

Since 1970, when President Richard Nixon launched the war on drugs, misguided “police and politicians” created the problems that exist today, he said. In 1970, Cole said, about 4 million people in the U.S. had ever used illegal drugs. Today, that number has ballooned to 112 million. In 1970, New Jersey undercover cops could hardly find a drug dealer outside New York City, he said. Now, the dealers work the suburbs and rural communities. By 2009, about two million had gone to prison, and the prisons are running out of room.

The non-violent drug offenders stay locked up due to mandatory sentences, he added. To ease prison overcrowding, the government has had to release violent criminals, he said.

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