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Why 30 Year Drug War Veteran Now Fights The Drug War

Above Photo: From End the Drug War by Roger Peet.

Retired Major Neill Franklin argues for a sea change in our approach to substance abuse

When it comes to the War on Drugs, there are few people in a better position to comment on the futility, brutality and tragedy of the endeavor than retired Major Neill Franklin. He spent over 30 years participating in, and directing, state and local police anti-drug efforts before retiring to become the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), which advocates for the legalization of drugs and a law enforcement approach that defends human rights and views drug misusers as persons in need of treatment as opposed to punishment. He describes the evolution of his personal philosophy and his efforts to produce change in this week’s Professional Voices…Dr. Richard Juman

Richard Juman: Can you tell our readers something about your history in law enforcement, and especially the experiences that you’ve had which eventually led to your involvement with LEAP?

Neill Franklin: My law enforcement history begins with the Maryland State Police in 1976. After a short time in patrol, I went undercover in the Washington D.C. suburbs of Maryland. I arrested a countless number of people for drug law violations and most of those people, by far, were arrested for simple marijuana possession and some minor dealing. Even back then in the early 1980s, the so-called drug kingpin was very difficult to find.

In the mid-1980s, I was assigned as a detective sergeant to the Division of Corrections Investigative Unit. We were responsible for investigating all crimes within Maryland’s Division of Corrections. Interestingly enough, most of our cases involved correctional officers smuggling drugs into the very institutions they were supposed to serve. Even without widespread cellphone technology, inmates were calling the shots—inside and outside of prison. The enormous amount of cash generated from the illicit drug trade made it easy for drug-dealing gang members to bribe and coerce correctional officers into smuggling drugs and weapons. Hell, we can’t even keep drugs out of our most secure facilities, yet we expect to keep them out of our neighborhoods in a free society.

When I was promoted to lieutenant, I was placed in charge of seven drug task forces in the western territories of Maryland. So the drug arrests continued, sending more people into prison for mostly non-violent drug offenses. Now I had seven teams of state police, sheriff deputies, town police officers and others doing the work for me. Later, after two more promotions to major, I became the Northeast Regional Commander for the Bureau of Drug and Criminal Enforcement, overseeing nine drug task forces. The final two years of my Maryland State Police career I spent as the commander of the Education, Training and Career Development Command.

Retiring in 1999 from the Maryland State Police, I was recruited by the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) to reconstruct its Education and Training Division. I commanded training for the BPD for four years before moving on to a third police agency for six more years, but it was during my tenure with the BPD when I finally began to see the War on Drugs for what it really is, an abject failure. Not only was it a failed policy, but it was counterproductive to what I had signed on for, improved public safety. The War on Drugs was making our communities far more dangerous than need be.

My life-changing moment was this: ​Maryland State ​Trooper Ed Toatley, a very good friend of mine​, was working undercover while assigned to an FBI task force in Washington, DC. On October 30, 2000, Ed was making the last buy of cocaine from a mid-level dealer before the planned take-down and arrest. The dealer had other plans, plans to murder Ed and keep both the drugs and the money. He shot Ed at point blank range in the side of his head during the transaction.

​Ed’s murder affected me deeply, causing me to question our methods and the War on Drugs itself and to search for like minds in law enforcement. I began scouring ​the Internet for answers and stumbled across LEAP, which was the brain-child of police officers Jack Cole and Peter Christ back in 2002. So I was a Lt. Colonel with the Baltimore Police Department when I began speaking out privately regarding the failed drug war. I signed on as a LEAP member then, but did not begin officially speaking for LEAP until the fall of 2008.

​Many other events had helped to solidify my belief that our community violence was spawned from our failed policies of drug prohibition. As examples, soon after Ed’s murder, two Baltimore City Police officers lost their lives at the hands of street corner drug dealers. And in 2003, the Dawson family of seven was murdered in one night by one drug dealer in east Baltimore. The mother, Angela, was working with the police to get him and his crew arrested and removed from her neighborhood to protect her boys. She did not want them recruited into, or harmed, by this crew, so she did what we want good citizens to do; work with the police. The drug dealer got wind of this and set their home on fire during the middle of the night, killing the entire family. In 2010, I finally hung up my gun and badge to become LEAP’s executive director.

I’m wondering how your former colleagues in law enforcement reacted when you left that realm and started to devote yourself to advocating for this diametrically opposite position?

There were a couple who came with me in concept and some in actual work, but the vast majority thought I had lost my mind. One thing that most of my close comrades knew about me was that I rarely followed the crowd, I spoke my mind. My Facebook page had some very interesting comments on it. Today, it’s a different story, even for my Facebook page.

Although there was one distinct event, the murder of Trooper Ed Toatley, which really caused me to stop and think, this was actually a long reforming process for me. In the same manner, it is taking my comrades a while, too. It’s quite a bit to digest in order for the deprogramming to take hold. It’s also very difficult for those, such as myself, who spent quite a bit of time working in drugs (undercover and commanding drug task forces) to accept the fact that all of this hard work was for naught. And in some cases, harmed the communities in which we worked. Now, the vast majority of my close comrades get it! Most of the men and women working the streets get it! They know that their communities and jobs would be considerably safer if prohibition was to end. Most cops didn’t sign on to this work to enforce morality, they signed on to protect people from violent people.

It can still be risky for police officers to speak in opposition of the failed War on Drugs. They risk being transferred, they risk not being transferred to a sought after assignment, not receiving a promotion, and ultimately, they risk being terminated. When you have a family to support, this is a very difficult decision to make, so most hold their tongues. For the few I know who were terminated, properly negotiated lawsuits won them their jobs back for First Amendment violations, but who wants to endure years of legal sparring?

When you think about the history of the War on Drugs, are there any elements of our approach that you would say we are getting right and should be continued? Assuming that you don’t feel that law enforcement should have no role at all in dealing with the drug problem and addiction, what aspects of law enforcement would you continue to apply if you were in charge? And what types of law enforcement activities would you stop pursuing?

Great question. And the first part of my answer is, not one!

I’m going to approach the second part of this question from two perspectives; first, what can law enforcement do immediately, absent any significant changes in the law, and second, what should law enforcement’s role ultimately be, once we legislatively end drug prohibition.

Immediately, law enforcement can move the enforcement of low-level drug crimes to the lowest of priorities. Stop pursuing and arresting people for drug possession. Adopt Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) programs for those who have problematic drug use, which is a very small population of overall users. These are people who commit crimes and/or sell drugs to support their habits. The LEAD program, as adopted by Seattle law enforcement, enables trained police officers to divert these drug offenders directly into wraparound treatment services in lieu of arrests and jails. At the end of the day, if they choose to enter into the program, they don’t even receive an arrest record.

Law enforcement could also choose to bow out of any financially incentivized policing initiatives, such as civil asset forfeiture and grant funding where arrest numbers are a major qualifier in the application process. By adopting these few basic practices, law enforcement would become more focused upon preventing and solving violent crime.

Zero tolerance policing would screech to a halt, paving the way for improved police/community relations, wasted law enforcement funding could be diverted into drug education and treatment programs, which we know are far more effective in reducing drug abuse.

When we finally end our failed War on Drugs and drug prohibition, and instead move into a place of legalization, regulation and control, we immediately put 90% of all violent drug gangs and the cartels out of business. This change by itself would enable us to focus our police officers like a laser on murder, rape, robbery, burglary, domestic violence, crimes against our children and identity theft, just to name a few. These are crimes that truly impact people, families and neighborhoods. Police will then have an opportunity to become peace officers once again and champions of the community.

Law enforcement would have a very small drug policy enforcement role absent prohibition laws, similar to that of alcohol and tobacco enforcement. Personally, I believe that law enforcement can remove itself from some of what it does in alcohol and tobacco enforcement. We should not be pursuing and arresting people for selling loose cigarettes on the street. This should be an administrative function where tobacco control enforcers can write civil citations just like parking control units. Even tobacco smuggling can be averted, or at least greatly reduced if we did not place such high taxes upon products.

At the end of the day, law enforcement would be practically out of the drug business, taking a backseat to healthcare practitioners. Law enforcement would no longer be a part of morality policing, arresting people for engaging in consensual adult activity. We would go after and arrest people for their illegal behavior in harming people who do not wish to be harmed.

Are there any places around the world—other countries—that you think get the ideology right, that come pretty close to an ideal balance between ​law enforcement, social interventions and treatment?

Yes, there are countries that come close, but there are no countries that have ended the prohibition of all drugs. The prohibitive United Nations’ drug treaties, initiated from the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and pressure from the United States, make it extremely difficult for countries to support policy other than punitive prohibition. The only country to legalize marijuana is Uruguay, with the United States having four of its states to do the same.

There is one country with the right ideology and that is Portugal. Thirteen years ago Portugal decriminalized the possession of all drugs up to a 10-day supply. They decided to place the attention upon the people instead of the drug. By doing so, health becomes the priority, not criminal drug enforcement. When a person is found in possession of drugs they are given on-demand treatment if they want it. People are more inclined to seek treatment if the stigma and fear of arrest has been removed.

So what are the results of this health-centered approach? They have experienced a 71% reduction in new cases of HIV for intravenous drug users. They have experienced a 52% reduction in overdose deaths and they have experienced a 22 to 25% decline in overall drug use among middle- and high-school children. I love saving lives and seeing smart choices made by educated children, but what is also of great interest to me is that the Portuguese police love this approach. They are now able to focus upon serious crimes and are not at odds with the general public. Closing prisons due to low enrollment is nothing to sneeze at either.

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