LEAP’s Stephen Downing, along with Terry Nelson, join The Real News Network to explain why they support legalizing drugs.
By The Real News Network | November 15, 2012
Law Enforcement Against Prohibition‘s Stephen Downing, a retired deputy chief of police for the LAPD and commander of the Bureau of Special Investigations, along with Terry Nelson, who is retired from Department of Homeland Security, on The Real News Network explain why they support treating addiction as a health problem.
Watch full multipart Has Obama Challenged the “War On Drugs” Assumptions?
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And we’re continuing our discussions with members of LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. These are police officers who believe that the prohibition against drugs is failing and the war on drugs should be stopped and drugs should be legalized.
Now joining us to talk about this, first of all, is Stephen Downing. Stephen’s a retired deputy chief of police for the Los Angeles Police Department. He was commander of the Bureau of Special Investigations. One of those divisions was the Administrative Narcotics Division. Thanks for joining us.
Also joining us is Terry Nelson. Terry’s law enforcement career spanned three decades. It included service in the U.S. Border Patrol, U.S. Customs Service, and the Department of Homeland Security, taking him beyond the U.S. borders into Mexico, Central America, and South America. In various capacities he acquired a first-hand knowledge of the war on drugs through his direct involvement with counternarcotics missions. Thanks very much for joining us.
TERRY NELSON, CUSTOMS AND BORDER PROTECTION SUPERVISOR, DEPT. HOMELAND SECURITY (RET.): Thank you for having me.
JAY: So start with your own story. You’re a Texan. You told me off-camera you’re a Republican. You grew up with these values (I would have thought) that the war on drugs is a necessity, and you were involved in fighting it. What is your thinking in the beginning of your career? And how does that—your experience change that thinking?
NELSON: Well, as a young officer, you think you can make a difference, of course, and you spend years trying, and then all of a sudden you realize the futility of what you’re doing ’cause you’re not making any progress.
I never really turned against the war on drugs until I got into command structure and was working in Central and South America and saw the total futility of—like, Plan Colombia was $5.2 billion we spent trying to train the Colombian police and spraying herbicides on the coca crop. At the end of five years of that program, the coca production went up 25 percent in Colombia. So either we were spraying fertilizer on it instead of herbicide or the farmers became much better. And that’s what happened. The more successful we were in destroying the crops, the more successful the farmers were, and they tripled the yield of the coca plant in about three years. So they made up all the difference and actually produced 25 percent more cocaine than they had at the beginning of the drug war. You see this and you know you’re not going to arrest your way out of the drug war. Arrest and incarceration will never work. But education, we believe, will work.
JAY: Okay. So that coin dropped for you, but you’re working with other officers. And in the command structure, do you talk about these things? And what kind of pushback do you get?
NELSON: Well, you talk about it somewhat, but you have to be careful, because everyone wants to get promoted. That’s the whole purpose of going in, to work your way up the chain, where you can have more influence on what’s going on.
I spoke out at an interdiction committee meeting one time with—I called in a triple-PhD from Washington, D.C., that came down just to tell us how to do the—he was laying out economic models and said, if we can just destroy this much property, this much coke, we can win this drug war. And I stood up and said, am I the only SOB in this room that thinks we’re doing this wrong and we should change our strategy? And everybody applauded until I was called up in front of the room and he stuck his finger in my chest and said, Agent Nelson, you don’t make policy, you carry it out, so you salute smartly and you go back and sit down [incompr.] Okay. So when I got out of the service, I decided I was going to help change that policy, because I could do it then.
JAY: Stephen, how about you? You’re in tough territory, downtown L.A. Drugs must be one of the overwhelming things you have to deal with. You must have bought into this idea that it was necessary.
STEPHEN DOWNING, DEPUTY CHIEF, LAPD (RET.): Well, as a young 22-year-old coming in from a rural community, going into the academy, you listen to what they tell you and you believe it. And so you buy into—at that time you were still buying into the residual of Harry Anslinger, who said that blacks and browns use marijuana and it makes them rape white women. And so a lot of the myth-making was still alive. And you believe it. You go out on the street.
And in those days, just possession of a tiny amount of marijuana was a felony. Well, a felony arrest was a big deal for a young police officer. And so you did your job. And in those days, especially in those days, quota systems were rampant. The measurement of good police work was not an absence of crime; it was what did your recap look like at the end of the day. But as you grow and you go through the ranks and you study and you become a manager, you realize that there are more effective methods for supervising police operations.
And so by the time I was a commander, it was about the same time that President Nixon announced the war on drugs, and it was also the same time that I had just uncovered at the divisional level the growth of two small gangs. They were called the Bloods and the Crips. And they had a membership of less than 100. So our charge—when Nixon announced the war on drugs, I took over the narcotic effort, narcotic enforcement effort. Our strategy, which was the national strategy—cut the head off the snake, reduce the flow of drugs into the country, and reduce drug abuse and drug addiction. Well, as we started, a big deal when we call the press for our dog-and-pony shows: one or two kilos, a few thousand dollars, a few handguns. Next month, it’s a little more than that. A little more. A little more.
So today you look at it—and there is really no metric—none—that measures success—all of the metrics say this is a failure. Those two small gangs in the 40 years of this drug war have grown to 33,000 gangs across the nation with a membership of 1.5 million. When we started, the cartels were barely heard of. They were somewhere in South America, Latin America. Two years ago, the DOJ said the cartels control drug trafficking with the help of the gangs in 250 American cities. This year the DOJ said the drug cartels control drug trafficking in 1,000 American cities.
So we haven’t made a dent in these three strategy approaches. Addiction, drug abuse, it goes up and down. The flow of drugs is now warehouses full. The guns are tens of thousands of war-level weapons. And the money, even being laundered by domestic banks, they get a slap on the hand, there’s millions of dollars on pallets.
And cutting the head off the snake, I came to discover as a police executive who likes to do a good job and likes to meet his goals and effectively execute the strategy, that was a big thing to me, because I finally decided there’s no snake, it’s starfish. And when you cut a starfish in half, you get two starfish. When you cut it four ways, you get four. And the only way to kill a starfish is to remove its nutrient. And in the case of the cartels and the gangs, the nutrient is money.
They can’t function without money. They can’t buy guns, money can’t be laundered, and they’ll be out of business. And so prohibition creates their opportunity for money. And if we take that black market away, we’re going to dry ’em up. And that’s what I discovered as a police executive. And that’s why I believe that the only way to get out from under this—.
And since I’ve left the department in the ’80s, they just poured more money in, unprecedented money. They militarized our police. The federal government bought off our police, in effect, by providing military equipment, by providing grants.
This asset-seizure program, it’s evil. It’s totally evil. They say they created it to get the kingpins, but the average seizure’s $15,000, and if a guy wants to get his $15,000 car back, he can’t hire a lawyer for that kind of money. So all of these things that go into the harm of people, the discussions about prisons—California in 1980 had a total prison population of 23,000. Between 1980 and now, we’ve built 23 prisons, we’ve hired thousands of prison guards, we’ve fired thousands of teachers. Today our prison population is 163,000. Twenty-five thousand of those are nonviolent drug offenders, at $65,000 a piece a year to keep them in jail. That’s $1.52 million.
And this year, we told our 23-campus university system: no more new students. Our community college student—three weeks ago, demonstrations, 500,000 kids can’t get classes. So we’re trading the education of America for a drug war that’s just stacking our prisons with cordwood, destroying families, destroying neighborhoods, unraveling our whole social structure.
JAY: So when colleagues of yours, people you know in law enforcement hear arguments like this and arguments that you give, I don’t understand how they cannot be persuaded. What is this sort of moral imperative that seems to be deep in American political culture that you got to fight this war on drugs ’cause somehow it represents the struggle between good and evil or something?
NELSON: Well, our drug czar recently came out and said that drug abuse is not a moral failure. So he actually came out and said that. And he also said, we’re not going to arrest our way out of the drug war. The issue is—.
JAY: Who said that?
NELSON: Kerlikowski, the drug czar.
The issue is it’s institutionalized. Prison unions fight us all the time. Police unions fight us because they don’t want it legalized, because then they’re going to lose membership. As he mentioned earlier, the police make a tremendous amount of money from the federal government, not counting—if the police arrest someone at night, a couple of kids for a few joints, they take them in and arrest them, put them in jail, they go back the next day for a hearing, they get three hours overtime a piece. It’s a money-making machine for them. They don’t want to quit it.
The military-industrial complex does not want it to end, because if you sell a Sikorsky helicopter to Colombia for $16 million, that’s nothing. It’s going to cost $100 million a year to put the maintenance contract in place to keep them flying.
So it’s all about the money. In law enforcement, it’s all about the Benjamins. You follow the money trail, you find the problem. And everybody’s making money off of the current drug war at the expense of our children’s futures, because when you get arrested for a drug offense, I don’t care if they don’t put you in jail; you’ve got an arrest record. And when you go to get a job, you check the box, they see you’ve had an arrest, they look and you had a drug arrest, you’re not going to get hired. You’re going to be marginalized the rest of your life. And that’s going to mean you’re not going to pay your fair share of the taxes that you would have earned if you’d have been able to get a decent job. And instead of being—contributing to your society, you actually are a drain on our society.
And I don’t blame the people, other than the fact that they broke the law. They’re in a position they can’t get out of. I mean, once you’ve got the arrest record, that monkey’s on your back the rest of your life. Our saying in LEAP is you can get over an addiction; you will never get over a conviction, ’cause it follows you throughout your life.
So it’s not just a short-term thing. It ruins the people for the next 30, 40 years, breaks up families. One-point-nine million kids go to bed every night ’cause one of their parents are in prison. Forty-some-odd percent of the people that go to prison this year will have had a family member in prison in front of them. And 25 percent of the children or the kids that will go to prison this year come out of a foster home or an institution.
Well, that tells you right there this is a hamster wheel. We’re destroying the very people that drug policy claims to want to protect, which is our children. We’re breaking up families. They’re raised in foster home. They’ve become—one parent goes to jail, the other parent has to get a second job. There’s no one to monitor the kids. The evil wheel keeps turning. They’re on the street. They’re going to get in trouble. We all know that. Kids are going to be kids. We’ve got to keep our kids safe until they reach adulthood.
JAY: So some people think that if you legalize, it leads virtually to anarchy. If it’s legal, everyone’s going to go out and do drugs or way more people are going to run off and do drugs, and the place is going to go crazy, and we’ve got to clamp down on it. I mean, how do you argue against that?
DOWNING: We legalized alcohol after a horrible 13-year experience where we discovered we really made some very bad decisions, and that didn’t happen. We retune it and we returned at that time. We passed a constitutional amendment to put it into effect, and we passed a constitutional amendment to get rid of alcohol prohibition, and we returned the responsibility to the states, which is provided by our constitution, demanded by our constitution. And all of the states, gee, they worked things out, they controlled and regulated and set up their systems, and they served as models for each other, and they would adopt things. So over time we had regulated and controlled alcohol.
And during the same time, the organized crime syndicates that were born as a result of alcohol prohibition, they died. We took their nutrients away, like I say, and they died out. Now, we’re always going to have some criminal organizations, but when we announce a war on drugs,zoom—right back they came. But this time, the bribery is institutionalized. In Capone’s day, they took the brown bag full of money and handed it to the politicians or the policemen. These days, the money comes through our system and bribes our institutions and our police, especially because they’ve militarized our police and they’ve diverted them away from what I call the social contract our police officers have with their communities, and that’s to protect them from crimes against person and crimes against property.
A perfect example in Los Angeles two years ago—you might have read about it. The paper uncovered the fact that the police laboratory was backlogged 3,000 rape kids, a three-year backlog, meaning that women who have been raped were waiting for their cases to be resolved because detectives handling their cases did not have laboratory results. So it was a big [haz@rA], and they scrambled around and they found $10 million and said, we’re going to catch this up.
Well, what nobody really said is: how come they’re backlogged? And the reason they’re backlogged is because when a person is arrested with narcotics, that’s a body in custody that’s going to show up in court, and they can’t show up in court until that narcotic has been analyzed. And so all this dope arrests, 43 million arrests since 1971 in this country, those are analyzed in our laboratories. And every time somebody’s arrested, the others are pushed back.
So they cleaned that one up. And this year, now they’ve got—they’re behind by 4,000 fingerprint examinations. Fingerprint examinations are coming off of burglaries, they’re coming off of assaults, they’re coming off of robberies, stores. These are the crimes the police are supposed to be working with their communities to solve. But at the same time they’re making all these narcotic arrests, they’re angering people in the communities because they’re jacking the kids up against the walls or sitting them on the sidewalks, they’re draping them across the hoods of their cars. And 90 percent of those frisks that are going on are all about drugs. They’re not about the criminal problems. And so pretty soon you don’t have a community communicating with you, you don’t have a community cooperating with you, because this drug war has destroyed that cooperation and it’s destroyed respect for the professional law enforcement.
JAY: Just quickly, what would you like to see?
NELSON: I would like to see total legalization of all drugs, which will cure about 80 percent of our crime and violence issues. Won’t do anything for our drug problem, because that’s a separate issue, and I believe that’s a medical and a social issue that’s best handled through education and treatment instead of arrest and incarceration.
JAY: Thanks very much.
NELSON: Thank you for having us.
JAY: Thank you very much.
And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.
Stephen Downing is a retired deputy chief of police for the Los Angeles Police Department. As Commander of the Bureau of Special Investigations at one point, the Administrative Narcotics Division was one of the divisions within his scope of authority.
Terry Nelson’s law-enforcement career spanned three decades. It included service in the US Border Patrol, the US Customs Service, and the Department of Homeland Security, taking him beyond the US borders into Mexico, Central America, and South America. In various capacities, he acquired first-hand knowledge of the war on drugs through his direct involvement with counter-narcotics missions. He labored with distinction, even receiving special Congressional recognition for his work. Terry retired in 2005 as a GS-14 air/marine group supervisor. He is a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, having served as a communications specialist in Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines. He served nine years in the U.S. Border Patrol including a stint as instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, three years in marine operations in the Florida Keys, one year as a customs inspector at DFW Airport, seven years as an air interdiction officer/criminal investigator, two years as staff officer to the director of foreign operations, and five years on the staff for the Field Director, Surveillance Support Branch East. During this period the SSBE team participated in the seizure of over 230,000 pounds of cocaine and received the United States Interdiction Committee award for interdictions.