Rusty White of Bridgeport was a soldier in the War on Drugs – a “narc dog” handler, correctional officer and police sniper.
Now he’s fighting against “prohibition” and working for an end to the drug war.White, who retired from law enforcement, is a voice for the legalization and regulation of drugs as a member of LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition). He’s on their speakers’ bureau and seizes every opportunity to state his case that the War on Drugs is a lost cause.
“I’ve buried family members over this stuff,” he says. “I’ve buried fellow officers over it. After 45 years, and a trillion dollars later, with more people in prison than any other country, we’re still at square one.
“Our organization is not for drugs,” he adds. “That’s a misconception. We’re for backing up, taking the emotion out of it, the hype, 40 years of propaganda and mind conditioning, and approaching the problem straight up. Let the facts fall where they may.”
The facts are staggering. Here are just a few:
- There is a drug arrest every 19 seconds in the U.S. Of the more than 1.6 million drug arrests in 2009, 82 percent were for possession alone.
- The U.S. government estimates that more than 118 million Americans above the age of 12 – 47 percent of the population – admit to using illegal drugs.
- One out of every 100 American adults is behind bars in jail or prison, and the U.S. houses nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners despite having less than 5 percent of the world’s population.
IT GOES ON AND ON.
White is not alone. The LEAP website reports that three out of four American voters say the war on drugs is a failure and cites a survey by the National Association of Chiefs of Police that says 82 percent of police chiefs and sheriffs agree that the war on drugs has not been successful in reducing drug use.
You can count Wise County Sheriff David Walker in that number.
“When people ask me, ‘Are we winning the war on drugs? Are we going to win the war on drugs?’ The answer is no, and no,” he says. “There’s always somebody that’s going to try to do something illegal. What we want to do is be proactive, rather than reactive to whatever that may be.”
But Walker is also quite sure that drug use is damaging, both to individuals and to society.
“Get addicted to meth, and your chances of living past 40 are pretty slim,” he says. “If you see marijuana use, you’re going to see people move on to other drugs. It’s a catalyst to get stuff going.”
The war on drugs is a “big circle,” Walker says.
“Drug use leads to drug addiction, then you’ve got a thief, a burglar, a robber to support their habit. Probably about 80 to 85 percent of our arrests are drug-related.”
Former Wise County District Attorney Barry Green, now a defense attorney, would peg it a little lower.
“If you include alcohol, drug- and alcohol-related crime is probably 70 percent of all crime,” he says. “Domestic violence – it’s hard to find one that some kind of substance isn’t involved. Burglaries and thefts, prescription fraud, forgeries, calling in fake prescriptions. Most crime is drug-related.”
PUSH FOR LEGALIZATION
An increasing number of Americans agree.
On Tuesday, voters in Colorado and Washington passed ballot measures to decriminalize marijuana and regulate it much like alcohol, and Massachusetts became the 18th state, along with the District of Columbia, to legalize the medical use of marijuana since 1996.
Walker said Texas is unlikely to follow suit anytime soon – and he predicts some epic court battles if the trend continues.
“It’s still against federal law,” he said. “I think that’s a bad decision on the part of a bunch of people who basically just want to indulge a habit. There’s a lot of issues in Colorado they’re going to have to deal with. That just opens the door.”
So far, the federal government’s stance is that marijuana is an illegal drug and violaters of federal drug laws will be vigorously prosecuted.
A sizeable group of people pays a heavy human toll for that stance, White says.
“Our kids now – you get one arrest, no more federal money for school,” he says. “You get a lifetime record, and that means meaningful employment is out the window. That’s what’s so bad about this.
“People are still going to make a living and provide for their families and try to achieve,” he adds. “If you only leave them the dark side to do that in, that’s what they’re going to take. All we’ve done is create a second-class society out here, that’s going to find a way to make a living.
“They’re not just going to die and go away.”
Walker says his deputies are not eager to arrest people for small amounts of marijuana. But often the evidence shows more than just personal, recreational use.
“A lot of times, you catch somebody on a traffic stop with the butt of a roach,” he says. “Do you really want to put them in jail? No. You write them a ticket for possession of paraphernalia and send them on their way.
“But if you also see a bag of meth and $40,000 cash, or 4 or 5 pounds of marijuana, well, that’s not personal use. They’re in business, and that $40,000 is forfeited and they’re in jail.”
According to LEAP, there are at least 346,605 people serving sentences in state and federal prisons for drug possession or sales in the U.S. (including more than half the entire federal inmate population). There were also 767,620 inmates held in local jails in the U.S. in 2009, and in 2002 (the most recent year offense data was collected), possessing or selling drugs was the most serious crime committed by a quarter of jail inmates. An unknown number are incarcerated for property crimes used to pay for illegal drugs or violent disputes for control of the market.
Decriminalizing marijuana would not free all those people, but it would make a significant dent in the U.S. prison population going forward.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
Both the problem and the solution are wrapped up in money.
It’s estimated that marijuana provides 65 to 70 percent of the funding for Mexico’s murderous drug cartels. Illegal drug sales are also a key component of the funding for Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.
One of the driving forces behind legalization is financial: legalize it, regulate it and tax it, and stop funding all those foreign bad guys.
“You don’t see anybody hiding in an alley trying to sell you a bottle of beer,” White says. “You don’t see that. It’d be the same thing again. That’s how they make their money. While it’s illegal, it’s worth more than gold.”
On the other side, an enormous amount of money goes into fighting drugs. Those arrests, property and cash seizures, middle-of-the-night raids and shootouts call for multi-million dollar jails and prisons, high-tech equipment, and armies of drug enforcers who have become more military units than police officers.
“You look at every community around, jail houses and courthouses are the biggest buildings in them, and that’s sad,” White said. “Our prisons are no longer prisons – they’re people ranches for profit. They make a living off of putting people behind bars.”
Walker says Wise County tries to make the best use of its funds, and use them to “go after the big stuff” and not the small-time criminals.
“We try to get help from all fronts,” he says. “The DEA works up here with us, the FBI, DPS state narcotics – we don’t see as many meth labs as we have in years past, but we still get a lot of drugs.”
Walker says the drugs coming into Wise County now can often be traced back to the Metroplex, and from there back to the cartels in Mexico.
“We recently made an arrest in Chico and got meth, stolen goods and drugs from Haltom City,” he said. “We placed an order, and they delivered – to our SWAT team. That’s not who they expected to be on the other side of that door. That operation was connected to a cartel.”
White prefers to make the argument from a personal level. He’s talking about legalizing drugs for personal use, and staying out of people’s business.
“In my opinion, if people minded their own business a lot more, we’d all be a lot better off,” White said. “If you make choices that I wouldn’t make, and you keep them to yourself, that’s none of my business.
“If you let your personal choices come out into society and affect other people, then you should be slapped in the dirt for being stupid, and you should not be able to use the excuse ‘Drugs made me do it.’”
That’s another area where Walker and White happen to agree.
“I think most Texans would probably agree,” Walker says. “If someone wants to do that behind closed doors, that’s their problem. Just don’t bring it around my kids. I think that’s the general consensus of Wise County. Do what you want to do with that door shut on your house.”
Green says marijuana users actually tend to keep it to themselves much more than drinkers.
“People say, ‘I don’t want someone driving around high,’ but if you make all the same laws applicable, I don’t think you’d see much change,” Green said. “For some reason, alcohol makes some people want to drive around and get rowdy. Marijuana users tend to stay at home and do that there.
“Most marijuana arrests come out of traffic stops – if people would keep it out of their car, they could probably use it from now on at home and never get bothered.”
THE NEED FOR REHAB
Just like with alcohol, there are some people who cannot limit themselves to occasional use, and have their lives ruined by drug addiction. Another thing most people agree on is that rehabilitation efforts are woefully underfunded and inadequate.
Walker says he’s all for rehabilitation, but knows from firsthand experience that a lot of people who want rehabilitation when they’re behind bars skip out on it as soon as they’re back on the street.
Nationwide, more people can’t get the rehab they need.
According to the LEAP website, federal statistics say that 23.5 million Americans are in need of substance abuse treatment, but only one in 10 receive it. Nationally, spending on enforcement grew by 69.7 percent over the past nine years, while spending on treatment and prevention grew by only 13.9 percent.
“It ought to be as easy to get help as it is to go to jail,” White says. “Go try to get into a clinic, and you don’t have insurance. It’s an 18-month waiting list. If you’ve got a drug problem you can’t wait 18 months.
“Not everybody goes stupid,” he adds. “There’s a percentage that goes stupid and let their choices get ahold of them. And they need help. They don’t need jail or prison. They need medical help.”
TIME FOR A DISCUSSION?
Mostly what White, LEAP and others would like to see the drug war come under fresh scrutiny.
“We don’t know the answers,” he says, “but we’ve spent our time in it. All we’re asking for is an honest, open debate from the top down. It needs to start with the president, the congress, they need to have an open discussion about this.”
He believes the tide of public opinion is turning on this issue – and election-night results, for the most part, support that belief.
“Get somebody to answer this question: If we’ve been on the right path for 45 years, over a trillion tax dollars later, more people behind bars than any other country on earth, would not common sense, fact and reality dictate that the need for more resources, more courts, the harm being done to our people should be going down?
“Yet every year, more resources, more people locked up, more harm being done. If common sense and reality and the truth won’t support this, then why are we?
“You’re going to have people who say ‘I lost my family member to drugs. Drugs destroyed my family.’ Well if this drug war is working, why did that still happen? Why is it still happening every day?”