It was the summer of 2010 that I became an official advocate for the first major campaign for state marijuana legalization. I had just become the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) when California’s Proposition 19, which would have made the Golden State the first to legalize, regulate, and control marijuana, made its way onto the drug policy reform stage. Since then I’ve been involved in every state campaign to legalize marijuana for adult use – which has been successful nine times thus far. Some might not find that so unique, except for one thing: the 34 years I spent as a cop.
So how is it that one of this nation’s most dedicated drug war warriors became a warrior for ending marijuana prohibition? Well, it wasn’t overnight. I spent years working undercover and commanding no fewer than 16 drug task forces that netted hundreds of marijuana related arrests (mostly of black and brown citizens). Here was yet another black cop under the distorted belief that he was freeing his community from the scourge of dangerous illegal drugs, failing to realize that he and the laws he was enforcing had become more harmful to his community than marijuana use ever could.
My journey began with a two-year span of violence that included the murder of three cops and a family of seven. Later this year is the 18th anniversary of the assassination of Maryland State Trooper Edward Toatley. Ed was a husband, son, father, and dear friend of mine who was murdered by a drug dealer while working undercover with the FBI. Ed’s murder was the first of ten drug prohibition murders within a two-year period that forced me to sit up and notice the violence that is central to prohibition laws.
Although I began researching and speaking out against our failed drug war policies, I still had seven more years of policing ahead of me. During these seven years, I learned that police make more arrests for marijuana offenses than for all other drugs combined, roughly 700,000 per year. I learned of the great disparity issues in enforcing such laws. How, if you were black, you were three times more likely to be arrested than your Caucasian friends.
While the first eight states passed their legislation via ballot measure, last year Vermont became the first state to do so via the legislature, paving the way for other states to follow suit.
They did so because they realized that the Chicken Little fears about underage use and drugged driving did not materialize, and the sky remains firmly in place. The numbers have come in for the first two legalization states, Colorado and Washington, and multiple studies confirm no notable increase in usage rates among teens. Additionally, highway fatalities attributed to marijuana use are not increasing as warned by those opposing the much-needed reforms.
Another thing we know for certain is that there are many benefits. Although disparate enforcement still exists in Colorado, marijuana related charges filed in Colorado courts are down significantly, from 10,236 in 2010 to 2,036 in 2014. The economy is experiencing a serious boon and communities are finally reaping the rewards from an industry that had eluded taxes for decades. A few of my favorite benefits are that the illicit market, which is shrouded in violence, has shrunk significantly; that children are no longer being recruited to sell marijuana; that because marijuana is now being sold by licensed shops, they’re selling a safer product subject to regulations and quality control standards; and that police have the opportunity to focus their limited resources upon crimes of violence.
One decade later, I, as the police officer promoting legalization, am no longer unusual; many police officers now realize the benefits of ending marijuana prohibition. And I encourage them, because in a time when cops are struggling with some of the worst relationships we’ve seen with our communities in decades, we now have the opportunity to remove a huge barrier by legalizing, regulating, and controlling marijuana and stopping thousands of needless arrests every year.
Major Neill Franklin (Ret.) is a 34-year veteran of both the Maryland State Police and the Baltimore Police Departments and now heads Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a group of law enforcement officials who advocate improving public safety through policy reform.