An interview with Major Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition
A conservative, the saying goes, is a liberal who has been mugged by reality.
As far as drug policy is concerned, the reverse is just as likely. A reformer is a prohibitionist whose friend has been shot dead.
That is the case, at least, with Neill Franklin, formerly a Major with the Maryland State Police and now the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), the nonprofit organisation of retired north-American cops and judges whose careers led them to see that a criminal-justice approach to the drug problem has failed.
Franklin had graduated from the Maryland State Police academy in 1979 and began working undercover in narcotics enforcement in the suburbs of Washington, DC the following year. Initially, he'd seen virtue in enforcing drug laws, with the genuinely noble aims of reducing addiction and crime. But good intentions don't make a good idea, and the myth was dispelled soon enough. "As time went on I began to see that it was a neverending vicious cycle with no progress," he says.
Despite a growing skepticism, Franklin's efforts never declined, and trying an alternative still hadn't occurred to him, believing that even if the war on drugs wasn't advancing then at least a stalemate was preventing a flood of addiction.
"I kind of like had the impression that if we let up then it would be this, you know, sort of like the dyke breaking and then you'd have the massive destruction that would occur with a flood of narcotics," he says. "That wasn't really the case, but that's what I thought at the time."
Treading muddy water can only go on for so long before even the law's long arms begin to tire. The tide began to turn for Franklin during the 1990s, by which time he was in management, working as a commander over several multi-jurisdictional anti-drug units.
A little earlier, in 1987, Kurt Schmoke had been elected to his first of three terms as Mayor of Baltimore (the problems of which, through The Wire, many UK-based readers will know better than those of our own inner cities). Schmoke had begun to speak of the potential benefits of drug decriminalisation, and Franklin had begun to listen.
The wave finally broke in October 2000, by which time Franklin was in command of the Baltimore Police Department's academy, spurred by the murder of his friend and former colleague Edward Toatley.
Toatley had been working in the DC suburbs along with the FBI, carrying out a 'buy-bust' on a mid-level dealer – a mid-level dealer who got spooked, and shot the undercover cop in the head at point-blank range.
Franklin says that he'd then finally concluded that prohibition was counterproductive after "getting to the hospital when he had passed, and then seeing his wife and his kids, and realising that this was a futile effort that we were engaged in, and we needed to figure out another way and another strategy." There's a detectable, and understandable, pain in his voice a decade on.
He says that the initial thoughts of many police officers who had been close to Toatley were of anger at his murderer, and the idea that they should crack down even harder on drug-dealing. But then he stopped to think about the danger that those in law enforcement have to face – and that which they don't. Policing is an inherently risky job, and its men and women are paid to put themselves on the line for us. But they shouldn't be asked to do so lightly.
"We know that it's always been our job to apprehend those who murder, those who commit crimes against other people," he says. "From the beginning of time, it's always been our job to protect people from people. But because we are now attempting to protect people from choices they make, we created these policies that compound the potential for violence against police officers."
Criminals involved in illegal activity can behave extremely violently to try to avoid staying out of jail, or even to make more money. This doesn't really happen with legal trade. "We don't have beer barons or beer companies fighting each other in the street," Franklin says. "Wineries aren't going at it with guns and violence." Or not anymore.
It's a tragedy that it took the death of a friend for that realisation to have stuck for good, but it's so often the case with policy that it never matters until it's personal.
It was after Toatley's murder that Franklin began to speak out against prohibition, and he first heard of LEAP, where he is now executive director, two years later.
The job includes speaking and writing against the policy of prohibition, and, in an ironic touch, getting involved with drug offenders, such a group of 12 incarcerated teenagers with whom he'd recently held a workshop, in a far more personal and human way than police officers normally do.
After Major Franklin's own Damascene conversion, all that remains is to convince others. Winning hearts and minds is never an easy task, but the most respected critic of any war has always been the old soldier.