Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), spent 34 years with the Maryland State Police working primarily in drug investigations. Franklin spoke earlier this month at a University of Oklahoma conference entitled, “The War on Drugs and Mass Incarceration: Myths and Realities.”
During an interview with Oklahoma Gazette, Franklin said state lawmakers must realize prohibition, not pot, is the problem.
“We need to break out of this law enforcement bubble and look at this issue from the outside in. The policy of prohibition didn’t and isn’t working. So many people have not learned from the mistakes of the past,” he said.
Citing a ban on alcohol during the early part of the 20th Century, Franklin said government prohibitions force illegal activity underground while creating a lucrative business opportunity for criminals and organized crime.
“It sets the foundation for violence and you have no quality control of products that are on the street,” he said. “That’s the worst possible environment for young people. If you remember, it was mothers who were big in getting prohibition repealed in the 1920s. They knew their sons were being sucked into a business that would get them hurt or killed. The same goes today.”
It’s easy, he said, to recruit teenagers into the drug trade.
“Adults can’t walk into schools and sell drugs, but if you’re enrolled as a student it’s a lot easier. Kids don’t require as much money as adults and they’re easy to influence. They don’t buck authority. They don’t challenge the drug dealers,” Franklin said. “But if you regulate pot and require IDs, kids wouldn’t be able to buy it, just like you do with cigarettes and alcohol.”
Franklin is hoping a legislative measure introduced by state Sen. Connie Johnson (D-Forest Park) will spark public discussion that could eventually lead to legalized marijuana in Oklahoma.
Johnson’s SB 2116 would allow people 21 or older to possess up to one ounce of pot and five marijuana plants. In addition, the proposal calls for the establishment of legal retail marijuana shops and cultivation facilities. The bill would regulate and tax the drug.
“We have to begin the conversation and the best way to do that is to introduce legislation,” Franklin said. “We must educate people regarding the failures of drug policies and that they are counter productive to public safety. Since the War on Drugs began, we have not reduced crime, death or addiction, but we do spend billions of dollars each year trying to do that.”
In 2012, voters in Colorado and Washington state approved measures that legalized marijuana. In the first week of legal sales, retail shops raked in $5 million with 25 percent of that amount going to the state because of imposed taxes, Franklin said.
“That’s $5 million going into the hands of shop owners, employees and the state of Colorado. Employees are now paying taxes and putting money into the local economies. That’s a hell of a jobs program,” he said.
The drug also can be used for medical purposes in 21 states and Washington, D.C.
Pot legalization, Franklin said, can be viewed in a positive light for several reasons.
“First, you’re taking money out of the criminals’ pocket and it (marijuana) won’t be laced with PCP. You can control the amount of THC where before we couldn’t,” he said.
But already, top law enforcement officials have expressed their opposition to Johnson’s bill.
“We have a lot of addiction issues in this state and I don’t think at all that a new legalized drug like marijuana can do any good,” said Darrell Weaver, director of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control.
Weaver also opposes medical marijuana, which is the focus of another bill Johnson introduced during the 2013 legislative session and still is under consideration.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel is adamant that legalized marijuana will create further decadence and cause more harm to the public.
“Drugs will and do cost society more than the revenue it brings in,” he said. “Right now, people in Colorado and Washington are ecstatic it passed, but in a few years down the road the cost will be weighed and society will come up short.”
Weaver and Whetsel said they’re “certain” they’ll be conferring with legislators about the marijuana legalization bill.
Still, Johnson defends her proposal by talking about the 7 million people who were arrested nationwide from 2001 to 2010 for pot possession only. She also refers to the $30 million Oklahoma spends each year on marijuana arrests and the time it takes from investigating more serious crimes.”
“We need to look at how much money is spent on this so-called War on Drugs and its results,” she said.
Johnson said she’s received “tremendous support” from people on social media who claim they will talk to their legislators. Still, Johnson is confident her legislative colleagues will prevent the measure from receiving a full hearing.
“They’re saying this bill will never be heard, but this is an issue that deserves its day and deserves to receive factual information,” she said.
Franklin encouraged lawmakers and law enforcement officials to be more open minded.
“I’m surprised more conservatives are not on board with this issue,” he said. “Conservatives seem to value the Constitution and the Bill of Rights more than other groups. But when you look at the nation’s drug policy and the Fourth Amendment, we tread all around the edges of it and in some cases shred it or degrade it.”
The Fourth Amendment protects Americans from unreasonable searches and seizures by law enforcement agencies.
“We search more people unconstitutionally because of these drug policies more than we should,” said Franklin, who at one time supervised nine drug task forces in Maryland.
Franklin is convinced legalized marijuana will reduce crime and the amount of resources police departments spend on victimless offenses such as pot possession.
“I have no problem with being tough on crime, but we have to be careful what we label as crime. Consensual adult behavior should not be a crime,” he said. “Law enforcement needs to focus on real crimes – assaults, rapes, domestic violence and homicides. Policy makers in Oklahoma need to take a serious look at this.”
In 1980, police arrested 417,000 people on all drug crimes nationwide. Twenty-five years later, that number mushroomed to 1.5 million, Franklin said.
“Of that number, 43 percent were for marijuana crimes such as possession and selling. Of that 43 percent, 89 percent were for mere possession.”
The arguments that addiction rates will increase if pot is legalized are overplayed, Franklin said.
“How did we reduce smoking the last 40 years without outlawing it? It was with education, treatment programs and social influence,” he said. “We’re not sending addicted smokers to prison.”
Franklin argued that state lawmakers should stop legislating their own brand of morality.
“At the end of the day, these same men and women who oppose the legalization of marijuana stop by their local pub at happy hour and throw down a few shots of their favorite bourbon and then drive home,” he said. “That’s hypocritical.”