February 23, 2005 News & Opinion » Featured story

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Burned out 

a cop speaks out against the drug war

Peter Christ will be the keynote speaker at the annual convention of the Rochester Libertarian Party on Saturday, February 26, at the Park Place Hotel (formerly the Radisson), 175 Jefferson Road. The convention begins at 11 a.m.; the program starts at 12:30. A business session begins at 2. Admission is $30, including lunch. Information: www.rochesterlp.org; events.

Peter Christ: We're losing the war on drugs because we've chosen a policy that doesn't work.

Gary Walts, The Post-Standard, Syracuse

Peter Christ defies easy labeling.

            The retired police captain's affability could disarm even a hardened crank. An autodidact, he commands a better knowledge of history, social policy, and law than many college graduates, even though his terminal degree is a high school diploma. But what distinguishes Christ (whose surname rhymes with "twist," not "iced") is the veiled intensity with which he pulls these qualities into the single-minded pursuit of a goal. He's a man on a mission. The mission: to legalize drugs.

            Christ is no burned-out stoner. He's more like a policy wonk bereft of a think tank. What's driving him isn't an interest in the drugs themselves. He's driven by the results of decades of the drug war --- which he relentlessly labels "prohibition."

            He spent 20 years on the police force in the Town of Tonawanda --- none of it as an undercover cop or in narcotics. It was not, in fact, his work as a cop that led him to his anti-prohibition stance.

            "I went into police work knowing that this drug war was stupid," he says. "I sort of had a hope when I went into police work that maybe I would see something that would change my mind about prohibition. All I did was become even more hardened in my position that this is killing us. I did not have some epiphany when I retired that got me to the position that I'm in now. I felt this way for the whole time I was on the job."

            Drawing connections to the alcohol prohibition of the 1920s and 1930s, the women's rights movement, and a handful of other historical benchmarks, Christ argues that time will eventually side with the legalization movement. In 2002, along with a few other active and retired police officers, he helped give that movement a boost by founding the group Law Enforcement against Prohibition. Mike Smithson, coordinator of LEAP's speaker's bureau, says it's not unusual for half a dozen of his speakers to be booked for a speaking engagement somewhere in the US. That's evidence, he says, that the public is ready to hear fresh ideas about drug policy.

            We interviewed Christ, who'll be speaking in Rochester Saturday, February 26, about LEAP's take on the war on drugs. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Peter Christ: This past summer I was back at my old department for a retirement picnic, and I stopped up at my old police department. There were two patrolmen standing there, and they had both worked for me, and they know how I feel about this issue.

            One of them says to me, "Are you still pounding that drug-legalization drum of yours?" And I said, 'Yeah, as loud and often as I can.' And he says, "Well, you'll never get me to agree. I think you're nuts."

            And I said: "Well, I understand that, but let's see if we agree about anything. I believe that these drugs that we're talking about --- crack cocaine, heroine, LSD, marijuana, methamphetamine --- all these drugs have so much potential to do harm to individuals and to society that they must be regulated and controlled. Do you agree with that?"

            He says: "Well, I don't see how I can't agree with that. Of course, I agree." And I said: "OK, here's the sad reality. When you institute a prohibition, you give up all your ability to regulate and control. If you want to regulate and control anything, it has to first be made legal. Then you get the ability to bring your regulations and your controls into effect."

            That's what we are about at LEAP: ending the prohibition. Prohibition is a failed policy. We should have learned that with alcohol prohibition between 1920 and 1933, but we thought that just alcohol prohibition was wrong. We didn't realize that it was the whole policy of prohibition.

            Right now we are supporting and continuing a policy in this country that breeds violence and crime in our society --- not the drugs, but the policy.

City: Did you have some epiphany about this before you got into police work?

            Christ: Both my parents were born in 1904, so when prohibition started they were 16 years old. When it ended they were almost 30, so they saw prohibition. When I was a kid, the television program "The Untouchables" came on, with Eliot Ness crashing the truck through the brewery door and all that stuff.

            And I had these two people who lived through prohibition at home that I could talk to and ask, "Why didn't this work?" And they always said the same thing: It didn't work because the people didn't support it --- which implied that if people had supported it, it would have worked.

            As I got to be a little bit older, I started reading a little bit more. We had actually passed a constitutional amendment to ban alcohol, and I realized how much support it takes to pass a constitutional amendment. That's not an easy thing to do. There was a lot of support for it. I just came to the conclusion after reading as much as I could that prohibition has never worked anywhere it's been tried.

            All of our laws are prohibitions. We prohibit murder. We prohibit robbery. Right? When you park your car, you look for a parking-prohibited sign. So all of our laws are prohibitions. But we also have to understand that there's two classes of crime that we deal with in society. The Latin terms for them are malum per se and malum prohibitum crimes.

            The malum per se are crimes just because they're crimes. I mean, nobody's gotta explain to you that if somebody steals somebody's wallet, that's a crime. If somebody assaults somebody, nobody's gotta explain to you why that's a crime.

            The malum prohibitum crimes are crimes that are determined to be crimes by some people, but are really acts between consenting adults that are perfectly happy to be doing what they're doing. But other people don't think they should be doing that, so they make it against the law.

            Some people contend that we have less murders because we have a law against it. I never arrested anybody that thought they were going to be arrested for what they did. That it was against the law didn't determine whether they were going to do it or not. But it doesn't increase the murders we have. Nobody's killing people saying: "Oh, it's against the law. Well, I'll show them; I'm going to kill somebody." That isn't the reason people commit murder.

            On the other hand, when you get into the malum prohibitum crimes, the consensual-behavior crimes, you have actually more crime because you prohibit the behavior. A couple of examples: One, obviously is alcohol prohibition. We didn't end alcohol prohibition in 1933 because some new scientific study came out and said that alcohol was really okay. We knew in '33 that alcohol was just as dangerous as we knew it was in 1920 when we banned it. But what we realized in 13 short years is that all this violence we now had on our streets, these drive-by shootings, these gangsters and everything else, were not being fueled by alcohol but were being fueled by our prohibition against alcohol.

            We ended the alcohol prohibition not because alcohol was okay but because there was violence connected with it.

            A few years ago there used to be a huge underground economic engine in this country that brought money to the mob so quick that in some cities they used to weigh the profits rather than counting it, that's how fast the money came in. The mob employed kids --- 11-, 12-, 13-year-old kids --- to help them make this money. And we tried to stamp it out by arresting everybody, and we couldn't put a dent in it.

            And then one morning we woke up and it was just gone. They shut the whole operation down all by themselves; they just gave up. Amazing.

            That was the same day, ironically, that a thing called the lottery started. Before we called it the lottery, what we used to call it when it was illegal was the "numbers racket." They had kids running numbers for the mob. They had people getting assaulted and robbed and stuff like that --- because of this activity. We tried to stamp it out and we couldn't, so we decided to legalize it and call it the lottery. We don't have kids working for the mob anymore, selling numbers. You don't have to worry if you're going to get paid if you win. It's a regulated, controlled marketplace.

            Are there still people that are gonna take their whole paycheck on a Friday and blow it on lottery tickets and not feed their family? Probably. But that's a much smaller problem than the problem we had before. And that's something we can deal with. You know, education, whatever. Support groups, all kinds of things to help deal with that. But we have it much more under our control, and that's what we're talking about with drug legalization. We're talking about moving this from a prohibition economy to a regulated and controlled marketplace.

City: Specifically why are we losing the war on drugs?

            Christ: We've chosen a policy off the policy shelf that doesn't work.

            City: Why doesn't it work, though --- in concrete terms?

            Christ: If you get mugged, what's the first thing you're gonna do? Report it. You're gonna give a description of a mugger to the cops. If they grab the SOB, you're gonna identify him. And you're gonna testify against him in court. You're going to help the system get that bad guy off the street.

            On the other hand, if you buy a bag of marijuana, do you rush out and report that crime? No. In fact, if you're asked about it you'll even lie, because you don't want that person to be arrested. That creates a problem for law enforcement. We don't have the cooperation of the citizenry; they're cooperating with the other side.

            It's very easy to turn honest people into criminals. They did it in Canada overnight. They decided that nicotine was a serious problem. They did a study on it about 10 years ago, and the study reported that two things might reduce smoking. One is a very active education program, and the other is raising the price on cigarettes. So they did both.

            They got the price on cigarettes from about $3 a pack up to about $5 dollars a pack, and the number of smokers in Canada dropped a little bit. So they said: Some is good, and more is better; too much is just right. They jacked the price up to $10 dollars a pack.

            All of a sudden, there was smuggling all across the Canadian border, right in this area, all along the St. Lawrence. There was now violence, turf battles over who was gonna sell where.

            And for the first time, they had children marketing cigarettes to children in their schools. Why did this happen? It's human nature. If I smoke cigarettes and they're $4 a pack, and you're a criminal working in the underground and you're willing to sell me cigarettes for $3.50, I'm not going to buy 'em from you. I'm not going to support a criminal; I'm a good, law-abiding citizen.

            But on the other hand, if the cigarettes that I have to buy from the government are $10 dollars a pack and you're gonna sell them to me for $7, yeah, I'm a little more likely to buy 'em from you now. And that's the problem that we have with this thing. We are trying to alter people's behavior and are using the criminal-justice system to do it when in reality they are not hurting other people or other people's property.

            I was in law enforcement. We have a very unique position in our society. I was allowed to do something to the public that district attorneys are not allowed to do, that judges are not allowed to do, that the president is not allowed to do. I was allowed to use force against our own citizens.

            I'm granted that power as a law enforcement officer because I have a very specific job --- protecting people from each other. And sometimes you have to use force to accomplish that task.

            On the other hand, it wasn't our job to protect people from themselves. That is the function of family, church, education, and health care, not the criminal-justice system. And we do not grant family, church, education, and health care the right to use force against their own people.

            The drug war calls on law enforcement to protect people from themselves, and we aren't structured to do that. We not only don't accomplish the job, but we also end up doing more damage than needs to be done in the process.

            Look at the million people out of the two million that are in prison for non-violent drug offenses, as one example. And remember that every one of those people has a mother and a father, some of them have sisters and brothers, some of them have wives and husbands and children: families that we've destroyed because we don't like the drugs that they use. That's not a sensible approach to problems.

            Money is important to me. I don't like my money being wasted on this absurdity. Back in the 1990s, we paid a little family group that lives about halfway around the world hundreds of millions of dollars so that they would suppress the opium crop in a little country called Afghanistan. That little family group was called the Taliban. And we gave them hundreds of millions of dollars.

            And in fact, they did a good job suppressing that opium crop. They did such a good job that the underworld, the gangsters, started growing opium in South America, where it had never been really grown before. And now we're over there. We kicked the Taliban out. The opium crop --- as I'm sure you've read --- is back with a vengeance; a bumper crop this year. Plus the bottom has fallen out of the market for opium because of all the opium that is pouring in from South America.

            So there's one of the successes of the drug war. We have opium on the streets of America cheaper and purer than it's ever been in our history.

            When I was a kid growing up in the '50s and '60s, heroin was a big-city problem. You didn't find heroin in every little community in America. Today you can buy heroin in a high school in Kansas.

            The people that want to legalize, regulate, and control are not the ones that got us to where we are today. The drug warriors got us to where we are today. So if you're unhappy with what's going on vis-à-vis drugs in our society, don't blame the people that want to change the policy from one that doesn't work to one that does. Talk to the people that want to keep doing the same policy over and over again, knowing that they're not going to get different results.

City: What's your alternative?

            Christ: My alternative is a regulated and controlled marketplace of some sort. The federal government, under the Food and Drug Administration, "schedules" drugs --- that's what they call the program --- with a very heavy hand. Schedule One drugs are banned. There can be no medical research done on them, nobody can have them, nobody can produce them. If you're caught with them, you go to jail.

            Schedule Two drugs are drugs like morphine, OxyContin, cocaine. These can be used by the medical profession, but they're very tightly controlled through a prescription-drug program. Schedule Three drugs are prescription drugs, but less tightly controlled. Schedule Four drugs are-over-the counter but regulated, like Robitussin; you can maybe buy two bottles, but you can't buy a case at a time. And then you have Schedule Five, which is everything else: aspirin, Alka-Seltzer, everything that comes under the Food and Drug Act.

            The government's power to ban drugs or regulate drugs comes from the constitution. The interstate commerce clause grants to the federal government the right to regulate interstate commerce. That's where the scheduling program for drugs comes from.

            Now it's my argument and some other people's argument --- the Supreme Court has not been convinced of this yet --- that prohibition is not regulation. In fact, prohibition is deregulation. If the government has the right to regulate these things, that's what they should do, and they should set up some sort of a regulated structure for them.

            If they took all the drugs that are currently Schedule One and moved them to Schedule Two, did away with the prohibition, we wouldn't be having any more arguments about medical marijuana. Research would be allowed, because marijuana wouldn't be prohibited anymore.

            City:Marijuana is a schedule one drug?

            Christ: Yes. It's banned. That's why the federal government went out to California and arrested those growers, even after the state had said it was okay for them to supply it for sick people. And the Supreme Court upheld that.

            It wasn't until 1954 that the Supreme Court became convinced that segregation wasn't a good idea, so just because the Supreme Court's against something doesn't mean they're right. But they're what we're stuck with.

            We at LEAP have no position as an organization on what that regulation should look like, because we all feel differently about it. Some of us think it should be prescription drugs. Some of our members are a little bit more libertarian and think that it should be open market. Some of us think the government should distribute. We have all different attitudes at LEAP. What we come together on is that prohibition has to end. And some form of regulated marketplace has to be developed. And whatever shape that takes, I'm sure it will change.

            When I was growing up in New YorkState, the drinking age was 18. Then they raised it to 21. Now there's some discussion about dropping it down to 18 or 19 again. It's an ongoing discussion that goes on within a society.

            A few years ago, we as a society were having the discussion about whether the "morning-after pill" should be allowed to be sold here. And that was a pretty heated discussion: people on television calling each other names. We decided that it should be allowed to be sold here, so we made it a prescription drug.

            Today the discussion is about whether it should stay as a prescription drug or be sold as an over-the-counter drug. That discussion is much more scientific, much more based on fact and science and less based on morality and all these other things than the discussion we had four or five years ago. And that's a regulation discussion.

City: Personally, what do you think that legalization should look like?

            Christ: Personally? I'm kind of a libertarian about it. If I was king and I could decide for everybody, I would mandate kindergarten through 12th-grade drug education in every school in America. And that would not be the scare stuff, because these drugs would be legal so you really couldn't scare people that if you get caught you'll get arrested. It would be honest, straightforward "here's what the drugs do, this is how they work, this is what's good, this is what's bad, here's what sensible use looks like."

            By the time you graduated from high school, if you were paying attention, you would have a good background in your head about drugs. And then I would allow any adult to walk into any pharmacy and buy whatever they wanted to buy. That's my regulation. But that is not the LEAP position; LEAP has no position on this.

            There's all kind of ways you could set up that distribution thing. But I'll tell you one thing that we wouldn't have, and that is the overdoses and the gangs and the terrorists selling drugs so that they can finance their terrorist acts. That stuff would all be gone.

City: What stops us as a society from reassessing how well we're doing with the drug war and what other steps we could be taking?

            Christ: Have you ever had milestones in your life, where you thought one way for a long period of time and then all of a sudden you changed your mind about it? You realize the process that takes, right? For a while you hang on to it, and there's even a period when you know it's wrong but you still hang on to it, because you've been thinking that way your whole life.

            I think that's a lot of what's going on in this country right now. I mean, how do we apologize to these families we've destroyed by locking them up? How to we face all that stuff? It's difficult for people to do.

            Some people have a moral vested interest in this issue. Some people in government have a financial vested interest, a power vested interest. District attorneys are tough to get through to on this issue, because they got a real power thing connected with it. When they were handed mandatory minimum sentences, they really gained more power than the judge has, because now they can determine the sentence by what they charge somebody with, rather than the judge determining the sentence after the person is convicted. It's a power thing.

            But I think it's just normal human nature. It's fear. One of the most common words you hear from people when you talk about legalization is "surrendering." Like we're giving up. That isn't what we're doing. We're going from a policy that creates crime and violence to a policy that diminishes crime and violence and gives us a better way to deal with these problems.

            It's an educational process. Women did not become intelligent enough to vote in 1920. They were always intelligent enough to vote; it's just that it took us 150 years of being a nation before we decided to acknowledge that they were. Black people didn't become human beings in 1865, when we abolished slavery. They were always human beings. It's just that we had a bad policy. To change that policy we even got involved in a civil war. So historically, this is not unusual.

            But it takes a long time. This is a long, arduous process to educate and build the grassroots. Our job at LEAP is to make this discussion okay. I've had a lot of politicians say to me: "Well, I agree with you, but man, if I said that I'd never get elected." I always say, "Well, I apologize for that." If the grassroots isn't out there to make this acceptable to say, it's because we in drug-policy reform haven't done our job good enough yet. That's our job: to educate the public.

            Do you know what is the first prohibition we have any record of? "Do not eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." Also, I'd like to point out, that was the first example of zero tolerance. There were no exceptions; you couldn't take a little bite from the apple and stay in the garden. Take one bite and you're out.

            How many people had to be watched to make that prohibition work? Two. And who was the cop for the prohibition? God. Now if any prohibition was ever going to work, wouldn't that have been the one? But it failed.

            Prohibition doesn't work. And that's the problem with prohibition --- not just that it doesn't work, but it doesn't work and it creates crime and violence in our society that need not be there except for the fact that we choose this policy to deal with this problem.

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