Save a cop's life: end the drug war

How can you ask an officer to be the last officer to die for a mistake?

March 07, 2011|By Neill Franklin

Several thousand miles, and a comparable cultural divide, separate Elkins, W.Va., from San Luis Potosi, Mexico. But recently, they became sister cities of a grim sort when law enforcement professionals lost their lives fighting America's longest, most costly and least winnable war: the so-called "war on drugs."

On Highway 57, halfway between Monterrey and Mexico City, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Jaime Zapata died when cartel gunmen ambushed the car carrying him and a colleague, who was wounded.

In West Virginia, 24-year-old U.S. Marshal Derek Hotsinpiller was shot by Charles E. Smith, who was wanted on charges related to cocaine possession with intent to distribute. Two deputy marshals were wounded in the gunfight that cost both Mr. Hotsinpiller and Mr. Smith their lives.

As a former narcotics cop in Baltimore who has lost several of my best friends in the line of fire, I know what U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder meant when he said, "These courageous deputies put their lives on the line and put the safety of others before their own."

But the attorney general missed the mark badly when he put his faith in business as usual in announcing the formation of a task force to investigate the tragedy in Mexico.

We don't need another task force. We don't need to redouble the efforts that have led to almost 35,000 deaths in Mexico since the end of 2006 and countless others here in the U.S., where we don't even attempt to tally those killed in illegal drug wars.

What we desperately need is to end this "war on drugs" which has done so little to prevent people from using drugs but which has done so much to enrich organized criminals who do not hesitate to use violence to protect their black market profits.

What we need is pure honesty from Attorney General Holder and his colleagues in Washington and in our state capitals. We need our elected officials to summon the collective maturity and political integrity to acknowledge what millions of Americans have known for a long time: The war on drugs has failed, it has made our drug problems much worse and it can never be won.

That's because the root cause of last month's violence in Mexico and West Virginia is drug prohibition, not the molecules that people ingest. There is no level of law enforcement commitment, skill or courage that can ever eliminate obscenely profitable, tax-free drug markets that deliver prized commodities to millions of people.

I didn't always understand this. During my 34-year career in law enforcement, I tried in earnest to enforce the drug laws, thinking I was helping to make a dent with each arrest or seizure. Along the way, several of my colleagues were killed, including one of my best friends, Ed Toatley, a Maryland state trooper who was shot in the head at close range as he attempted an undercover buy in Washington, D.C. in 2000.

After each tragic death, my police colleagues and I pushed ahead on to the next case, and the one after that, thinking that our fallen comrades had paid the tragic price for bringing the scourge of drug abuse under control.

But that belief was wrong. Drug use didn't wane, and the market didn't dissipate. Each arrest we scored was simply a job opening for someone else to step up and take the risk for a chance at the lucrative profits inherent in meeting the insatiable demand for illegal drugs.

We should have learned this lesson decades ago, when alcohol Prohibition was a boon to organized crime and fueled disrespect for the rule of law. Drinking remained rampant, and gang violence flourished. But after we repealed Prohibition, Al Capone and his competitors stopped selling liquor. Today, we don't see Budweiser or Coors distributors killing cops in order to maximize profits.

That's because, since 1933, we have regulated the distribution and sale of alcohol. We need to do the same with drugs that are illegal today.

Let's honor the ultimate sacrifices made by Derek Hotsinpiller, Jaime Zapata, Ed Toatley and so many others in the right way. Let's put their murderers and those who won't hesitate to murder in the future out of business. Let's regulate drugs the way we regulate alcohol and tobacco. It's the only way we can ever win America's seemingly endless war on drugs.

How many more hardworking and brave law enforcers do we have to see killed in the line of duty before our elected officials will change this policy?

Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (, did narcotics enforcement with the Maryland State Police and the Baltimore Police Department over a 34-year career.

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