This week, tens of thousands of police officers and their families will travel to Washington, DC to commemorate law enforcers who have lost their lives in the line of duty. To me, a 34-year veteran cop in Maryland, the roster of fallen comrades to be read on Peace Officers Memorial Day is far too long, and especially troubling is that so many of these deaths needlessly resulted from police being charged with enforcing an unwinnable war on drugs.
Deputy U.S. Marshal Derek Hotsinpiller, 24 years of age, never should have died the way he did: gunned down in February when a drug suspect opened fire during a police raid in Elkins, West Virginia.
And in a just world, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Jaime Zapata would not have been shot to death in his car earlier this year by a drug cartel in San Luis Potosi, Mexico.
Sadly, there's nothing unique or new about such drug war deaths.
A decade ago one of my best friends, narcotics detective Corporal Ed Toatley, died needlessly when he was ambushed by a drug dealer during an undercover drug buy gone wrong in Washington, DC.
Undoubtedly, my friend and these other brave law enforcers paid the ultimate price for a well-intentioned effort to combat drug problems in our society, and we cannot forget their sacrifices. But, in their honor, we do have to ask: Was it necessary?
In a word: No. Despite a decades-long drug war in which a trillion dollars have been spent arresting, prosecuting and jailing millions of people, drugs today are more prevalent, cheaper and more potent than ever before.
Thinking back to my own law enforcement career, I now realize that the more people we arrested and the more drugs we grabbed, it didn't really make a dent -- never mind a significant impact -- in the drug trade. We were making ever-bigger busts yet were continually falling behind the traffickers. I confess that questions of futility did pop into my head from time to time throughout my career, but I usually pushed them aside quickly. I was caught up in the excitement of collaring the next bad guy. And many of the guys we took off the street were in fact bad.
But, eleven years ago, my grief and anger over Ed Toatley's death made these questions I had been avoiding harder to ignore. Why was it that for each bad guy we took off the streets, there was always a new one ready to step in and fill the lucrative job opening? Why weren't drug use and addiction rates going down no matter how many tons of drugs we seized? Why does the drug trade grow larger, more entrenched, and more deadly despite all we have done for so long?
These issues aren't easy to confront after having spent so many years of my own life trying to help solve the drug problem through policing. But, in the interest of being honest with myself, I now have to admit: It doesn't work and it isn't worth the price so many of my colleagues end up paying.
So, since 2008 I've been working with LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. We are former and current police officers, judges, prosecutors, prison wardens, federal agents and other criminal justice professionals who have seen more than enough of the "war on drugs" up close to know that it's a failure and that we need a new approach.
LEAP believes that the war on drugs is not only ineffective at reducing drug problems but has actually made them much worse. The drug war has become a massive, self-perpetuating policy disaster with no positive returns (except to the gangs and cartels that control the illegal market) and huge costs - including a large percentage of the lives lost in law enforcement.
In no way does this deny the great work done, and huge sacrifices made, by law enforcement professionals for decades. The reason we can never win the drug war isn't because police haven't tried hard enough or aren't as skilled as we need them to be. It's because the task we've asked them to accomplish is impossible. We will never reduce the drug trade through prohibition. In fact, more of the same will keep strengthening drug traffic.
History shows that no level of law enforcement talent, commitment, and resources can ever end activities that are very popular and obscenely profitable. (Remember alcohol prohibition?)
Ed Toatley and so many other police have died in a war we can't win. How many more will need to perish before America musters the collective courage to chart a new course? Let's honor the memories of our fallen colleagues by ending the war on drugs. It's the best step we can take to ensure that none of them will have died in vain.
Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (http:// www.CopsSayLegalizeDrugs.com), did narcotics policing with the Maryland State Police and Baltimore Police Department for over 30 years.