In September of 2009, border patrol agent Bryan Gonzalez was fired for expressing his views on drug legalization to a fellow agent. Now, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico has joined Gonzalez in filing a lawsuit on First Amendment grounds seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
Gonzalez, 26, alleges that he was dismissed from his job in El Paso, Texas after saying in casual conversation that legalizing and regulating drugs would help stop cartel violence along the southern border with Mexico. His letter of termination stated his comments were "contrary to the core characteristics of Border Patrol Agents, which are patriotism, dedication, and esprit de corps."
Gonzalez told his colleague Shawn Montoya in April of 2009 that "legalization of drugs would end the drug war and related violence in Mexico," adding that "the drug problems in America were due to American demand for drugs supplied by Mexico," according to the complaint he and the ACLU-NM filed in federal court.
Montoya reported the conversation to officials, sparking an internal-affairs investigation. Gonzalez was dismissed just one month before the end of his two-year probationary period, despite consistently-excellent performance reviews. He served from October 2007 until September 2009.
Terry Nelson, a former U.S. border patrol agent who is now a board member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, said Gonzalez is merely stating what many know to be true.
"There's no doubt that the so-called 'war on drugs' is a gigantic failure and that it causes violence, hurts our economy and forces dedicated law enforcers to risk their lives in the line of fire for a lost cause," said Nelson, who served as a border patrol agent for eight years in El Paso. "But whether you think we should legalize drugs or not, you have to support the right of brave law enforcers like Bryan Gonzalez to exercise the First Amendment and share their views on policies that impact them on a daily basis."
The Gonzalez-ACLU lawsuit, first filed on Jan. 20, has some precedent.
In January 2009, Jonathan Wender, one of LEAP's pro-legalization advocates, successfully sued the Mountlake Terrace, Wash. police department after being fired under similar circumstances. The department settled, reinstating Wender and giving him back pay and full benefits, according to LEAP reports.
"This is a free speech issue," Nelson told HuffPost in an interview. "The Constitution guarantees us free speech -- I don't think you should have to give that up to wear a badge."
That chilling effect has showed up in other places too.
During California's gubernatorial debates in October, GOP candidate Meg Whitman, when asked about her position on legalizing marijuana under the state's Proposition 19, said: "Every single law enforcement official in this entire state is against Proposition 19."
"She's absolutely wrong," former San Jose Chief of Police Joseph McNamara told HuffPost in an interview at the time. "A lot of police officers both retired and on duty are in favor of passing it because they realize that the 'war on drugs' has failed and is going to fail."
What seemed clearer, at least, was that California's active-duty police officers feel unable to speak up in favor of legalizing marijuana for fear of losing their jobs. Scores of former officials signed a letter this fall saying that marijuana prohibition fuels more dangerous crime by enriching Mexican drug cartels who put guns on U.S. streets -- but every member of the California police department waited until after they'd retired to sign.
"It's difficult, there are all kinds of factors that inhibit police officers from taking a public stance," said David Bratzer, a police officer for the Victoria Police Department in British Columbia who supports legalizing the drug. "They're worried about career advancement, harassment from colleagues or supervisors -- these are all issues that serving police officers have to consider."
Bratzer told HuffPost that even though many law-enforcement officers will privately agree with him about legalizing marijuana, only a handful of cops have been willing to make their opinions known publicly.
"The paramilitary structure of law enforcement discourages police officers from speaking out against the status quo even if that status quo is causing enormous damage in terms of wasted lives and resources," said Bratzer, who was careful to emphasize to HuffPost that his views are his alone and should not be attributed to his department.
Stephen Downing, a retired Los Angeles deputy chief of police, said working in law enforcement showed him U.S. drug policy has failed.
"I was with the LAPD when Nixon declared the 'war on drugs' over 40 years ago and was one of the 'generals' on the front lines who helped implement that same failed drug policy that is still in effect today," he said in a statement. "The only results are billions of tax-free dollars being funneled into the pockets of bloodthirsty drug cartels and gangs who control the illegal market."
But McNamara insisted there are good reasons for cops not to speak out in favor of legalizing pot while they're on active duty -- obeying the law, for example, and deferring to the chain of command.
"You take an oath to support the law, not just the laws you agree with," he said. "You're under the authority of elected officials and so you can't speak out on policy issues in opposition to what your superiors say."
Nelson noted that the Gonzalez case is "much bigger" than any of the legalization battles playing out in California.
"I think it's scary," said Nelson of Gonzalez's firing. "If a man has an opinion he ought to be able to express it," and, he added, "he ought to pick his friends a little better."