POLITICS
12/05/2014 05:29 pm ET Updated Dec 05, 2014

Houston Police Chief Calls Drug War A 'Miserable' Failure, Says Feds Need To Lead Reform

The drug war is a "miserable" failure and the federal government needs to take the lead on reforming marijuana policy, Houston Police Chief Charles McLelland said Friday in a radio interview.

"Most of us understand, we do believe, those of us that are law enforcement executives, that the war on drugs, the 1980 drug policies, was a miserable failure, there's no doubt about that," McLelland said to Dean Becker, host of "Cultural Baggage," a radio show focused on the war on drugs.

Law enforcement needs to find the "most efficient and effective" ways to keep communities safe, McLelland said, and in order to do that, "we have to think differently about crime, crime prevention, drug rehabilitation, substance abuse, mental illness -- there's a whole host of things that we need to treat differently than we did 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 15 years ago."

McClelland is the police chief of a city that's home to more than 2 million people, and is the fourth most populous city in the U.S., behind New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. The drug war, he said, has "disproportionately criminalized a certain segment of our population," namely young minority men. "It has a trickle-down effect, that a lot of young men who are minorities, in their early 20s, have a felony conviction on their resume, and now they're unemployable. And we wonder why they don't have jobs, they're not working, they're not contributing to society in a productive way, but we've put them in a position to where the odds are stacked against them."

According to a recent study from the American Civil Liberties Union, while black and white Americans use marijuana at about the same rate, across the nation in 2010, blacks were nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested on charges of marijuana possession. In Texas that same year, blacks were about twice as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana, and Texas was second only to New York for the most arrests for marijuana in the U.S.

"Have we ... stopped the flow of drugs coming from other countries into the United States?" McLelland asked. "I would say we've done very little because of our appetite and consumption. If there was not a market here in the United States, people would not be bringing drugs and contraband into our country."

Indeed, while the U.S. government spent between $40 billion and $50 billion a year fighting the war on drugs between 2000 and 2010, American spending on illicit substances remained about the same at about $100 billion per year, according to a recent RAND report.

During the interview, McLelland also called for the federal government to take the lead on reforming marijuana policies and not simply leave it up to states to change their laws. To date, 23 states have legalized marijuana for medical purposes, and four states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana.

"In my opinion, the federal government must take the lead into setting our drug policies, otherwise you will have all of these different states or different local, state governments coming up with different policies when it comes to certain drugs such as marijuana," McLelland said.

Under the Controlled Substances Act, the federal government classifies marijuana as one of "the most dangerous" drugs available, "with no currently accepted medical use," alongside heroin and LSD. McLelland explained that law enforcement is part of the executive branch of government, and as long as the federal government continues ban marijuana, it puts police departments in a bind.

"The federal government still classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, and it's a federal crime; it's very difficult for states to do that in a way that it doesn't put law enforcement in conflict with enforcing their oath of office," McLelland said. "And that's why the federal government has to decide: Is marijuana just as dangerous as cocaine, heroin? I don't know, but they're going to have to do that. And if it's something that should be changed, then take it off the list [of banned substances]."

Several lawmakers have introduced legislation that would significantly decrease the federal government's ability to interfere with state-legal marijuana operations or that would fully legalize marijuana at the federal level. And while Congress has failed to pass any of those bills, attitudes are changing rapidly on marijuana policy.

While Texas has legalized neither medical nor recreational marijuana, marijuana prohibition in the state appears to be on shifting ground. Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson announced that beginning in October her office wouldn't pursue criminal charges against first-time offenders in possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana. And Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) said earlier this year that while he doesn't support full legalization, he does support decriminalization of marijuana use.

Even in the historically conservative state of Texas, McLelland said, he believes marijuana policy could be changing soon, and a majority of state voters appear to agree with him. A 2013 survey from Marijuana Policy Project found 58 percent of state voters support making recreational marijuana legal for adults and regulating the substance like alcohol. An even higher percentage of voters supported removing criminal penalties for possession.

"I do think that you're going to see some movement, and even here in the state of Texas -- and we have been known to be a little conservative here just as a state -- but the support and growing interest in changing some of our marijuana laws, even from Gov. Perry, shows you that people are beginning to think about this issue differently, and they know that we've got to do something different than what we're doing."

Listen to the full interview here.

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