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The Drug Legalization Debate

From: Opinion Section, Orange County Register
September 10, 1996

A view from the front lines of the drug war

by Volney V. Brown Jr.

Mr. Brown, who lives in Dana Point, was a US Magistrate in Los Angeles from
1982 to 1995.

In his open letter to the Register of Aug. 12, Superior Court Judge James Gray observed that drug law enforcement has been unable to stop the flow of street drugs. He called for us to reason together to have dialogue on the subject of illicit drug use - before again mindless ly escalating the war on drugs, which diverts tax money from other programs, arguably promotes general crime, and has a tendency to impair the civil liberties of every American.  The published response of Register readers was quite negative. Despite the evidence, they "feel" that the drug war can still be won by more arrests and ever-longer sentences.

Well, I have fought the drug wars, and I am coming out of retirement to say that Judge Gray is right. What is wrong with drug law enforcement is that it has never worked, and it never will.

In his first term, President Richard Nixon declared war on illicit drugs, particularly heroin, and sharply increased drug law enforcement. He directed Attorney General Richard Kleindeinst to create a new entity, patterned on the Organized Crime Strike Forces, named Office for Drug Abuse
Law Enforcement. The president designated Myles Ambrose, the heavy-hitter then in charge of the Bureau of Customs, as ODALE director, with the twin titles of special assistant attorney general and special assistant to the president. Ambrose thus became the nation's first "drug czar." ODALE greatly supplemented the efforts of existing federal, state, and local drug law enforcement agencies so that illicit drug sales could be ended once and for all.

Because of my earlier experience as a federal prosecutor, I was recruited out of private law practice is ODALE regional director for California, Arizona, and Nevada. I established offices at San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Phoenix (each headed by a tough drug prosecutor), with a
combined staff of some 150 attorneys, drug agents, and support personnel. We decided to test the effectiveness of simultaneously arresting every drug seller on the streets of an isolated city, and picked Phoenix for the exercise.

Using more "buy money" than Arizona had ever seen before, we bought into each street dealer we could find, two or three times each. It turned out that Phoenix had 76 drug pushers. In the middle of a week night, with the help of state and local police, we arrested all 76 at the same time.

For a week it was impossible to buy drugs on the streets of Phoenix. The single local drug treatment program was swamped. Addicts who could not get treatment left town to score elsewhere. But on the eighth day, new street pushers began to appear in the city, and before a month had elapsed, it was business-as-usual. We had spent tens of thousands of federal tax dollars, and sent scores of pushers to prison, but there was no lasting effect on the availability or price of illicit drugs.

So, in San Diego, we tried another trick. We in ODALE learned that virtually all of the heroin there was being sold by a known gang. State and local police had been unable to bust the gang because the only really effective investigative tool - a court-ordered wire tap - was prohibited by California law.

Because our federal program was not inhibited by state law, our in-house lawyers applied for and obtained a federal wire tap order. After thousands of employee hours at a command center manned around the clock, we arrested all 39 members of the drug gang. For a week it was impossible to buy heroin on the streets of San Diego. 

But on the eighth day new street pushers began to appear in the city, and before a month had elapsed it was business-as-usual. We had spent hundreds of thousands of federal tax dollars, and we sent every one of the 39 pushers to federal prison, but there was no lasting effect on the availability of heroin or its price. In one respect we were worse off for our success. Before, we knew who was selling, but afterwards we had no idea.

The ODALE program did not survive the resignation of its presidential creator and patron. But in the 18 months permitted us, my 150 people identified, investigated, indicted, prosecuted, convicted, and sent off to the penitentiary more than 1,100 drug dealers. We led all other ODALE regions. We were, as we remain, proud of ourselves.

But in the end, in our territory it was not more difficult or more expensive to obtain illegal drugs than it was in the beginning. We had failed to solve, or even affect, the "drug problem" with law enforcement.  If we had been given 10 or 20 times the resources, we still would have

I have learned from experience that there is no practical level of law enforcement that will prevent people from using the narcotics and dangerous drugs they wish to use.

Judge Gray is right. We need to consider alternatives to the mindless repetition of useless and expensive drug law enforcement efforts. I know because I have been there.

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