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PHOTO: Ed Roper Photography
Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) is a 5,000-member organization, with 75,000 public supporters, representing cops, judges, prosecutors, FBI/DEA agents and prison wardens who want to legalize and regulate all drugs after witnessing the horrors and injustices of the War on Drugs. Neill Franklin, LEAP’s Executive Director was in Philadelphia last week to speak at the Smokedown Prohibition Sit-In at Independence Mall where Ladybud publisher Diane Fornbacher sat down with him to discuss his important work.
DIANE FORNBACHER: People are really curious to know how a retired Major from the Maryland State Police as well as a narcotics detective got involved leading a group of former law enforcement officers to a more enlightened drug policy for our country and world. I’ve heard this story from you before at conferences and panels at which we’ve spoken together but can you please share with Ladybud Magazine readers why you decided to join the “other side”?
NEILL FRANKLIN: I was filling out some paperwork the day before yesterday regarding my history in law enforcement, and in the process of doing this, I really had no idea how much I had done in drug enforcement, specifically.
When I was working for the Maryland State Police, I was arresting people and commanding drug task forces, everything. I moved onto another police department and did similar work. In all, I spent three decades fighting the Drug War.
In 2000, a close friend of mine, Ed Toatley, was an undercover agent for the Maryland State Police working with the FBI in Washington D.C. He was buying cocaine from a mid-level drug dealer and he was murdered during the process. He had bought cocaine from this guy multiple times before and it was supposed to be routine. Ed was not supposed to die.
I started questioning things, doing research, looking for officers who felt the same way, ones who were beginning to analyze the work they had done over decades. Two years after that, I stumbled across LEAP’s website, signed on with them on paper but didn’t start speaking for the organization until later in my career, in 2008.
From there, it’s just been a crazy whirlwind. I’m learning something new every day. I came to this place on ending drug prohibition because of violence, but I’m learning about the prison industrial complex, which I never really thought about until I read Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow.
Look, I’m even learning about the benefits of marijuana! I was a cop and all I knew about was the law, how much it cost, how much weight, THC content and all that stuff. I had no idea about the endocannabinoid system of the human body. I’m learning about the properties and benefits of marijuana use and the many different ways it can be administered. It has been a very fruitful educational process for me.
DF: A lot of parents are fearful to come out of the closet, for obvious reasons. For parents out there who want to make a difference to help end this Drug War, what kind of suggestions do you have?
NF: Obviously, I can’t speak to their decision-making process because that involves weighing what they may potentially lose by becoming an activist. My advice to them is to continue looking, to find a safe place where they can become a part of this. A lot of organizations that are doing great work need administrative help. At LEAP, to have someone volunteer to come in to do paperwork, filing, databasing, or research — it’s meaningful to our mission. It is needed work.
DF: Carpooling, room sharing at conferences, patient assistance, bringing coffee and snacks to meetings…
NF: Absolutely! Leave the civil disobedience up to the folks who are willing to do that part of it.
DF: You are one the busiest activists in the drugs legalization movement. What have you been up to since Washington state and Colorado passed legalization laws?
NF: Some of the most important things we’ve done over the last few months is on the heels of legalization in Washington and Colorado. I think those are the brightest spots, not just here in the United States, but globally.
We’ve been taking a look at what they’re doing in Seattle. I traveled out there and met with Alison Holcomb from ACLU, and I met with Pete Holmes, who is the city attorney. He immediately cleared the books for marijuana possession arrests. There are lots of very happy people behind that, obviously. No more arrests have been occurring, even before the policy took place.
I met with the Washington State Alcohol Control Board to see what their direction is, what they’re proposing and how they’re going to move forward. I want to learn from them so that we can bring it back to the east coast and figure out how to do things here.
In Maryland, we just formed a coalition of some key partners like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). They’re great leaders in the movement. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP) is on board too. We’re developing a strategy to determine how to move forward with legislators. How do we begin courting those individuals, not so much the ones already supporting us, but how do we bring others in? How do we back up the legislators who are moving forward like Curt Anderson, Cheryl Glenn, Dan Morheim and Senator Brinkley? We want to help them bring others into the circle.
DF: What advice can you give to already seasoned activists and those who are newer to this about how to facilitate moving forward?
NF: Whether you’re seasoned or new, you have got to continue the educational process. Things are changing quickly, there’s new data every day. You have to decide what you’re willing to dedicate to this, you have to decide this up front. You should partner with an organization or two or three, it’s up to you, but you gotta partner up with someone because you have to become a part of the bigger plan. You have to become a part of your local, then your state and then the national plan. Figure out your place in all this.
DF: So we’re here at the Smokedown in Philadelphia, where one of the issues is about the right to medical marijuana. However, this rally isn’t only about that, it’s about legalization as well, and really the right to one’s own body. In your speech, you stressed how it’s not only important to legalize cannabis but to fight the overall Drug War. Can you share with our readers what you mean by that?
NF: People come from to this fight from their own different perspectives, they have their own personal stories and interests but it doesn’t stop with cannabis. It carries onto all the other atrocities being committed.
You have to got to be concerned about all our brothers and sisters in Mexico and Central America. You have to be concerned about our brothers and sisters on the west coast of Africa, which are new trafficking routes for these drugs. Drug lords are literally taking over countries. They have real political power and are corrupt.
I am including the United States when I say that. The prison industrial complex is not just full of people who have been arrested and are being prosecuted for marijuana. You’ve got tons of people in there who are addicted to hard drugs. They should be in hospitals. They should be in treatment centers, not in prisons.
Even when you think of violent crime in this country and many of those imprisoned for that, a lot of that rests squarely upon a foundation of our policies of drug prohibition. They commit these crimes because it’s so profitable and you have no other options in many cases for employment. You’ve got to earn money in this country, and there’s just no way you’re going to survive at any decent level if you don’t have a job of some sort. And to them, drug dealing on a corner is a job, so let’s end that opportunity. Let’s get rid of the drug dealers on the corners.
DF: The knee jerk reaction I get from people I speak to outside the scope of the legalization movement is “I don’t want people shooting up next to me on the street” or similar expressions. I tell them overall drug legalization won’t look that way, but ideally we would have a compassionate and sensible policy. What does that look like as opposed to what people think it would be? They seem to think everything will go to shit.
NF: Drug legalization will look like whatever you want it to be. You know what, if you’re in a community and you want it to look like someone’s shooting up to you in public at a movie theater or somewhere, then that is what it will look like.
But if you want a reasonable program… look at how we’ve corrected some of the harms associated with tobacco and that industry. We’ve reduced advertisements, we’ve paid attention to how use affects kids both directly and peripherally, we made it socially unacceptable to smoke in public places, even parks in some cases.
True education and treatment about the harms of tobacco over the last couple of decades reduced consumption by about 40 percent. That’s how we do it. We didn’t send anyone to prison, we’re not having wars in our streets over tobacco. There are many different models of legalization. Basically, what it is we are trying to do is allow communities, people like you and me, to decide what control and regulation looks like.
DF: Speaking of public spaces, there are those who think that protests and civil disobedience like Smokedown Prohibition in Philadelphia are “just a bunch of stoners” who are alienating people who might otherwise get converted, so to speak, to our ideals about legalization. I tell them that this isn’t simply about drug policy reform, although that is our primary focus, but it’s also a freedom of speech issue. You and I are literally sitting right next to the Liberty Bell, and if there’s any place to speak truth to power, this is a pretty good place to start. Why do you believe this was a good place to share LEAP’s message?
NF: This country is centered on those ideals brought forth by the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The freedoms of this country, it’s all interrelated. Our policies of drug prohibition actually push up against the Declaration of Independence. Prohibition is a threat to it and the First Amendment, the Freedom of Speech – we’re exercising that right, a Constitutional right.
When I started listening to the speakers today, I thought “This is about education” and you gotta meet people where they are. We have to bring as many people on board to this movement as possible. Whether you “look like a stoner” or are wearing a business suit, no matter where you’re from on this planet, we’ve got to get you involved and educate you so you know how this whole thing affects you on many levels, so you can help change these policies.
We are meeting people where they are. I’m out here for that reason today.
DF: You are a man of god, a Christian, right?
DF: Would you say that your work to change our drug policies is a very Christian thing to do? Is it your life’s journey and purpose? Would it be a good thing for people who share those values to align with ending the Drug War as a matter of principle?
NF: I am strongly centered in my Christian principles. My brother, whom I followed into the Maryland State Police and is a retired Captain, is also my pastor. When he says to me, “This is your ministry,” I am okay with that. I believe it. He’s right and it is.
For the people who say we are sending the wrong message – no, no, no. We are sending a message of compassion. Being a follower and believer of Jesus Christ, first and foremost, that is about compassion. Jesus embodied that. He was about visiting prisoners, and others who suffered. He was also not about having people in prison. He wanted to help people make good decisions, to live life well. He was not about persecution, not for imprisoning people who are not hurting others.
When I speak to members of the clergy who supported the policies of prohibition, I tell them that the policies are counter-productive, that they go against the teachings of Christ. They look at me, turn their heads to the side and then I start to explain the prison industrial complex. This would not be something Jesus would support. He would be very angry about how we are treating our people.
It’s not just how we put people in prison, but to know that if we ended this policy of prohibition today, we would literally tomorrow start saving tens of thousands of lives across the globe. Central America, here in the U.S., just everywhere. We would end the lucrative underground business of drug dealing. We would end profiteering by the cartels who murder so they can maintain control over their highly profitable businesses.
Knowing that if we made those changes and could save lives and yet we refuse to do so, that’s immoral. It is immoral to support a policy doing so much damage. It’s not just the murders and the violence, it’s also the disenfranchisement of certain groups of people. Housing, education, voting rights – we are taking so much from people.
CHECK OUT PRODUCER ADRIEN GRENIER’S FILM with DIRECTOR MATTHEW COOKE: