Are we as a society responsible for controlling what adults put into their own bodies? Or are individuals responsible for themselves? And is the Nixonian “war on drugs” — now in its 40th year — responsible for creating more problems than it solved?
No matter what your view on America’s relationship with controlled substances, you probably have a ready, emotionally charged answer. Debates get heated fast and rational discussions are in short supply. Proponents of legalization are often assumed to be potheads looking for a legal high. Retired Cincinnati Police Capt. Howard Rahtz defies this preconception. He’s a conservative and has no interest in using drugs but he supports legal, controlled and public sales of marijuana.
“I defy you to find anybody who will applaud what the war on drugs has accomplished,” Rahtz says. “Use rates have not changed in four decades. We’ve accomplished nothing. We spend more money, we incarcerate more people than any other place in the world and we end up with less for it. The fact is, what we’re doing isn’t working. My question is, particularly in this age of shrinking resources, are we going to continue pouring money down this rat hole?”
Rahtz is a local member of LEAP and one of the organization’s 125 speakers who make the case for legalization around the nation. According to spokesperson Tom Angell, LEAP has more than 40,000 subscribers to it’s email alerts and draws supporters from across the political spectrum — libertarians, socialists and everyone in between. Congressman Ron Paul is one of LEAP’s best-known supporters.
“We really try and change the face of this debate and reframe the way that people perceive drug reform,” Angell says.
Rahtz, who retired from CPD in 2007, says he became interested in drug policy reform after learning about LEAP.
“I think I believed almost until the time I retired that the current structure wasn’t all that bad,” Rahtz says
“Of course, I’ve had a fair amount of experience in Cincinnati, which is not really unique among major cities in this country where drug violence is the primary driver of the homicide rate,” he adds. “So, I began to think about what can we do drug policy-wise to stem this violence not only in our American communities but internationally and began to think about how the drug market is structured and the relationship between the violence and drug trafficking.”
The conclusions he came to were inescapable, Rahtz says, and it’s really simple math: Marijuana is the primary product of the illegal drug market and accounts for 60 percent of the revenue garnered by drug cartels.
“If we’re serious about choking off the revenue to these drug traffickers, and that’s my major goal here — if we’re really serious about choking off the revenue to them — the first thing we need to do is something about marijuana,” he says.
“If they legalize marijuana tomorrow, you won’t see Howard Rahtz in line to buy any of it,” he says. “I don’t care about it. All I care about is trying to stop the violence that’s going on, associated with drug trafficking. And the first thing we can do is take marijuana out of the market by legalizing it. What business could sustain the loss of 60 percent of their revenue? We take away their single biggest product, their single biggest source of income and we’re going to severely affect their bottom line.”
While listening to retired Maryland State Police Maj. Neill Franklin, LEAP’s director, it becomes clear the image he paints of the war on drugs is that of a Chinese finger trap. The harder we fight, the more entrenched we become. Franklin says that’s an apt description.
“We in law enforcement thought we could be effective at keeping drugs out of our communities and locking those people up and it being a deterrent for those selling and using drugs,” Franklin says. “I thought this could be accomplished, as most people did. As we started moving through the years, I eventually ended up going into management for narcotics commanding task forces and following the party line of the federal government. We just continued to push harder.”
The strategy shifted from arresting primarily dealers to focusing on users, and this corresponded with the massive rise in American prison populations.
“We got tougher, we made the penalties more severe, but all the time we weren’t really thinking about these (being) addictions that we are dealing with,” Franklin says. “People don’t care about prison. What they care about is not being sick from missing a dose. Prison is no deterrent.”
Likewise, Franklin says law enforcement missed the mark with dealers.
“For a lot of these people selling in the communities we were targeting, that’s the only option they see for financial survival,” he says. “Prison’s no deterrent for that and after a while, prison became the norm.”
Franklin says he found that the act of taking dealers off the street created a void that other gangs and dealers were more than willing to fill. He says drugs are the foundation for most of the crime that police contend with on a daily basis.
Realizing these facts and the futility of prohibition made him do a 180-degree change in his thinking on drug prohibition, he says.
“This is the fascinating thing about this,” he says. “If overdose rates go up, if addiction rates go up, if they give their surveys and see that more kids are using illicit drugs then you know what? ‘We gotta push harder. So let's dump more money into prohibition, let’s dump more money into the criminal justice system. Let’s really push harder on this and we’ll make a difference.’ (But) when numbers head in the other direction, they say the same thing. ‘Oh, it’s working, so let’s dump more money into it.’ It’s a Catch-22. Either way you go, you never succeed.”