Neill Franklin saw a lot during his 30-year career as a cop in Baltimore that made him question drug-enforcement policies, he said.
He saw fellow police officers killed by drug dealers and a family murdered in their Baltimore home after standing up to a local dealer.
“What we’re supposed to do in law enforcement is save lives,” Franklin said. “I found that what our policies are doing is providing the foundation for taking lives.”
Franklin, now the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, or LEAP — a Massachusetts-based nonprofit advocating for drug policy reform — and others, including some Maryland lawmakers, are trying to start a conversation about how to reform drug policies in the United States, including decriminalizing or legalizing illicit drugs.
On Sunday, a group of about 100 people arrived in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., area after a 6,000-mile journey to raise awareness of the “War on Drugs,” an effort they say is a losing battle on the part of politicians and law enforcement.
The group emphasized the need for the U.S. to be a leader in changing its policies — including making guns harder for drug traffickers to obtain and reducing the American appetite of illicit drugs — to stop the violence in countries like Mexico.
“There’s a growing sentiment that nonviolent drug offenses are clogging not just courts, but prisons as well,” said Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park, who sponsored legislation for medical marijuana the past two legislative sessions.
“We’re at a moment where people are looking at creative responses to drug policies.”
The problem for state legislators is that the federal government maintains policies banning the sale and possession of marijuana, including for medical purposes, though the Department of Justice is not pursuing legal action against those states or users.
Ballot initiatives in Colorado, Oregon and Washington in November will ask voters whether they want to legalize and regulate marijuana for recreational purposes, going beyond the medical marijuana legal in 17 states and the District of Columbia. Supporters say regulation would elevate marijuana from the black market and bring in revenue.
“One by one, the states are going to push back on the drug policies,” Franklin said.
Efforts to legalize marijuana for recreational use are unlikely to come up anytime soon in Maryland, Franklin said. Lawmakers in the state still are grappling with the question of how to safely and legally make marijuana available for medical purposes.
Over the past two years, Raskin has successfully sponsored legislation to reduce the severity of sentences for possession of 10 grams of marijuana or less, and to give those using marijuana for specific medical conditions a legal defense if charged.
But Franklin and the caravan are not just talking about legalizing marijuana. The policies on all drugs, including cocaine and heroin, they say, are contributing to violence both in the U.S. and in countries to the south from which the drugs are trafficked.
The idea of legalizing drugs can be scary, Franklin acknowledges, but he said he’s seen enough to know that urban youths already have ready access to drugs, much more access than they have to state-regulated alcohol.
Kurt L. Schmoke, the former mayor of Baltimore, spoke as early as the late 1980s about the possibility of legalizing drugs.
Addiction treatment is at the heart of the issue, said Del. Dan K. Morhaim (D-Dist. 11) of Owings Mills, an emergency room doctor at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore.
“We have to make this a health care discussion,” Morhaim said, adding that a significant amount of money is already being spent in the nation’s emergency rooms on drug-related illnesses or injuries. “Addiction treatment works, but the services are not there.”
Morhaim, who has sponsored medical marijuana legislation in the House, said he will keep his focus on that effort, because it seems to be the most likely to lead to a win.
“But you have to start this big discussion,” Morhaim said. “The war on drugs has cost us 50 years and billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives. It’s clearly not working.”