Hamish: Now,12 years as an undercover narcotics dealer, you must have seen some interesting things:
Cole: "A few. Yes. I saw a lot of horrible things, and most of the horrible things were the things we were doing to young people by destroying their lives in this War on Drugs."
Hamish: What sort of things did you see that you thought the police, or the War on Drugs, were responsible for?
Cole: "Well, the war on drugs was really responsible for about 99% of all the things that we attribute to the, quote, 'drug problem.' Which truly should be attributed to drug prohibition because it is prohibition that causes the sale of drugs to become an underground market and the fact that it's illegal artificially inflates the values of these virtually products by up to 17,000 percent increase between where they grown, mainly, in third world countries, like as you know, Afghanistan, Colombia, and where they're sold in Los Angeles, or New York City, or maybe right here in Dunedin. 17,000 percent increase - that creates an obscene profit motive, making many people willing to kill each other in the streets in order to control their little end of the market."
Hamish: So I guess you'd be of the opinion that the problems caused by the government's stance on drugs far outweigh the problems caused by drugs on the individuals themselves?
Cole: "Absolutely. Beyond any doubt. And we don't suggest that drugs are a great thing. At LEAP we think drugs are a poor choice - we just don't think people should be arrested for making that choice. You're not arrested for making a choice of drinking alcohol, or smoking tobacco, and those are the two worst drugs known to human beings. In my country, in the United States, tobacco kills 430,000 people every year. Alcohol kills another 110,000 - I'm not talking about people who get drunk and run off the road and kill themselves; I'm talking about just ingesting that, because it is a poison and it will get you, All the illegal drugs combined in the United States kill less than 12,000 people. So 12,000 is a lot of people, but I would suggest that any drug warrior who says that we have to continue spending 69 billion dollars - which is what we spend every year to fight the war on drugs in the United States - 69 billion dollars in order to destroy the lives of the 1.6 million people we arrest for non-violent drug violations every year, in order to somehow save 12,000 lives, when we're killing 540,000 with these other two legal drugs, they're being just slightly disingenuous."
Hamish: That's true. While you were in the New Jersey police force, were you committed to the cause? Did you completely believe in what you were doing?
Cole: "Well not for the whole time, but I certainly did when I joined the narcotic unit. I spent 14, almost 14 years actually, in narcotics and 12 of it actually working narcotics - the last two, as you just mentioned, I was working terrorists - but when I started I was absolutely convinced that drugs were the scourge of the earth. I mean, I grew up in looking at things like the old movie that everybody laughs at today, thank goodness, Reefer Madness, and Man With the Golden Arm, and all these things, and I actually believed that these were terrible drugs. I thought I didn't have drug problems, I grew up in Kansas in the middle of America, and I thought we don't have any drug problems out there. The people with drug problems are the people who might smoke a joint on a Friday night. But looking back I had major drug problems: I used to get falling down drunk on alcohol about once a week when I was 14 with all my mates out there. And I smoke two packs of cigarettes every day for 15 years - so I had major drug problems. I just didn't realise that these things were drugs, you know."
Hamish: True. So what did see during that working as a narcotics officer, or what was it that changed your mind. What was it that changed your mind, changed your attitudes toward drugs, or at least the drug laws, the way they're enforced?
Cole: "You mean, was there an epiphany?"
Hamish: Yeah, was there an epiphany, were there any specific incidents?
Cole: "Well, there really was an epiphany. There were several things: the first thing that really threw me was about three years into working undercover, working with these folks, it suddenly occurred to me that I like a lot of the people I was working on, better than the people I was working for. They seemed to be a kinder, gentler group of folks that weren't nearly as likely to stab me in the back. And I came to understand that this is not a war on drugs - it's a war on people. In the United States over 87 million people above the age of 12 have used an illegal drug - that means that this is literally a war on people. It's a war on our children, a war on our parents, a war on ourselves."
Hamish: And it's not just a war on people as well, according to you, the problems in enforcing drugs means it can become a very racist issue.
Cole: "I think racism is what it turns on, really. Racism is what all the drug prohibition has been based on when it started, and I truly believe that's the reason it continues today. For instance, I understand you have a terrible problem with it in your country too, the Maoris are arrested about 5 times the rate the European-type folks here, well in my country, although a federal household survey that's done every year shows that 72% of all the people involved in drugs, whether it's a dealer, a user, or whatever, are white. Only 13.5% of them are black. But once you see the arrest statistics you suddenly see that 37% of all the people arrested for drug violations are black. 42% of all the people in federal prison for drug violations are black. 60% of all the people in state prisons for drug violations are black, causing the FBI to come out on their uniform crime reports last year with the statement that a young couple giving birth to a black male baby, today in the United States, has an expectation of one-in-three that that child will spend time in prison. One-in-three: just imagine that. If we only changed one word in that sentence - if we changed 'black male' to 'white male' - we would have ended the War on Drugs 30 years ago. Because we wouldn't have stood for it."
Hamish: That's very interesting. That's very true. How pervasive, then, is this anti-drug hegemony in the police force in the States. How strong is this vein of 'Drugs are the Demon'?
Cole: "Well that's a very good question. And it's a very hard thing to answer. When I speak one-on-one, when anyone at LEAP speaks one-on-one, to other police officers, the almost all agree with us that the War on Drugs is a terrible shame and a failure. But they're not likely to speak out publicly about it because it's the way they make their living. And LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, was created just about 18 months ago we went public with it, and we grew in that time from 5 founding members, of whom I'm one, to over a thousand members, with over 60 speakers living in six different countries. In the last year we gave over 500 hundred talks, and this coming year we expect closer to 2,000 talks, so we are getting the word out. And the interesting thing is, when we talk to people, when they actually hear about the horrors that have been created by this War on Drugs, they were never aware of it before. And I'm sure that we're carrying 80% of our audiences, that say well, this argument you have is so compelling, so logical, first off: why didn't I ever hear about it before, and of course the reason is because the drug warriors have had the bully pulpit (??) for the last 34 years of the drug war, but now we're out there, and as soon as they hear it they say it only makes sense to end this: let's end prohibition, let's legalise drugs, legalise them so they can be controlled and regulated, and kept out of the hands of our children. At least until our children old enough to make a rational decision, whether they want to use these things or not."
Hamish: That's some very interesting points you make there. You can't be very popular with the Bush administration.
Cole: "Ha ha, that's true."
Hamish: Do you face any pressures from those quarters?
Cole: "Not so far, because I don't think we're enough of a thorn in their side yet, but certainly as we grow we will. There's no doubt we will."
Hamish: Do you think that's a strong current to swim against - the propaganda that the Bush administration is putting out there?
Cole: "Well sure, and they have some rather strong allies: all the Drug Lords also feel that these laws should exist, because if we legalise drugs today, tomorrow the drug lords and the terrorists in this world would be out of business - they wouldn't make another penny on drugs. And when I say terrorists, I really mean terrorists. You know, Osama bin Laden made almost every penny that he ever got from selling heroin out of Afghanistan - mostly in the United States, a lot in Europe, and now coming down this way - it's true he was given 300 million dollars by daddy as an inheritance, which sounds like a lot to you. But think about someone fomenting wars in countries: 300 million dollars as you know won't even last a day. But if took that 300 million dollars 25 years ago, as he did, and invest it solely in heroin, you'd be worth hundreds of billions of dollars today, and very well capable of fomenting wars around the world."
Hamish: So you're definitely pushing regulation rather than prohibition, and when do you want to see this happen?
Cole: "Yes, and we're not just talking regulation: we like to say legalisation. And of course when the drug warriors talk about it, they say, 'Oh yeah, they want to legalise drugs so we can all go out and party. That's not the definition. The definition of legalisation is a process whereby you can control and regulate something. Right now we leave the regulation and control of drugs in the hands of all the gangsters and murderers and terrorists out there. And that's the wrong people to control drugs. And you were asking about when? Well, I would say sooner rather than later. But if we legalise drugs tomorrow, it would be too late as far as I'm concerned, because today we're going to destroy a lot more young lives by arresting people." INTERVIEW CONDUCTED AT CRITIC
Cole: "Let me explain to you how this all started. When I started working under cover it was the beginning of the war on drugs. The war on drugs was actually coined and created by Richard Nixon in 1968. It had nothing to do with the war and very little to do with drugs. The reason he started it was he wanted to run for President of the United States, and he wanted something that would get him votes. He knew if he was a strong anti-crime guy that would get him some votes but, boy, if he could be in charge of a war, you know, wow, and as we all know, it worked, he was elected. His first year in office he managed to get the US Congress to pass Bills that would give massive funding to any police department willing to hire officers to fight his war on drugs. And to give you a slight idea how massive these programmes were: we had a seven-man narcotic unit at New Jersey State police, for as long as I was in there up until then, it had always been perfectly adequate for the job we needed to do. Then overnight in October 1970, we went from a seven-man unit to a 76 person bureau - all paid for by federal tax dollars, not a penny came out of the state or local government. This was a major windfall for police administrators, and this was replicated across the entire United States. It was a huge huge amount of money. And I became an undercover agent that time. I was one of 76 people brought in for that - they just designated one-third of us undercover, I happened to fall in that one-third, and that's where I spend the next fourteen years of my life. When we went out and hit the streets we were supposed to hit drug dealers, and that was not an easy job in 1970, for a couple of reasons. For the first reason, we didn't really have much of a drug problem at all in the United States, in 1970. And what little drug problem we did have was mainly soft drugs: drugs like marijuana, hashish, some LSD, psilocybin mushroom type things. Hard drugs like methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin were virtually unheard of back then. Certainly unheard of compared to what they are today. So when we went out there to arrest these folks, we didn't know exactly how to do it, we had never fought a war on drugs before, our bosses knew nothing about how to fight a war on drugs - but they did know one thing: they knew how to keep this federal cash cow being milked in a personal barnyard. And they had to keep that federal money coming in because they had just hired 76 troopers to replace us on the road when they brought us in. And they had to keep that money coming because they had to pay their salary every year from then on. So how do you do that when you really don't have much of a problem? And when I say it's not much of a problem, statistically the likelihood of anyone in the United States dying as a result of the drug culture in 1970 was less than the likelihood of them falling down the steps in their own house and killing themselves. It was less than the likelihood of them choking to death at their own dinner table, on their own food. And as far as I know we haven't started a war yet on stairways or food. But we did start a war on drugs. And because we couldn't find drug dealers, because they weren't on every street corner like they are now, and in every school like they are now, they sent undercover people like me to infiltrate small friendship groups of young people. Young people in college or high-school or in-between. Maybe ten or fifteen kids. And on a Friday night one of those kids might say, "Hey, do you wanna get high? School's out, we're off to work" - very similar to what the kids said in my friendship group when I was young, only it was alcohol we were getting high on. And if anybody said yes, then one of these young people would say, "Well I've got access to the family car, I can make the ride into the city," because back then you had to drive all the way to New York city [from NJ] to get your drugs, because they weren't easily obtained. And that person would go around and take orders from all these friends - maybe someone would want two drugs, someone would want a hit of acid, that's the level of drugs we're talking about. They'd drive in and they'd pick it up, then they'd come back and they'd hand it out to the folks that had done it. One night it would person A would do it, the next night person B, next person C would have access to a car - I'd stay until I got 'em all. Because I would be one of those friends and they'd be picking up a couple of hits of acid, or a joint or something for me. And that wasn't the only way you could get hit. You didn't even have to have money exchange hands at all. Even though they weren't making the money - they were just making the run into town; they probably didn't even get paid for their gas. But as you know, drug use is a very social thing, certainly soft drugs - sit around and pass the joint around, take two tokes and hand it to the next person - well, if I happened to be the next person, I would pretend to take a toke on a joint and knock the flame off the end of it and put the rest in my pocket, and that night I'd submit it as evidence, as evidence that the person that handed it to me had committed a felony, and had become a drug dealer. Because the way that all the laws are written, they say that it is illegal to distribute a controlled dangerous substance, then gives the list of the substances. Doesn't say anything in there about getting money for it - just the mere handing from one person to the other gets the job done. So these people weren't drug dealers; these were drug users: people who were just accommodating friends and stuff. But when we'd get maybe 85 or 90 of them together that we'd got some drugs off of, we'd swoop into their neighbourhoods or cities in 5 o'clock in the morning, where 350 cops kick their doors down, drag them out in chains, and when we released it to the media, these were big-time drug dealers. So by the end of the year we had all kinds of drug dealers, as far as the media was concerned. And then that wasn't enough. We also lied about the amounts of drugs we were seizing, because back then hard drugs were almost unheard of. A decent seizure for a local or state police officer hitting a house might be one ounce of cocaine. Or one-quarter of an ounce of heroin, or methamphetamine. But when we'd go in, if we'd seized an ounce we'd look around and see if there was any cutting agent - milk sugar, lactose - and if we found any, say four pounds of lactose and one ounce of cocaine, somewhere between where we'd seized the drugs and the state lab, that would all magically become cocaine, which is very easy: you just accidentally drop the small package in the big one and shake it once. As far as the state's concerned it's all cocaine."
Hamish: Does this sort of thing still happen?
Cole: "No, it doesn't still happen because we didn't have to lie about it after a while. The drug 'problem', in quotes, took legs of its own and began to run away from even the lives of the drug lords. But that wasn't even enough. Then we lied about the values of these now-inflated weights of drugs, and the way we did that is in 1970/71, when I'd buy coke on the streets in ounce packages, I'd pay $1,500 an ounce for it. When I could get it. But if we seized an ounce we'd never tell the media that. We would to the media, 'Today we an ounce of cocaine with,' and you've probably heard this term before, 'with an estimated street value of $20,000.' Just ratchet up the price a little bit - who's to question? And if they do question, who are they going to go to ask those questions? Us. And we could always justify it in some way. And it made our bosses happy and that federal money kept flowing, because it was like the War on Drugs was an absolute necessity."
Hamish: Did it ever rack on your conscience doing that sort of thing?
Cole: "Well, when I say 'we', I'm not speaking about me personally, I'm speaking about everybody out there doing this - I wouldn't do those things. And it bothered me a lot to see other people doing it. You're darn right it did. But that's what was going on overall. And, you know there's a lot of paradoxes to the War on the Drugs, and just as you say, do we still do that? No, I don't think we do, because first paradox I realised was that we didn't have to lie about this very long. Somewhere near the end of the first year, as I say, the drug problem got legs of its own, began out-running even the lives of the drug warriors, began expanding exponentially, nobody could even get a handle on it. And I personally, and everybody at LEAP thinks that law enforcement bears a great deal of responsibility for what happened. For accepting a war on drugs in the first place, when it was such a low priority item as far as police should have been concerned. But more importantly for inflating the number of dealers out there, the weights of the drugs that we were getting, the values of those drugs - I'm sure that there was a lot of poor people caught in the ghettos of our centre cities, huge cities, with no hope for the future, no way out of those ghettos, no jobs, no education, who looked around and said, 'Hey, everybody's making a fortune at this. Why not me? Everybody's doing it.' So by the end of the first year we had lots of volunteers. And the drug problem just took off."
Hamish: Did you find it scary being undercover at all? Perhaps not in those early years, when drug use wasn't so prevalent,
Cole: "In my earlier years was when I did find it scary; it's when everybody finds it scary. When you first go out there, and we had been trained that drug users were some kind of demons: I almost horns must be growing out of their heads, you know. They were the Other - we were the good guys, the were the Other somehow. And we'd always been told that's someone's who high on any of these hard drugs would just as soon kill you as look at you - you know, they'll do anything to get their fix, and all these myths. By the time I'd been in it for a few years, I learned that the people I was working on were just like me - they were just people. The only difference was they wanted to put something in their body that I didn't want to put in mine. But there were good ones and bad ones and in-between ones. That's why I say it's a war on people, not a war on drugs. And actually the last five years I worked undercover I even quit carrying a gun because I just thought it was more problems than it was worth, and I thought I could talk my way out of anything. I just didn't see that there was hardly any danger at all out there for a police officer working undercover. I learnt in the first place that somebody would have to be insane to be a drug dealer and find out that the person trying to buy from them is a cop and cause them any harm at all, because if you found that out before you made the sale, all you want to do is get away from there - you don't want to hurt the cop, because if you hurt the cop there's going to be thousands of cops after you. And if you just walk away, you're home free."
Hamish: Did you ever have a time when people suspected you're up to something as an undercover cop?
Cole: "Never. Never was I made from someone being suspicious of me. Never happened in fourteen years."
Hamish: What are some of the uglier things you've seen during your time, as an undercover agent?
Cole: "Well I think the really ugly things that bear on my mind are the things that the police did. Because we were trained to fight a war on drugs - because of that metaphor - we felt like we had to have an enemy, and the enemy when you're trying to fight a war becomes the citizens of your country. And when you're fighting a war that's a very very terrible metaphor for policing in a democratic society, because when you're fighting a war it's no holds barred. And the holds that we didn't have to barred anymore were the holds on our constitutional rights, which we would just stomp on. Our fourth amendment right in the United States against illegal search and seizure. We would illegally search people all the time, because we felt like 'we're fighting a war, we're the good guys, and no matter how we get these guys, it's worthwhile because we're taking them off the streets and that's our job.' So that's why so many get involved in not telling the truth on the stand when they're testifying about drug cases. And you almost never find that in other cases. All these violations come from drug cases. For instance, you can read a whole lot of newspapers, see a whole lot of newscasts and never hear anything about anybody violating someone's rights in say a murder investigation, or say a rape investigation, but when it's drugs it's different, because we're fighting a war on drugs. Because we were fighting a war the police officers thought that the courts weren't doing their jobs correctly - they used to talk about revolving door justice - you know, in and out so quick - and they'd complain in my country that the criminals that they'd just arrested for a drug violation were back on the street before they could finish typing up the report - which was probably true, in many cases. But in the United States we have the right to bail: if you make bail, you get out. So what's the matter with that? It doesn't mean you're released; it just means you're out until your court case comes up. But the police couldn't see it that way, they said they were getting out on the streets and right back to dealing. So they started applying what they called 'street justice'. And street justice meant doing any despicable thing you could to these people. The worse the better, because it was just one more reason that they wouldn't in the future dare to try using drugs again. So when we'd go in, for instance, to search a house, early on, when we started this war on drugs, we'd go in to execute a search warrant. We'd go in the house, we'd kick down all the doors, always. Whether they needed be or not, you know, you just kick them in, it's just part of the street justice - they had to repair their doors. Go inside to search the house, arrest everybody in the house, turn over drawers and the beds and just break things, just as part of the search, just automatically. And it's always thought of as street justice. And then if you arrested everyone in the house because you found some drugs there, when we brought them out in chains and put them in the police cars and drove off, we just left that shattered door wide open, so anybody could go and steal anything they wanted. We didn't care: that's all the more reason that they'll never do this again."
Hamish: Did that happen? Did people go into those places?
Cole: "Oh, absolutely it happened. Certainly. And who could they go to to complain? The police? Hardly. So those were some things I felt were horrible. Horrible. We'd hit houses - and of course, mainly you're hitting the house at 5 o'clock in the morning so you're guaranteed that the people are there asleep. You go in to get some guy that's sold some drugs to someone, and the police would hit the house, kick down the door, go in, and maybe the guy that sold it is the son of the parents who live in the house. But when we went in the house, you know, we'd grab him, we'd grab everyone; everyone's down on the floor and they're handcuffed at first, until you get a chance to search the house, and secure it so nobody can get to guns and everything. Some times these people's mother would be naked in there. It didn't matter. Down on the floor and handcuffed. Didn't give them a chance to dress, or do anything. Just because with this kind of embarrassment, maybe they'd really keep their son from using these drugs again. So it was all these terrible things."
Hamish: Was there every any physical abuse?
Cole: "Oh, sure. There was always physical abuse. Tremendous physical abuse. People get slapped around all the time. And worse. About any degrading thing you can think of I saw occur out there. And it was terrible. Terrible, terrible." So that is what comes first in my mind when I think of bad things I saw out there. I saw other things out there that some of the cops said, 'Oh, this is the worse thing ever!'. And this went toward fighting the war on drugs. Occasionally we'd got in to search a house - or to search a person, maybe they're out bringing - a man's wife or girlfriend might be coming to the prison to visit, and be trying to smuggle in drugs to the guy. And when we find the drugs - and the drugs might be in the diaper of the baby that she has with her, hoping that they won't look there, and when the police find this, it's not, 'Well, she tried to smuggle drugs in the diaper of a baby, it didn't work,' it's, somehow the fact that it was in this diaper of the baby was like, 'She's chancing poisoning the baby with the drug,' which is just baloney. You know, the drugs were in a plastic envelope, it's not going to hurt the baby - but it's always that those people were demonised for whatever they did. Demonised. And here, I can remember that was a big one, and after a couple of those that was always the thing that would be cited, 'These people will even use their babies to smuggle drugs,' and all this. Well, yeah, they did, but didn't hurt the baby."
Hamish: At the moment, in Dunedin - do you know about BZP? These party pills, they're basically caffeine pills,
Cole: "You know, you can overdose on coffee - if you sat down and drank 18 cups of coffee, you'd be up for a week, and you'd feel like hell. Especially if you were doing it with alcohol. Don't we learn something from that? You don't do it anymore."
Hamish: One of the things that was highly amusing for Critic was that immediately after these five kids had visited the hospital, the detective at the Dunedin central police station came out in public saying these drugs should be banned, and the Otago Daily Times, which is an ultra-conservative, it's dubious as to whether it's actually news reporting coverage, had headline banner saying "Police urge ban on party pills," and a little headline above it saying "Dangerous Drugs on Dunedin's Streets" about these caffeine pills. Is this a predictable response?
Cole: "Absolutely predictable. And what I would say is, we brought three speakers from LEAP here to talk all over your country. We didn't bring them in to try to tell you how to run your business. You've got your own country, your own laws, you should do whatever you want to do - but we did come here to warn you something: to warn you, 'Don't follow us down this path of prohibition and zero tolerance added to it, because this is what you get. And this is the path to destruction, it's the path to disaster - we've been doing it for 34 years. In that 34 years we've spent half a trillion dollars on the War on Drugs. Every year no we're spending 69 billion more to fight this war. Every year we arrest 1.6 million people - mostly young people - for non-violent drug offences. The courts are absolutely clogged with all these cases - so clogged that some civil cases languish in the courts for 15 years before they can even get heard. Our prison system has quadrupled in the last 20 years, making building prisons in the United States the fastest growing industry. There's 2.2 million prisoners in the United States today. And growing. More per capita than any country in the world. And to put that in context for you, the United States has 4.6% of the population of the whole world; we have 22.5% of the world's prisoners. Right there in that land that we call 'the Land of Freedom'. Now there's something wrong with that picture to me. And the horror of it is with all these lives we're destroying every year, and all this money so ill-spent, today drugs are cheaper, they're more potent, and they're far easier to get than they were 34 years ago when I started buying them on the streets. Now, to me that is the very essence of failed public policy. When something's failed that long and that miserably, it's time to look for some alternative. And that's why we at LEAP say the alternative is 'end the War on Drugs, end drug prohibition.' Just like we in the United States ended alcohol prohibition in 1933. I mean, we've done all this once, we should have learned something. We ended alcohol prohibition in 1933, why? Because during alcohol prohibition we had the highest murder rate in the history of the United States; the highest rate of corruption of public officials in the history of the United States; and we ended it, and the year we ended it both those things fell right down to almost nothing, and they stayed down there until 1968 when we declared war on drugs. And with the new prohibition we've gone way past most of those figures now, and it's just going to get worse."
Hamish: What's going to have to happen for this war on drugs to end? Would a change in the administration help things?
Cole: "Not much, no. It's not just the Bush administration. The Clinton administration made more stringent laws. Both sides, no matter who we put in there, just buys into the War on Drugs. No, what will make the change is an organisation like LEAP. We founded our organisation and modelled it on Vietnam Veterans Against the War. This was before your time, but we believed that those people had such unassailable credibility when it came to speaking out against that horrible war, because they've been there done that: 'It's wrong and we've got to get out.' And how do you argue with someone that's been there and done that? And we feel we have exactly the same credibility when we speak out against the War on Drugs. And that's why all the speakers in LEAP, and board members, have to be current or former drug warriors, either police, judges, prosecutors - we even have former DEA agents who are speakers for us. So there's a lot of folks out there that understand this, and it's growing everyday. And this is what will make the change because as we speak to people, publicly, there's so many people out there that are on our side: they don't even know that they're on our side, until they hear what is actually happening with the War on Drugs. They hear what kind of horrors we've really created, and they say, 'This is so logical, this is so compelling an argument, naturally we have to end the drug prohibition, we have to legalise drugs. And when we say 'legalise drugs' we don't mean party, which is what the drug warriors would have you believe: we mean legalise it so that you can control it and regulate it and keep it out of the hands of our children."
Hamish McKenzie, Editor of Critic, Otago University's student magazine, in Dunedin, New Zealand