This is Part Two of our interview with Joanne Naughton of LEAP, who had a 20-year career with the NYPD, followed by another successful career as a defense attorney and instructor to students of law enforcement. See Part One here. LEAP stands for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, and is a nonprofit group of experienced cops, judges, prosecutors and other law enforcement officials opposed to the war on drugs.– OH
Felicity: When you’re talking with people, do you prefer to use the word “marijuana” or “cannabis”, and why?
I use them both, but I probably use “marijuana” more, only because it’s just a word I’m more familiar with. I don’t give either one of them any special weight.
Felicity: I mention that only because there was just an online debate over the connotations of which of the two words to use.
OH: I think that leads into our next question. What do you think will be necessary to change perceptions of the medical marijuana field? Basically, there’s a lot of public support for medical marijuana, but there’s still a feeling among some people that it’s a scam, or that it’s being abused, or whatever, and I was wondering if you had any opinion on that?
Using marijuana medically justifies the use of marijuana, but I don’t believe that any drug needs to be justified.
JN: Well, I do. Using marijuana medically justifies the use of marijuana, but I don’t believe that any drug needs to be justified. Every drug — whatever it is — should be legal, and it should be up to adult people to decide whether they want to use these substances or not. And as far as the public is concerned, they need education. about these substances, taking the “horror” out of them.
In the past ten years, I think it is, we have reduced the use of nicotine by about 50%. I mean, how many people do you know who smoke ordinary regular nicotine cigarettes any more? The number has gone down dramatically. We haven’t put anybody in prison, we haven’t punished anybody for doing that, except for making them pay a lot of money, and we’ve educated. There are those public service announcements — I’m sure you’ve seen them on television — showing people the results of the terrible diseases that they can get from smoking cigarettes.
And those warnings are real. They’re not the crazy “reefer madness”. You can’t give the public baloney, but if we educate the public about what can happen when people use these drugs — one thing that can happen is that they do not get addicted. Not everybody becomes a drug addict, just because they smoke marijuana. People can lead absolutely totally productive lives, using marijuana. It’s education.
It doesn’t have to be medical. It shouldn’t have to be medical. If adult people want to relax over the weekend, they’re not working, they’re not driving, why shouldn’t they be able to use marijuana, or anything else that they want? We’re adults! We should be able to make these decisions ourselves. We do make other important decisions, and we should be making these decisions too.
OH: And a lot of the damage, I think, that is done to people happens because they have to go through illegal sources to get their stuff.
OH: If you could buy heroin in a pharmacy, then you’d know the dosage and if you were intelligent you could take it without getting addicted and without having health problems.
Felicity: So you would want all sorts of various drugs to be legally controlled, let’s say the way alcohol and tobacco are now?
Legalize, regulate, and tax. That way you take the danger out of it, you take the hard drug cartels out of it, you take the violence out of it, you take the mystique out of it as well.
JN: Yes. Legalize, regulate, and tax.
That way you take the danger out of it, you take the hard drug cartels out of it, you take the violence out of it, you take the mystique out of it as well. In Switzerland, they didn’t legalize, but they decriminalized all those drugs. And they found they had fewer heroin users.
When you take the mystique out of it, it becomes unappealing to a lot of young people. Some young people like to live on the edge and be “bad boys or “bad girls”, at least for awhile. Doing something like [marijuana], that’s illegal, is very daring. But if you make it legal, and take the mystique out of it, they find that the usage goes down.
In the Netherlands, marijuana is de facto legal, and people are using marijuana there at a much lower rate than in this country, where it’s illegal! It has lost its mystique, as they said, “It’s not sexy anymore when it’s legal”. You take a lot of the punch out of that stuff when it’s legal, and it becomes a medical issue.
OH: That’s a very interesting observation. I was just in contact with a teenager in Colorado, who said “Well, now that my mother can now legally smoke weed, it’s not interesting, it’s lame!”
JN: Exactly. Kids like to be on the cutting edge and be daring, and if your parents are doing this stuff, how sexy can it be? That doesn’t surprise me. And they found it in the Netherlands as well.
OH: In your experience, is there a growing realization on the part of law enforcement that cannabis can be medicinal, even in New York where it’s not yet legal?
JN: I really can’t speak about that, because I’ve been away from law enforcement for quite a while.
But I think cops are more pragmatic than that. Cops enforce the law, and if marijuana is against the law, well, they’re going to enforce the law. If marijuana becomes legal because of this reason or that reason…they don’t care, they’re pragmatists. It doesn’t matter to them why it might be legal or not, and they’re not policy makers, so they don’t have to be concerned with the reasons for marijuana being legal or illegal. That’s a policy decision.
So I think they couldn’t care less, unless they’re thinking about themselves and their own private lives. They might think about it on a personal level, but as cops it doesn’t matter. Either it’s legally possessed or it’s not. And if it is, it doesn’t matter why. They don’t care. It’s on to something else.
OH: That’s interesting. I guess when I was a kid, I always had a feeling that the cops were after us, or they really were concerned about busting people all the time, because that’s what we were concerned with, and that’s all we knew. But even as adults, when you think about all the implications of getting arrested, a lot of people tend to get paranoid that “the cops are all after us”. I think a lot of people don’t realize that unless cops are part of a special drug crime unit, they’re not interested in anybody specifically; it’s just crimes that they happen to see when they’re on patrol, right?
JN: Yes, and I will say that drug users are low-hanging fruit. It’s easy if you know that there are drug users out on the street, and many neighborhoods have drug dealing going on out on the streets, because the people in those neighborhoods don’t have their drugs delivered to them. So…they’re out and low-hanging fruit, it’s an easy arrest. So it’s not that cops have this really strong feeling about marijuana, but it may be an easy collar. And making an arrest is a good thing for a cop. They add up, and every arrest makes them look like an active worker. They may get a promotion out of it.
OH: I guess you can hardly blame a cop for being “tough on pot” if some guy’s walking down the street smoking a joint. What is he going to do, look the other way? Even I understand that.
You’re right, though. The legislators have to see which way things are going in public opinion by now, but a lot of them are still afraid.
JN: For the most part, they don’t have any personal reasons for wanting to keep the drug laws. If the drug laws go — eventually, as they will — there’ll be other crimes, there’ll be other things. People will always keep cops busy, and they know that. So this is not something that they have a vested interest in.
A department head, a police chief might feel strongly. It might be a source of income, there might be Federal grants. But that’s not at the police officer level. Cops don’t make policy.
Felicity: There was a recent case of an officer with service-related PTSD in New Mexico where medical marijuana is legal, and because he had a random urine test that came up positive for cannabis because of his legal medical usage, suddenly he’s lost his job, even though he was completely following the law.
The people who make the laws are going to have to make their decisions based on research, based on science, based on medicine.
JN: Well, it’s going to take a while for the laws to catch up to the people. Legislators don’t lead — I don’t think they ever have. The people who make the laws are going to have to make their decisions based on research, based on science, based on medicine. So he’s probably in a tough spot right now, but eventually we’re going to have to have standards and figure out what will keep a police officer from being fit for duty.
A police officer in New York is supposed to be fit for duty 24 hours a day. that means he’s not supposed to be drunk. Ever. Well, I don’t see that rule enforced very often.
Once we get used to the fact that marijuana and other drugs are here to stay and they’re going to be legal, we’ll have to develop other ways of determining whether the mere presence of a substance leads to impairment. Because that also affects driving, we also have to figure out how much of a substance will make a driver impaired. We have some ways of making those decisions, but I’m not convinced that those standards are the best way. So all of this stuff has to be worked out. But he’s in a tough spot now, and his supervisor or department will probably have the last word.
OH: Thank you. Did you have any questions for us, or any point you really want to make?
JN: Just briefly, regarding all of these drugs: heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and all that “bad evil stuff”. All of those substances are available in [legal] medications that people take today. And if we stop thinking about the demonizing that we have done around these drugs, and stop demonizing the people who take them, I think we will also start to realize that the sooner all of these substances are legalized, are regulated, and are taxed, there will be far less danger to our children. Because the guy on the street corner doesn’t card a kid who wants to get some heroin, or who wants to buy cocaine. [The kid] doesn’t have to prove his age. And if we legalize all of these substances, the people who live in the neighborhoods where this drug dealing is going on will be able to reclaim their neighborhoods. And if you stop putting people in prison for this — which doesn’t work — we’ll stop destroying people’s lives. Because it’s not “drugs” that destroy people’s lives, it’s a criminal conviction. And the arrests destroy neighborhoods as well.
And we don’t need to continue to be a country that has 5% of the world’s population, yet has 25% of the world’s prisoners. That’s a disgrace. We should not be punishing people for what is really a medical problem, a health problem.
OH: Well, I must say, it’s great to hear you say all that, because if I said that, people would just say, “Well, that’s just some old hippie talking. It’s too simplistic.” But you’ve been on the streets, and on the battleground, and you’ve seen all the real-life things that happen from all these laws, and you see it the same way. So it’s great to hear you say that.
JN: You’re absolutely right. And I appreciate, and we all appreciate, what you are doing.
OH/Felicity: Thank you!