The war on drugs is not working, former DEA Task Force Officer Robert "Russ" Jones told Rotary North members at their meeting last Friday. Criminals are getting rich, and drug use has not gone down in the last 40 years.
"For 37 years I was involved in the war on drugs," said Jones, 63, who was raised in Los Gatos.
He was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, then joined the San Jose Police Department in 1970, the year after President Nixon declared the war on drugs.
"As police officers on the streets, we didn't see any problems with drugs," he recalled.
But as the federal government gave grants to enforce drug prohibition, police forces signed up. Jones joined the Narcotics Division in 1974 and worked undercover, infiltrating the drug world with results that made headlines and took the local dealers off the streets.
"We knew someone would take over," Jones said. "And the Nuestra Familia moved into the void in San Jose."
The fight was frustrating, he said. "When I arrested a robber or a rapist I made it safer. With a drug arrest, I just made a job opening."
Jones worked at Santa Rita Jail for five years, as a deputy at Greystone, its maximum security facility. He joined the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in the late 1970s, and worked in Central America during the Iran-Contra affair in the 1980s.
He visited China and the U.S.S.R. in 1988-89, where he accompanied Moscow narcotics officers on a methamphetamine lab bust. He said that there, too, as quickly as they arrest dealers, others replace them.
"If the Soviet Union - a repressive regime - is unable to control its drugs, how can the United States, with all its freedoms?" he asked.
When the United States launched its war, it pressured other nations to join in, said Jones, and now other countries are rethinking their policies.
"Switzerland has begun treating heroin addiction with heroin," he said. "There has been a 50 percent decline in overdose deaths, a reduction in AIDS and hepatitis, crime has been cut 60 percent, and there has been an 82 percent decline in the number of addicts."
In the U.S., the rate of addiction is now 1.3 percent of the population, the same as it was in 1970 when the war on drugs began, Jones noted. Since the war began, the U.S. has spent $1 trillion on the fight; there have been 38 million non-violent drug arrests; and the prison population is now at 2.2 million, a higher percentage than any other country in the world.
"We need to fight smarter; we need to reframe the debate," Jones said. "It isn't a 'left' or a 'right' issue - it isn't a Republican or Democrat issue."
He quoted Albert Einstein: "Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results."
"You can be anti-drug and still be anti-prohibition," he said, adding that forcing abstinence or regulating pleasure has never worked. "I use the word 'regulate.'"
Now, $400 billion is made by the drug cartels each year, said Jones.
"We can collapse the drug cartels as easily as we did Al Capone," he said, by ending prohibition. "Street gangs aren't distilling alcohol and selling it to teens."
Doctors should be able to write prescriptions for drugs, and addiction should be treated as a health problem, he said. "We have to get the Department of Justice out of the doctor's office and remove the street dealers."
"The use of tobacco has been decreased from 42 percent to 17 percent - without arresting and jailing tobacco users," he said. The key has been education.
After the speech, several Rotarians had questions.
"How can this change come about?" asked Ron Sutton.
Jones said it will have to be a grassroots effort, and it will be incremental.
"Leaders don't lead, they follow," he said, so they must hear what their constituents want.
"How has medical marijuana worked?" asked someone else.
Jones said the problem is putting dispensaries into communities. "It should be sold at Walgreen's." Thirteen states have legalized medical marijuana but federal laws still prohibit it.
Someone else asked whether putting doctors in charge of now illegal drugs would put them into a difficult position.
"Ritalin is a methamphetamine," Jones noted, plus doctors now prescribe pain pills.
"How do you spread this knowledge?" was the last question.
Jones said that's why he has joined Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, and he suggested people find out more at www.leap.cc.
After the speech former Judge Ron Hyde said he is not convinced that marijuana is not a gateway drug to harder substances since drug addicts that came through his court said they'd begun with alcohol and marijuana.
Jones said that statistics don't support this point: 41 percent of U.S. residents ages 12 and over say they have used marijuana while hard drug addiction remains at 1.3 percent.