Which Cops Would You Pick for Your Town?

One of the stranger aspects of the drug debate in America is the disconnect between the people at large and those involved in legislating or executing the war on drugs. An annual survey of police chiefs and sheriffs, for example, recently found that only 40 percent of them favor legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes, as opposed to the 70-80 percent of public support shown by recent polls. Advocates are disappointed that a solid majority of America's law enforcement leaders favor the criminalization, and resulting arrests and prosecutions, of patients for medical marijuana use.

Another disappointing attitude is that of New Jersey's top law enforcement office. After Atlantic City officials announced plans to open a city-run needle exchange program, citing state law allowing them to do so, NJ attorney general Peter Harvey came out with a statement that law does not allow it -- but not explaining why the law cited in support of the proposal did not apply. This week a spokesman for Harvey revealed an ideological preference rather than the previous legal interpretation, saying "Our office has serious concerns about any policy or practice which facilitates or encourages drug use." This despite overwhelming evidence that needle exchange does not have that effect and that laws prohibiting syringe distribution and possession, and enforcement of those laws, have cost the lives of massive numbers of New Jerseyans and others.

The contrast with police of some nations in Europe is very striking. Preparing for an influx of soccer fans from around the continent, and knowing the reputation of some (mainly British) fans to be rowdy, police in Lisbon, Portugal, have promised to turn a blind eye to open marijuana use. The nation has already decriminalized drug use and possession, but smoking in public is still illegal. For purely pragmatic reasons, they have decided to use their discretion to allow it. As a police spokeswoman told the British newspaper The Guardian (perhaps hoping to get the message to the infamous soccer hooligans in advance), "If you are quietly smoking and a police officer is 10 meters away, what's the big risk in your behavior? I'm not going to tap you on the shoulder and ask 'What are you smoking?' if you are posing no menace to others. Our priority is alcohol."

In Switzerland, the police aren't satisfied with discretion and decriminalization. Following a narrow vote by the Swiss Parliament to pass a bill, already approved by the Senate, to legalize marijuana outright, police officials were among the voices publicly expressing their disappointment.

Which police would you rather have for your state and community? Though we are frequently critical of police practices, I'm not someone who claims that cops as a rule are bad; and I recognize the risks to life and limb to which police officers subject themselves on a regular basis to protect members of the public, and which sometimes cost them their lives. We need to remember that. Still, I have no reason to believe that police in Portugal or Switzerland are any less willing to step into harm's way when situations call for them to do so. No disrespect is intended here for America's men and women in blue. But given the more enlightened attitudes toward drug policy of police in parts of Western Europe -- which in my opinion make their countries not only more just but also more safe -- I guess that overall I would pick their cops over our cops if I had the choice.

The news is not all bad. Though it is disappointing that 60 percent of chiefs and sheriffs oppose medical marijuana, 40 percent is a large number and an encouraging sign among a notably enforcement-oriented group of people. And the same survey also found that nearly 70 percent of them recognize that decriminalization of possession would free up resources to fight serious crime. So I haven't given up on them yet, either. Perhaps our friends at Law Enforcement Against Prohibition will help America's cops catch up with their counterparts across the ocean.

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