The Former Top Cop Who Wants to Legalize Drugs

Major Neill Franklin, who worked in law enforcement for 34 years, is executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). Courtesy of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition

Major Neill Franklin was one of Maryland's top cops when he retired in 2010 after 34 years in law enforcement. Over the course of those three-plus decades, he went from being an active supporter of the war on drugs to a staunch opponent.

Franklin spent most of his career working for the Maryland State Police and Baltimore Police Department, starting with road patrol for the state police and later working in narcotics. With the state police, he rose to the position of commander of the Education and Training Division and of the Bureau of Drug and Criminal Enforcement, creating and supervising the "very first" Domestic Violence Investigative Units. He joined the Baltimore Police Department in 2000 to overhaul and command its Education and Training Section. After the BPD, he worked for the Maryland Transit Administration Police Force from 2004 to 2010.

Though Franklin had extensive experience in stopping the narcotics trade, one politician's bold statements against the war on drugs in the 1980s prompted him to think more deeply about whether it was worth fighting. Baltimore's mayor at the time, Kurt Schmoke, publicly stated that the war on drugs had failed—and that in addition to causing violence, it was disproportionately targeting minorities.

Along with that, the major turning point in Franklin's view of the war on drugs—from proponent to opponent—was a personal tragedy. In 2000, Corporal Ed Toatley, Franklin's close friend, was killed during an undercover drug deal.

"Ed's death personally connected me to the violence of the drug war," Franklin, 57, tells Newsweek. "I was no longer on the sidelines of violence—I was now in the game."

During his last two years with the Maryland transit division, Franklin became officially affiliated with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). He spoke with the nonprofit organization, which pushes for drug legalization, for two years and then served on its board for one year. He resigned from the Maryland Transit Administration Police Force in July 2010 and was appointed LEAP's executive director.

Newsweek chatted with Franklin, who is based in Maryland, about why he has become an advocate for drug legalization. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

So what is your position on drugs?

Let me say this, and I think it's important—I hate drugs, whether it's cocaine, heroin, meth, prescription drugs, tobacco products, alcohol. But these are two separate issues, and what I'm trying to change is the policy in which we manage drugs. I wish that we could keep our kids away from drugs, because I do believe that they can potentially harm. The policy with which we manage drugs is a separate issue, and that's where I live. The more problematic a drug can be, the more need we have for regulating it. In a nutshell, that's kind of my whole perspective on this whole thing, is how we manage something—drugs—that's here to stay? How do we manage it to where we use it as responsibly and safely as possible?

How do you use drugs like heroin and coke safely and responsibly?

I think there are two key points here: First and foremost is education. Because we prohibit these certain drugs, we don't do a very good job educating people. We think that because we prohibit the use, there should not be a need to educate. The bottom line is for the last four decades, we have not been living in a place of reality. Drugs have always been here, drugs are here, and drugs will be here for as long as we are. So the notion of a drug free society is just that—it is a notion, it is a dream.

The second thing is, because we prohibit drugs and drive the manufacturing of drugs underground and into the shadows, into a place of criminality, the drugs that are produced are very dangerous. Their properties are unknown. The potency is unknown. Therefore, when used by someone, they are potentially extremely dangerous.

A quick comparison is when you go buy alcohol, which is a very, very problematic drug, but when you go buy it, you know how potent it is, you know how much a percentage is in your beer, in your wine, you know whether it's 80 proof, 100 proof. You know exactly what the ingredients are and through that education, you can use it responsibly and safely.

How do we figure out safe volumes?

I think the first thing...we say to our kids is: "You're not an adult, so this is not legal for you to use," just like we do with alcohol. Then we say to them, "So it is our very, very strong advice that you do not use them." But that's not all we say to them. The third thing is, "If you find yourself in a predicament and you do use, here's what you need to know," and then it is teaching about the qualities, the properties, and the harms.

So it's almost like harm-reduction in the rave community?

I've had conversations [with] a couple people I know who dwell within the rave community. One young man in particular, he runs a group and what this group does is they go to rave parties and they provide education and kind of like, harm reduction packets for people. They can test what they have bought to make sure that it is MDMA, to make sure that it's not something else. And the interesting thing is that whenever the management of the clubs realizes or finds out that he and his group are on site, they kick them out, because they try to present the image that no one is using MDMA in a club. Dig hole, stick head in hole in the sand—that's what we do.... In some places, the local government has prohibited these test kits. It's actually considered drug paraphernalia. There you go—just leave people in a dangerous place.

What would regulation look like?

The first thing is to get people to realize—to admit to, to accept—the failure of our past policies and prohibitions. Once you get to that point to accept it, realize it, then we want to get you to the point of ending prohibition and designing a policy that works for your community. Now, the one thing we recognize is that there are literally hudnreds of options for regulatory models.

...So what's the best policy for marijuana? What's the best policy for cocaine and heroin in your community? I think what we're beginning to see with marijuana is that a reasonable policy is privately owned retail outlets. Maybe a best policy, depending upon your community, for cocaine may be a pharmaceutical model, where you have to get it from the pharmacist from behind the counter, but you have to identify yourself. Maybe the best policy for heroin is a supervised injection facility. So the uniqueness about that is it's medically supervised—the heroin that is distributed on site is of pharmaceturical grade and none of the heroin leaves the facility. However, if you have an addiction and you need a dose three times a day, you can go and acquire your dose under medical supervision.

What about addiction? Are you worried that by making it potentially easier for people to use hard drugs that more people will get addicted and maybe die?

[Laughs] I've talked to so many people who are addicted to different types of drugs. Whether we're talking heroin, or cocaine, or meth, I've never heard one of them say, "You know what, I just can't find my drug of choice today." Not only is it so readily accessible to them, those who are addicted. In the same manner, in the same reason, it is very, very accessible to our young people, to our children. Our points of distribution have no regulatory system. They have no policies preventing them from selling to certain people, whether it's someone who's addicted, or a 14-year-old child. Furthermore, these tens of thousands of marketplaces in our country, they hire children—many of them hire children.

There's not one marijuana retail outlet—legal retail outlet—in Colorado that hires children. [Recreational use was legalized in the state in November 2012.] And I think of all the sting operations that they're running in Colorado, they're not selling to children either, so that's what happens when you have a regulated market. Drugs currently are accessible to any and everybody that wants them. So as long as you have the money, you buy them. They're yours. Really, the thing is, what we're talking about is consensual adult behavior. And in a free society, when you prohibit consensual adult behavior, you're going to end up with a very violent, flourishing criminal marketplace for that behavior, and with that criminal marketplace will come all of the harms that we see today with the war on drugs.

Public opinion has shifted dramatically on marijuana legalization, but what do you think is the general view of legalizing all drugs, including those described as scourges on society, such as heroin, cocaine and meth, etc.?

I think the temperatue of the public opinion is still, for those harder drugs, resistant because they have not yet been educated on the facts. They had been fed, like I had been, like many others had been over the past four, five decades, propaganda. We have learned what we know about these hard drugs from a very aggressive media campaign over the past four to five decades. I guess we need to understand: The harms that we see related to drug abuse are primarily there because of the policies of prohibition.

So what's next for your activism?

The next step is to continue connecting the dots, connecting the dots of the problems within our criminal justice system to the war on drugs.... To effectively reduce violent crimes, to deal appropriately with rapes and murders and all these criminal justice problems that we're seeing, we're going to make sure that people understand that there is a very strong tether connecting all of these criminal justice issues—that is, the war on drugs. That's the common thread.