Photo by Dom Francis
Jack Cole no longer kicks in doors, buys LSD, or pretends to be anything other than what he is: a retired undercover narc.
Nowadays, Cole spends his days trying to convince people the very drugs he spent decades confiscating should be legalized.It’s the only way, he says, for the U.S. to see its way out of the ever-expanding public policy disaster known as the War on Drugs.
Of course, the 75-year-old Cole is a unique character to champion such ideas. He dropped out of high school in Kansas to join the U.S. Marine Corps. After leaving the service, he eventually moved east. Like his father and brother, he was an ironworker, and there was plenty of work in the run-up to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. From there, Cole wound up in the New Jersey State Police, where he spent more than half of his 26-year career in undercover narcotics. All these years later, he estimates that around 1,000 people were arrested as a result of his investigations.
By his current logic, it was all for nothing.
These days, Cole serves as executive board chairman of the Medford-based Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a coalition of police, judges, and prosecutors who advocate for drug policy reform. The coalition takes its message against drug prohibition around the country and world; earlier this year, for example, Cole was in Bermuda, where there is talk of overhauling the island’s cannabis policies. A few weeks later, Cole was in Arizona, speaking to politicians and residents about the failures of the drug war there. In March, members of LEAP were in Austria proposing an amendment to the U.N.’s international drug policy.
Cole may be retired from active duty, but he is still very much a lawman. His law, however, is logic, specifically rooted in metrics that show just how seriously misguided government has been in fighting dealers and cartels. Drug policy reform does not need tweaks or minor changes, according to Cole. Tougher sentencing or increases to police budgets won’t solve the problem either, he says.
Cole’s solution? A total end to the prohibition of drugs. And yes – that includes harder stuff like coke and heroin. “The more dangerous the drug,” he says, “the more reasons it should be legalized, because you can’t control or regulate anything that’s illegal … The control and regulation is in the hands of the criminals and they haven’t done too good of a job.”
Cole first came to Boston on a deep cover assignment unrelated to narcotics. It was 1981, and Thomas Manning, a member of the homegrown terrorist group called the United Freedom Front, was suspected of shooting and killing New Jersey state trooper Philip Lamonaco during a traffic stop. The gunman and driver made off, and authorities believed they fled to Boston. Cole was tasked with infiltrating their organization and arresting the men responsible. To do that, he lived in Brighton with an undercover identity. Since the love interest of the suspected shooter had worked in the battered women’s movement around Boston, Cole posed as a Wichita State graduate student who was in town writing a thesis on domestic violence.
To build his cover in that and other situations, Cole started attending leftist meetings, and some of the politics appear to have rubbed off. He says he even met his current wife at an event for “progressive teachers.” Building up to his role in LEAP, Cole also furthered his education, and in the late-1990s earned a master’s in public policy from UMass Boston. In 2002, he helped found LEAP in Medford, where he still lives despite the group now having multiple offices around the world, including locations in Costa Rica, Czech Republic, and Australia.
On the heels of all his work in the criminal underbelly and with LEAP, Cole’s argument is straightforward: Regulation should be in the hands of government, which would standardize the purity of drugs. That, in turn, would significantly reduce overdoses and deaths, according to his organization. Drug abuse should be handled by medical professionals, not cops and prosecutors. Users often die because they don’t know how much of a particular powder they purchase, for instance, is cut with yet another foreign substance. LEAP argues that in an illegal, unregulated market users simply don’t have the important relevant info.
Perhaps worst of all, says Cole, is that prohibition artificially inflates the value of drugs, and allows criminals to monopolize supply. As such, the culture fosters an underground marketplace where drugs equal money and power. Countless people, innocent and otherwise, are murdered in the process. This is not new news. Still, those arguing to end prohibition – so police can concentrate on violent crime – remain in the minority.
It’s hard to align Cole’s ideas with political realities. Here in liberal Massachusetts, medical marijuana dispensaries have met local opposition from the likes of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and nearly the entire City Council. Like law enforcement officials in municipalities across the Bay State, Boston Police Commissioner William Evans has compounded the fear of medical pot with baseless rhetoric. Legalization of drugs like heroin, it’s fair to say, does not appear to be on the political radar around here.
Looking back, Cole recalls the genesis of the War on Drugs. “Nixon wanted to be seen as tough on crime,” he says. Since then, busts and budgets have become larger, while the purity of hard drugs has skyrocketed. Through it all, after tens of billions in spending and 40 million-plus arrested, illicit drug use is still prevalent, while here in the Northeast, we’re stuck suffering from an opiate epidemic. Cole says none of this is likely to slow down. Not as long as the federal government offers grants that are dependent on drug arrests, and remains addicted to related funding.
“The federal government doesn’t give you a penny to go out and arrest rapists and bank robbers,” says Cole, “so who are they going to concentrate on here?”
Infographics by Tak Toyoshima
BY THE NUMBERS
Cole likes statistics. Numbers, he feels, underpin his law of logic. He illustrates his points by asking specific statistical questions like “Do you know how many people are arrested annually for nonviolent drug arrests on average in the U.S?” I don’t, and he’s more than happy to enlighten me with an alarming figure: 1.7 million.
More stats come come tumbling out. About half of those 1.7 million, he says, were marijuana offenses. Drill down deeper, and the numbers reflect the institutional racism built into in the War on Drugs. About 37 percent of those arrested for drug violations are black, even though only approximately 13 percent of all drug dealers and users in the U.S. fit that description.
For those who need a little more convincing, Cole has additional stats, and scholarly charisma, to go around. As a result, his own number-crunching has found that roughly 80 percent of those who hear a LEAP presentation wind up agreeing that U.S. drug policy has been futile.“This is not a hard sell,” he says. “This is a very easy sell.”
When I point to a recent Huffington Post poll that indicates low support for legalizing hard drugs like heroin and cocaine in America, Cole is dismissive, saying the dissenters simply haven’t heard his group speak. To counter me, he also cites another survey in which two out of every three Americans don’t think people should be prosecuted for coke or heroin possession, while 54 percent support marijuana legalization.
Of course, not everyone is sold. Beau Kilmer, a drug policy specialist at the think tank RAND Corporation, is among those don’t see the wholesale legalization of drugs getting traction anytime soon. At the end of the day, the school that he subscribes to believes heroin and cocaine are too dramatically different from marijuana to group all together.
“There just isn’t the popular support,” Kilmer says. “Especially given there’s been a lot of discussion about heroin the last few months. I don’t foresee serious discussion about legalizing heroin or cocaine anytime soon, but I do think and I do hope we begin to have some serious conversations about heroin-assisted treatments.”
Kilmer is not alone. Vince Breuning is a recovering drug addict two years sober who runs a hotline for addicts seeking treatment. He also blogs about addiction. Breuning agrees with some of LEAP’s conclusions – namely that the War on Drugs has failed and that throwing addicts in jail is ineffective. But he has misgivings about making the big leap, as it were. “I feel like they should be decriminalized,” Breuning says. “Flat-out legalization? I don’t know how I feel about that.”
All things considered, there’s hardly consensus in the drug policy reform crowd that full legalization is the cat’s meow. Cole, however, is adamant. To make his case, he likes to cite the prohibition of alcohol, and how that ban wasn’t lifted because pols thought booze was a great, productive substance, but rather to wrestle power away from Al Capone and company. “Prohibition doesn’t work,” he says. “Regulations work fine.”
As for the lack of politicians with enough fortitude to carry such measures forward … to a man like Cole, who has leaped the law enforcement fence from both sides for more than half a century, it’s just another hurdle.
“Things are changing,” he says. “You’re not seeing the picture. It’s going to happen.”